Sharon Cipp places a treat between her lips and beckons Nitro, a talkative, fluffy malamute. He sits in front of her and nips the snack out of her mouth, chews it up and pads away to sit in a snowbank and play with his toy duck.
If she had tried that trick four years ago, Nitro was more likely to tackle Cipp to the ground and bite her face. That was when he was such a terror in an Ontario city that he made headlines for being hunted by both police and animal control officers.
In November 2017, Nitro ran around the streets of St. Thomas, Ont., jumping on people and giving them little bites. One small dog died of a heart attack after an interaction with Nitro. He became so infamous that city council deemed him the municipality’s first dangerous dog.
Victoria Spencer first came to hear about Nitro that year. He’d been owned by a local trafficker who starved him and encouraged the 125-pound dog to attack people. The owner also hid drugs in Nitro’s collar, so when buyers arrived they would have to strangle the dog to get their fix.
Spencer, who runs Ice Foundation K9 Rescue, located a short drive away in Wallacetown, Ont., asked to work with Nitro. At the St. Thomas kennel, Spencer cleaned Nitro, had him neutered, and over 30 hours made him feel OK when touched by the collar.
She also made a case for him to not be destroyed. The city acquiesced and agreed to leave him in her care. But at home, Spencer soon realized Nitro couldn’t stay with her.
“I did the best I could with him, but I realized at that age and not being able to have him around me all the time, he wouldn’t progress very quickly. So it would take me years to rehabilitate this dog at that level.”
In the spring of 2018, Spencer called Al Magaw, who trained sled dogs and offered behaviour therapy at Spirit of the North Kennels in Salmo, B.C. Spencer heard of Magaw through the mushing community, but didn’t know him. She decided to fly out with Nitro and spend a week at Magaw’s 25-acre property. There, she says she watched as Magaw and his handlers cleaned every dog house daily, and made sure every animal was fed, played and exercised with.
“At no time did I ever see him abuse the dogs. I didn’t see anybody on the property abuse the dogs. Nobody ever hit those dogs, yelled at those dogs, dragged those dogs. In a week I never saw any of that. What I saw were dogs that were being trained to work as a team.”
Before she left, Spencer asked the local SPCA if they had any concerns about Magaw. They said no, and Spencer returned home.
Nitro ended up staying with Magaw for most of that year before being adopted by Sharon and Dave Cipp. Magaw taught them how to walk Nitro, use hand signals and keep him out of trouble. Sharon was impressed.
“I watched this guy, I listened to his stories, I see his history, I see the followers in the mushing community. He’s just one of the most amazing dog whisperers.”
Three years later, Nitro greets visitors by rubbing up against them like a cat. He’s no longer aggressive, except for when he’s chasing a bear from the backyard. Cipp and Spencer, meanwhile, have stayed in touch.
“She doesn’t even believe the stories I tell her about him,” says Spencer. “She said it’s not possible.”
On Feb. 15 of this year, Caran Magaw left Salmo and drove to Creston. She tries to visit her father Al monthly, and on this occasion was joined at the property by her sister Alisa Magaw Trembecki’s family. They spent the day together, and when Caran checked on the dogs she saw nothing to be concerned about.
The next day she received a text message from her sister-in-law Donna, who also lives on the property and told Caran that BC SCPA were seizing her father’s dogs.
Caran drove back to Salmo and arrived to find RCMP, several people dressed in medical gowns, and BC SPCA special provincial Const. Matthew Affleck. A U-Haul truck had been parked nearby, and dogs were barking.
“These were not even the same dogs I saw the day before. They were really frightened, they were probably frightened by people who were nervous by what they were doing and the whole situation.”
Caran was told to join the family inside her father’s home. There she found Magaw, who she thought was having an emotional breakdown.
Alisa had already arrived and watched as dogs were inspected. At one point Alisa and Caran were allowed outside to speak with Affleck, who said the dogs were in distress. Some were too cold, others were tethered on chains that were too short and houses were wet. Alisa grabbed some straw out of one house and felt it was dry. Affleck disagreed.
Alisa took a dim view of the BC SPCA staff handling the dogs. None of them, she thought, appeared to have experience with sled dogs.
The seizure may have surprised Caran and Alisa, but it had been in the works for over a month.
According to statements later made to the BC Farm Industry Review Board, the BC SPCA received a complaint Jan. 12 that Magaw’s dogs were being neglected. Affleck and another officer visited Magaw on Jan. 14 and told him to make improvements to housing, ensure the dogs were being released from containment daily and provide veterinary care to several of the animals.
One week later the officers returned. One of the dogs they had health concerns about, King, had been euthanized by Magaw in the interim. Affleck also said he thought the dogs were cold and reiterated to Magaw that shelter improvements had to be made.
On Jan. 28, Affleck again returned to find conditions unchanged. Magaw, he said, insisted the dogs were fine and no changes would be made.
The BC SPCA returned with a warrant on Feb. 16 and seized 40 dogs. Two of the dogs would end up being euthanized for poor health, two were returned to their owners and 34 remained in custody.
Of the dogs seized, the BC SPCA said 10 required immediate treatment, 13 were underweight, five had parasites and eight dogs that were six years of age or older had serious health concerns.
Marcie Moriarty, the BC SPCA’s chief prevention and enforcement officer, ruled on March 31 that the remaining dogs should not be returned to Magaw on the grounds that they were in distress.
The definition of distress in the province’s Prevention of Cruelty Animals Act is broad and applies to animals that are deprived food, water, shelter, exercise and vet care, are living in unsanitary conditions, not protected from excessive heat or cold, injured, sick, or abused and neglected.
Moriarty’s decision was upheld by the farm industry review board on May 21, which also fined Magaw over $64,000 for seizure and care costs. Magaw in turn filed an injunction to keep the BC SPCA from adopting out the remaining dogs, but that expired in October.
His dogs were gone for good.
Alan Magaw spends his days alone on the first floor of a home he built. He has a bed in his living room, but sleeps upright in an armchair because it’s better on his neck. He’s 83 years old and suffers from a lung disease, but usually has a cigarette between his fingers. A mangy terrier named Pepper runs between his feet while an arthritic husky named Pan, and Milo the cat, lounge nearby.
On the dusty walls are old medals from sled races, family photos and a large portrait of Pan in his youthful days. The empty dog houses, either stacked up in piles or overgrown with weeds, outnumber the remaining inhabitants.
Magaw bought the property in 1968 after moving to Salmo for an ownership stake in a motel. The motel didn’t work out, but Magaw and his first wife Carol opted to stay and raise their six children while he tended horses and did a number of different jobs.
In 1977 or 1978, Magaw was publishing a local newspaper when the Village of Salmo announced it would hold a sled dog race during its winter festival with local journalists taking part. Magaw cobbled together a sled made from a broken bar chair and downhill skis, and borrowed a team of dogs from a friend. The race, he says, was profound.
“It felt so familiar. It felt like I’ve done this before, it was so natural, so familiar to me. It was amazing.”
He bought his own team, started racing and in the early 1990s began boarding dogs. About 20 years ago, Magaw began taking visitors on sled rides. At its height, Magaw says he had as many as 80 dogs on the property.
Magaw also had experience retraining horses and occasionally worked with dogs who had behaviour issues.
Magaw never had any dog handling training. He’s self-taught, and over time decided the best way to to rehabilitate troubled dogs was a mix of structured exercise, boundaries, an environment designed to keep them out of trouble, and positive reinforcement.
“There’s a lot of intuition that goes into it. What does the dog need? You need to read the dogs. It’s a lot of your personal energy that goes into it that influences a dog’s behaviour.”
Nearly a decade later, Ebony is still with Magaw as his pet. When he’s let out of his pen, Ebony ignores a visitor to bound around the property and playfully wrestle with another dog.
He’s a different dog now than the one Celeste Bignell remembers as vicious and scary.
Bignell, who works at the Nelson Animal Hospital, has been Magaw’s veterinarian for over a decade. She came to refer owners with hard-luck cases like Ebony to Magaw, who was considered a dog’s last chance.
“The dogs were really challenging and maybe bordering on dangerous. The owners were just at their wit’s end and were considering euthanasia for behaviour reasons. Al would be offered as an alternative to euthanasia and I think he did take a lot of those cases on.”
“Looking for problems”
A tragedy in Whistler over a decade ago led to a rethink on how sled dogs are cared for in B.C.
The bodies of 56 dogs were exhumed after an employee of a tour company ordered the dogs culled due to a downturn in business in 2010. The case, which ended with a fine and probation for the employee, made international headlines.
Less than two years later, the ministry of agriculture released the Sled Dog Code of Practice that outlines in detail how to care, keep and breed sled dogs.
Marcie Moriarty of the BC SPCA was among the main contributors to the document, which defines sled dogs by activity rather than breed. Moriarty says sled dogs are commonly mistaken to be exclusively huskies. But if a Pomeranian can be put in a harness and pull a sled, that makes it a sled dog.
“If they’re thinking Walt Disney sled dogs, a beautiful big puppy Husky with the coat? Yeah, no.”
What a sled dog, no matter the breed, can tolerate was central to arguments made to the farm industry review board in May.
One of the BC SPCA vets present for the seizure, Dr. Adrian Walton, testified he determined some of Magaw’s dogs were suffering from hypothermia by using an ear thermometer. But the code stipulates rectal thermometers should be used, a point pounced on by Magaw’s side.
Walton also said urine analysis showed the likelihood of cold diuresis, which occurs when dogs are hypothermic. He also noted the poor condition of the dog houses, some of which he said had ice under the straw bedding, tethers buried in the snow and four dogs who required immediate treatment for dental issues.
Dr. Karen van Haaften was the other vet onsite. She expressed concerns about some dogs who showed behaviour consistent with confinement, neglect, and temperature discomfort.
Magaw agrees the behaviour of the dogs was irregular, but only because of the seizure.
“Anybody that’s ever had a dog knows if somebody comes into their backyard, the owners aren’t present and the strangers are doing something with the dogs, the dogs are either going to be aggressive or scared or bark.”
Van Haaften noted parasites in the population, that housing was often poor for a variety of reasons and that there was no water or food available. Magaw says the seizure began before the dogs were to have been fed.
Magaw’s therapy trailer was also criticized by Van Haaften. The steel rig looks like similar to a boat trailer but has eight chains along the sides. Magaw hooks his dogs up to the trailer, then pulls it along at a slow speed to give the dogs a run. It’s a contraption he swears by, but Van Haaften said the setup could make the dogs feel anxious and exposed.
One more witness for the BC SPCA was Mackenzie Kirk, who volunteered at the property twice a week in November and December 2020. She said Magaw had dismissed an injury to one dog sustained during a fight with another dog that drew blood. Two other dogs, she said, later died despite her suggestion to Magaw they needed veterinary care.
Magaw’s defence included volunteers James Black and Nadjesda Ogilvie, who at the time of the seizure both lived on the property, and two American vets, neither of whom had visited his property but reviewed the BC SPCA’s documents.
Dr. Ailena Baum said blood samples should have been taken instead of urine, and that the dogs’ behaviour could have been explained by anxiety during the seizure. However, she did agree some of the dogs had advanced dental disease.
The other vet, sled dog expert Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, challenged the hypothermia diagnosis and said there only appeared to be hygiene and maintenance issues.
The arguments did not sway the review board. In their conclusion, Tamara Leigh and David Zirnhelt found no evidence of abuse but ruled that Magaw had violated several regulations in the Sled Dog Standards of Care act. Returning the dogs to Magaw, they wrote, would not be in their best interest.
“The Panel has no doubt that the Appellant and his volunteers care about the dogs, but the condition of the dogs and the environment at the time of seizure casts doubt on their ability to care for the dogs.”
Magaw’s case has since become a point of online contention. Animal rights activists celebrate it as a victory against a man they say had no business having dogs, while Magaw’s supporters criticize the BC SPCA for a seizure they say never should have happened.
In February 2019, Rory Knihnicki wrote a post on Facebook about her time as a volunteer at Spirit of the North Kennels. She had signed up to walk dogs the previous December, but soon regretted it.
The dogs, she said, didn’t have proper housing, pens would go weeks without being cleaned up and most of the dogs had been living on chains for years. She took video and sent it to the BC SPCA, but no action was taken. “I know what I saw. I saw him on his computer while I walked dogs who had never been off a chain.”
When she wrote about the experience online, Knihnicki’s post received nearly 1,000 comments that included plenty of Magaw’s supporters and detractors.
One of the commenters was Rossland’s Ida Koric, president of HEART Dog Rescue. Koric was once asked to go pick up Rio, a dog who had been with Magaw for six months to work out aggression issues.
Magaw said Rio wasn’t ready to go, but Koric disagreed. She later returned to take Rio, and couldn’t tell what Magaw had accomplished with the dog.
“I got the impression he was just taking money from people and letting the dogs sit there and not rehabilitating them.”
Daryl Torres is director at large for the Kootenay Animal Assistance Program. She once visited the Magaw property to leave a dog temporarily when there were no fosters available. She left unimpressed by his dogs, who she thought weren’t receiving enough exercise, and hasn’t worked with Magaw since.
Fran Routley is one of the people who have come to Magaw’s defence. She and her husband Ray took their dog Benny to Magaw in 2019 after he leapt out of their car and tried to attack a friend in a parking lot.
Magaw kept him four months, and now Routley says Benny’s aggression has become manageable with exercise and instruction from Magaw.
“He’s a very honest and humble person,” says Routley. “He’s real.”
Caran and Alisa don’t know what will happen to their father. Alisa says she’s worried the experience will kill him. Caran says he’s financially ruined.
Was Magaw still capable of taking care of his dogs? Caran pauses before answering. “I think he went as close to the edge as he could.”
Magaw maintains his fight isn’t over, even though he knows he won’t get his dogs back.
He says he’s seeking a date at the Supreme Court of B.C. to sue the BC SPCA, and is relying on donations from supporters to pay legal costs. In conversation, Magaw is affable and full of good-natured stories about his dogs. But his demeanour changes when the BC SPCA is mentioned.
“The BC SPCA writes their own laws. They lay charges. They act as judge and jury.”
In his work shed, Magaw has begun making a new sled. He’s experimenting with the build, and is proud to show it off. It’s a sled that he would have once kept, back when he encouraged his dogs to run so fast that visitors riding along would scream in delight.
It will be a good sled when it’s done, at which time he plans to sell it off. A sled without dogs is of no use to him anymore.