“Following Orders” Never a Defense for Immoral Acts by Walter Brasch

by Walter Brasch
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
February 3, 2011

sled dogs

Image via Wikipedia

A man who killed 100 sled dogs has received not a prison sentence but workers’ compensation from a British Columbia agency. The man successfully proved he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after he claimed he was ordered to kill the dogs. “It was the worst experience [he] could ever imagine, his lawyer told CKNW, Vancouver, which had obtained the government document and then contacted the Humane Society.

Howling Dog Tours Whistler, a division of Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW), had added hundreds of dogs prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, anticipating a significant increase in tourists who wanted to experience sled dog racing. Its advertising claimed that for $169 tourists could experience “a once in a lifetime experience [with] your team of energetic and loveable Alaskan Racing Huskies.” However, the tourism interest, combined with a lack of seasonal snow, collapsed after the Olympics.

According to the British Columbia review decision, issued Jan. 25, the man, unidentified by name in the document but later revealed to be Robert Fawcett, general manager and founder of Howling Dog Tours Whistler, “was tasked to cull the employer’s herd by approximately 100 dogs.” OAW denies it issued any such orders. Fawcett claims he was under orders to significantly improve the financial performance, and that killing about one-third of the pack was the last resort. However, a statement posted on the OAW website says “there were no instructions given to Mr. Fawcett as to the manner of euthanizing dogs on this occasion, and Mr. Fawcett was known to have very humanely euthanized dogs on previous occasions.” Thus, it seems entirely plausible that OAW expected Fawcett to eliminate about one-third of the pack. OAW has suspended all dog sled operations.

According to the Review Board, Fawcett claimed he made extraordinary efforts to adopt out the dogs, but told the Board there was only limited success. He said he contacted a veterinarian to humanely euthanize the dogs, but the veterinarian refused to kill healthy animals.

In a summary of testimony, the Compensation Board noted that Fawcett previously “euthanized dogs due to old age, illness, injury and where there were unwanted puppies.” Killing dogs for population control is not acceptable, according to Mush With PRIDE , an industry-wide organization for dog sled owners. The Review Board noted Fawcett experienced stress in previous kills, many done by gunshot, but did not experience PTSD until after the killings in April 2010.

Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society, said that his experience “in every case where people use animals to make money and when there are financial difficulties the animals’ lives are put at risk.”

On April 21, 2010, Fawcett began the executions, using a shotgun, rifle, and knife to kill 55 dogs. Two days later, he killed 45. Most of the kills were not “clean.” The workers’ compensation board reported that dogs suffered as much as 20 minutes after first being shot before dying, and that some were shot and put alive into a mass grave.   The dogs were forced to watch others being killed before they, too, would be killed. In panic and fear, they began to attack their executioner who wrapped his arms in foam to prevent his own injuries. By the end of each day of killing, Fawcett was covered by the blood of his victims.

The compensation board noted Fawcett’s family physician “indicated that [following the mass killings] the worker [complained] of poor appetite, inability to cope, poor memory and concentration, agitation, anger and hopelessness after the mass culling.” A psychologist, according to the board’s report, “noted that he [Fawcett] complained of panic attacks, nightmares, sleeps disturbance, anger, irritability and depressed mood.”

Almost all references to the killings–by official documents and on the OAW website–use the word “euthanized” to describe what happened to the dogs and not the more accurate, “murdered.”

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver Humane Society are now investigating the killings, and criminal charges may be filed.

Fawcett may believe he was ordered to get rid of the animals to improve cost effectiveness. He may also believe he had no other option but to kill them to meet financial demands of his employer. But, there is always an option, and nothing can excuse what he did or how he carried out the executions.

The “Superior Orders Doctrine,” informally known as the “I was only following orders” defense, is no defense at all. The first time it was recorded was probably in 1476 when Pietro diHagenbach, a knight in the Holy Roman Empire, claimed that atrocities and torture committed under his direction, but not personally conducted by him, was ordered by his superior, the Duke of Burgandy. For allowing such heinous crimes, DiHagenbach was beheaded.

The Nuremberg Defense by Nazis following World War II that they couldn’t be held accountable for the Holocaust and its atrocities because they were only following orders was dismissed by the court. The Nuremberg Principle IV is clear: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

In U.S. v. Keenan (1969) a Marine private claimed he was not guilty of a war crime when he killed an unarmed elderly Vietnamese civilian because he was following the direct order of his superior. However, the Court of Military Appeals ruled “the justification for acts done pursuant to orders does not exist if the order was of such a nature that a man of ordinary sense and understanding would know it to be illegal.” The rejection of the “following orders defense” to commit illegal and immoral acts in a non-military setting, when the terror of war isn’t imminent, is even more appalling and inexcusable when a person’s life isn’t in jeopardy.

Robert Fawcett may actually be experiencing PTSD as a result of the torture and murder of 100 huskies. He may need long-term physical and mental care. But, by he also cruelly and brutally killed animals, for whatever reason he thought he had to do so. For that alone, there can, and should be, no defense.

[Walter Brasch is a professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. His most recent book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush. He can be reached at brasch@bloomu.edu.]

4 thoughts on ““Following Orders” Never a Defense for Immoral Acts by Walter Brasch

  1. Incredible story.

    One wonders if other gruesome mass-killers also get PTSD, such as slaughterhouse workers, palin’s wolf-killers, the legal smashing in of brains by Canada’s own seal-slaughterers, the brit who carried out ethnic cleansing of the grey squirrels or ‘humane’ animal damage controllers who are required by law to kill all raccoons they live-catch over some fictitious rabies indictment, etc.

    But then one also wonders if personal moral responsibility for refusing immoral orders should not first be shouldered by those whom we consider ‘heroes’ in their sanctioned murders of those animals we claim to hold most sacred: Humans.

    The moment it was shown that there were no WMD’s in Iraq, the death-workers of the US military were obligated by international law to abandon the battlefield at once. But they didn’t, and indeed they continue to enlist to kill in droves.

    US combatants in this war, who along with their commanders are all war criminals, are similarly being paid salaries, pensions and huge budgets for their hardware & deployments at citizen expense, rendering us all complicit, when by definition, their acts are worthy of capital punishment.

    Are they, and by association we, not also following ‘orders’ to commit immoral acts, in violation of any ethics or lessons from history as well as all religious & international law?

    This guy was a cruel, gruesome idiot, and is clearly paying the price, however minimal, for his horrific mass-murder. But at least he found a conscience in the end, as jailable as his acts were, which is more than can be said for most of the similar killers above.

    But to single him out, while all this other constant mass-killing of intelligent, innocent animals is going on, not to mention the mass killings of intelligent, innocent humans, all sanctioned by law & supported by the public, is a bit of a hypocrisy, IMO.

    But important that these stories are brought to the fore, so people can be shown their innate conscience and learn right from wrong before they become tools in the endless slaughter of sentient beings of any species. Thanks for posting it.

  2. That is quite horrible to read … especially the companies attitudes, trying still to talk dispassionately and make an excuse for such barbarism


    Thanx Lo … as ever!!

Comments are closed.