I read something along those lines at some point this week. I can’t find the exact quote, but given how many rescue societies I follow on Facebook and Twitter, that’s no surprise!
I wondered over and over what I could do to help, then it dawned on me. I could share this story. Because knowledge is power, in this case the power to stand up and be a voice for the voiceless. I doubt that too many people have thought about what happens to Greenland’s sled dogs in the summer months. In my head they lived a nice life, albeit a less busy life, than they do in winter. They’d be loved and cared for by their people, the people they serve so well during winter. Because that’s what would happen if they were my dogs.
But they’re not my dogs. And shying away from what I read, and just wishing I hadn’t read it may protect me from any more pain, but it will not help these abused animals. So, I’m going to share with you my friend Mandy’s story.
Mandy went to Greenland for the holiday of a lifetime, a chance to go off the beaten track and get up close to a world amongst the icebergs, a world as far from our life in Australia as is imaginable. As she loaded photo after amazing photo of her trip, I found myself wishing I could tap my ruby slippers together and open my eyes by her side. Until she posted this photo. At first glance you could be forgiven for missing what’s going on in the photo.
I’m sharing this for all of the Bearys in the world who need our love and support.
When I decided to visit Greenland, I wanted to make certain I would not get caught up with only the obvious tourist attractions (icebergs & dog sledding), hence my decision to make my way off the beaten track to Disko Island and Uummannaq, as a way to ensure I encountered the ‘real’ Greenland.One thing I wanted to avoid however (being an animal lover & devoted vegetarian for almost 20 years), was witnessing the clubbing of seals, or the harpooning of a whale (whaling is still legal in Greenland, on the basis that it is a part of Eskimo/Inuit culture).I respect their culture, and that has been their method of obtaining sustenance for centuries, yet wished to remain sheltered from this harsh reality. So, I avoided paying too much attention to what occurred down at the harbours of the settlements I visited.
I have been effective at protecting myself from frightful visions until I witnessed a brutal massacre (which did not involve whales or seals), I was unprepared for, and do not believe for a moment should be neatly categorised as ‘The Inuit Culture’.
That morning, I left the little red hut house where I was staying, on my way to pay the orphanage a visit. I had my pack on my back, camera around my neck and each hand holding a bag of toys. The sun was shining and it was the first day I decided to be free of my big white Michelin Man snow jacket. The locals had all assured me, summer was well and truly here, thus opted for my lighter brown jacket which is wind and water proof. The white jacket is quite restrictive, so it felt great to finally have some mobility back.
As I walked toward town with the coast line on my right, I admired the icebergs. Still in awe of them, I stopped several times to take a photo. A little further along and to my left, I noticed water trickling down the side of the steep vertical cliffs – summer has arrived and the icecaps are melting.
I passed several sled dogs, which in Uummannaq are chained to rocks. It looks quite cruel by our standards in Sydney. The chains are only a couple of metres long, so the dogs can’t venture too far. Additionally, they will not be released from their chains and rock for approximately 7 months until it snows and there will be work for them again. Sounds like a fierce punishment and a form of mental torture to me!
Despite this, the dogs on the rocks appeared to be enjoying the warm weather as much as I was. They were snoozing and bathing themselves in the sun.
As I walked on further, I could hear dogs in the distance howling and barking. This appears common on the island. I had only been thinking the previous day, that I could sum up Uummannaq as ‘The Land of Unhappy dogs’. Their howls seem so sad and depressed.
As I arrived closer to the howling dogs, I noticed their owner was carving a seal and throwing each of them a piece about the size of an orange. Each dog appeared to hurriedly swallow their bundle without a chance to even taste it. They seem so hungry and the morsel they received did not appear to satiate their hunger. They leap forward toward their owner, yelping as if begging to receive another bundle, and almost choking themselves with their chain and collar in the process. I cringed as I watched, fearing one might lose its footing, slip off its rock and hang itself. I decided I had seen enough and moved on.
I came upon three little boys who were playing with a light, flexible, plastic pipe, which was being used to channel the flow of water (from the melted ice) to a more favorable direction, away from the walking track. They were amused & taking turns at pointing the pipe at one another, threatening to wet each other. Their giggles were playful and so delightful to hear. Their laughter remedied the sadness I felt for the dogs I had just seen.
I then heard a bang in the distance, which sounded like a gun, or perhaps a car back firing? That had fortunately always been the case in Sydney. The boys were not distracted from their playing & so I assumed it was nothing out of the ordinary & safe to carry on.
The noise frequented a couple of more times, but now I had become entranced by the idyllic view on my right. A little children’s kindergarten, evidenced by the sign in bright, fun and bold primary colors which read ‘Heldags Skolen’. I stopped, put the bags which I was holding down, to take a photograph with the snow-capped cliffs behind it. What a glorious view from a Kindergarten!
As my camera clicked to capture the image, there was a simultaneous and startling bang behind me, followed by an immediate yelp from a dog and a snap of a chain. I pirouetted the 180 degrees to see what had just occurred. The vision before me was terrifying.
A sled dog appeared to have fallen from its rock and was hanging by its collar. It made short, fast and frantic yelps as it wriggled and panicked. I leapt forward towards it and noticed the words ‘oh no’ repeatedly escaping my lips. I was going to have to try to push it back up the rock, and as I raced towards it, I was looking in my peripheral vision for anyone who might assist me. I looked up the rock where the dog would have originally been laying and saw an old man. My hands were waving about as though they had a mind of their own, trying to gesture the man to help, and I am quite certain that in my panic, the words spilling from my mouth were incomprehensible.
As I reached the dog, and no longer in view of the old man as the cliff was now blocking me from his vision, I noticed the dog’s body began to convulse, and my mind told me, it was finished, it’s neck would no doubt be broken. As I took a step back, I then noticed blood. A lot of blood, and it’s head had been blown open. It had been shot in the head with a bullet. That’s why it slipped off it’s rock! After what felt like the longest minute, its body finally stopped twitching. It was over. Or so I thought.
I am not sure, but I think the uncertainty of what had just happened, made self-preservation kick in, because I found myself running backwards, not wanting to take my eyes off the area of danger and I pressed myself up against the wall of the building on the other side of the road.
From here I had a clear view of the entire cliff. I noticed a number of dogs all chained to their rocks. All of them standing. They were all looking in the same direction. I followed their stare. There he was! Standing right in front of me, 50m or there about, was the man with the rifle! And there was the older man I had originally seen. No gun in his hand. He was just spectating.
The man with the rifle was now facing another dog which was chained beside the dog which had just been shot. His rifle then raised and pointed at its head. Bang!
It happened again. A yelp. A snap of the chain & a second dog fell from its rock. I felt sensory & adrenalin overload. I had not yet recovered my breathing from the death of the first dog.
A number of thoughts began racing through my head. The book I had read last night mentioned keeping dogs is difficult as they only work the winter months of the year, yet they need to be fed all year round. I suddenly realised what I was witnessing. Summer was now upon Greenland. The ice is melting. The sled dogs are no longer useful and are being exterminated.
Then a more selfish thought crossed my mind – what if a bullet ricochets and hits me? I was processing all kinds of thoughts at the speed of light. How about if I yell out to the man and ask him to stop? Of course I couldn’t! I heard an instruction from my own sub conscience “Do not attract attention to yourself, or it will be your head next & take that camera from around your neck and put it out of sight!”.
I now had two dogs only metres in front of me, hanging by their necks with their heads blown open.
There were no less than 10 dogs up on that cliff (usually 12 in a sled team) and I was well aware they were all destined for the same fate! He moved on to the next dog. He raised the gun to its head. This time, he just held it there forever. I was thinking, if you are going to do it, just do it already. Don’t prolong this terrifying moment for the dog any longer than you have to.
By this point, all the other dogs have witnessed what has happened to the dogs before them, and you can see their fear. They are not stupid! When the rifle is pointing at their head it is very clear from their body language that they know what is about to happen. They turn in circles and their howl sounds like their best effort at begging for their life. I was amazed at how similar a dog’s body language is, to our own!
He finally made the shot, but he didn’t get a good hit, so it suffered and wriggled and yelped on the ground for what felt like minutes before he attempted a second blow. The second blow was still unsuccessful, yet he just stood there and watched it suffer. My only assumption for why he just stood there to let it die a slow death was because the cheap jerk was being cautious to not waste another bullet. When the dog refused to die, he finally rested the rifle on its brow and let a third bullet go, to finish him off, and thankfully, it did.
With every gunshot, the remaining dogs barked and spun in circles of terror.
Finally a voice was berating me for being so cowardly and told me to brave up, but how brave could I be? My only action I thought possible with what little power I had, was to take my camera, seize the moment and take some photos – who knows how the images can be used to help the dogs of Uummannaq (or broader Greenland), in the future.
As cliché as it sounds, there was a green dumpster to my right. I used it to hide me from their vision. My adrenalin had me trembling with the camera, struggling to turn it on. My hands shaking as more gun shots went off. I fumbled to get the lens cap off, then pressed the button to take a photo in the direction of the dogs and noticed it was not in focus. I took a deep breath to regain composure and told myself to be controlled and get some usable clear images. WWF and numerous other animal welfare organisations will be receiving contact from me when I return to Sydney, accompanied by these photos, so they must be clear.
There was a third man with a gun around the side of the house shooting the dogs over there. And another man standing on the balcony of the house watching. Both men with guns went around the side of the house with their backs to me. I took this opportunity to come out from behind the dumpster and get photos of the first two dogs hanging by their necks.
When one of the men returned to the front of the house, there was what appeared to be a younger, smaller dog, which had been trying to hide itself behind its rock, but kept popping its head up to see where the men were. Inevitably, he was seen. A man with a rifle went over to him and pointed the gun at its head. The dog released a defeated wail and turned his head 90 degrees to the left. When the rifle did not sound he looked at the man again for a brief second before turning his head away again. Curiosity however got the better of him, when he inquisitively turned to look at the man a third time, the trigger was released and he took the bullet between his eyes.
Unable to watch anymore, I put my camera away and waited for an opportune moment to leave without being seen. As I crept away more gun shots went off.
The next day I returned to the cliff and it was now free of dogs. The rocks were stained and the water on the path was mixed with blood. The whole area was quiet and I could still feel terror lingering in the air.
My final days in Uummannaq were spent gathering more information regarding sled dogs and their brutal retirement at the end of winter.
The first person I spoke with was a bystander who saw what I had seen. I asked him why. His response that his limited English would allow: “No meat”.
I spoke with a local lady I had met, & she proved utterly useless. She was completely in denial, and quickly changed the topic.
I spoke with a Danish man who works at the Orphanage, who had invited me to pay the children a visit. I assumed that a man involved in his line of work (caring for children), would also be empathetic towards animals.
The Danish man informed me that the ten plus dogs I had witnessed being shot, were killed because their owner is moving to Nuuk. He laughed it off and told me not to be concerned. They are working dogs. As if to passify me, he informed me he had shot two of his own dogs that morning, because he won’t need dogs again for another 7 months.
He went on to tell me it is common practice in the north of Greenland. Dogs are shot at the end of winter as it is not practical to feed them for 7 months whilst they are out of work. Female dogs are always being shot because apparently the Greenlandic Sled dogs breed like rabbits. Dogs who are not good at sledding are shot. Dogs which become lame are shot. Dogs which are pregnant are shot. Dogs that are not well are shot.
I do not understand why dogs – ‘MAN’S BEST FRIEND’, which are the most loyal creatures on Earth and who have dutifully served their masters all winter, deserve to be shot in the head when they are no longer useful (at least not for the next 7 months).
Other than contacting a number of animal welfare organisations when I return home, I have still not gathered my thoughts on how I might be able to make a significant change. If anyone has an ideas, please let me know.
Initial thoughts are that Uummannaq could firstly benefit from a service that spays dogs. Perhaps these hunters require funding, so they can afford to keep their dogs fed over the Summer months? Perhaps Greenlandic laws regarding animal welfare need to change? I don’t know yet. I do believe however, ideologies around culture and animal welfare, need to be separated!
Please share Mandy’s Facebook page to help Stop the Killing of Arctic Sled Dogs.