If the owners of Krabloonik Dog Sledding want to continue leasing their property on Divide Road from the town of Snowmass Village, they’ll need to provide easy-to-understand records and plans for an off-tether exercise, adoption, retirement and spay and neuter programs for the dogs to the town by May 2.
That would help the council “determine if we’ve got a path forward,” Mayor Bill Madsen said — key word being ‘if.’
The Snowmass Village Town Council determined at an April 11 work session that Krabloonik was in default on its lease with the town because the facility’s owners had not met commitments made in the Best Practices Plan attached to the lease.
Madsen set the May 2 deadline, asking Krabloonik co-owner Danny Phillips to provide plans and “real records that we can manage” for those adoption, retirement, exercise and spay and neuter programs.
“I think that from where I sit, that path forward has to be, how is Krabloonik going to evolve to become this state-of-the-art operation, so that you can function, so the dogs are in the best place possible, and you’re providing an amenity that is a real asset to Snowmass Village, and so we don’t get caught in the minutia of it,” Madsen said.
“If you’re doing that, then I think you have a viable business, and if we can’t get to that point, then maybe, you know, dog sledding in Snowmass has run its course,” he added. “But I think that there’s a way that that can happen, and I want you to be able to show us how that’s done.”
Phillips requested a detailed, written request from the town by the end of the week and said he was “blown away” by the meeting, which had initially been proposed as a meet-and-greet for the members Best Practices Review Committee and a general overview of the Best Practices Plan. He said discussing the lease and potential violations was “super disrespectful” to a committee with five newcomers who had come in to learn more about their roles.
“I think we should have never had our Best Practices Review Committee in here and be discussing the lease at the same time,” Phillips said. “What a hell of a way to start out on the bad foot. This is awful, and whatever that you guys would like, I’d like to have it in writing, so I can do it right and have it in by May 2. And I think this was a horrible meeting to set these people up with all of this. It’s not fair to these people that came in here.”
Madsen had said earlier in the meeting that the town’s responsibility was the lease and that the Best Practices Review Committee Plan was part of that. He said the town was “just trying to follow that process” of review laid out in the lease, and that the town would need to see plans and records for programs in question “relatively shortly” in order to move forward.
Concerns about animal welfare and Krabloonik’s operations reached a boiling point during the heated discussion with Phillips and members of the Krabloonik Best Practices Review Committee this week, but the issues have been bubbling for months.
A Feb. 8 supplemental report from committee member Seth Sachson (previously the only remaining member of the group) identified lapses in the commitments Krabloonik made in its Best Practices Plan. Council also received separate reports from two former Krabloonik employees, both alleging poor living conditions for the dogs, very limited veterinary care, understaffing and minimal time off-tether for the animals.
Krabloonik has caught the attention of state and local officials and activists nationwide over animal welfare concerns, and the facility was sued in two separate lawsuits related to sled crashes and collisions last year. The Pitkin County Sherriff’s Office issued an arrest warrant for a former Krabloonik musher on one charge of misdemeanor animal abuse that was recorded on video during a tour earlier this winter.
Council has also received more than 1,000 emails since last Friday expressing concerns about Krabloonik’s operations, Madsen said. Many were form emails copied and pasted, Councilman Tom Goode said, but not all of them are “bogus” and “somewhere there’s got to be some truth in there.”
Action and documentation
Phillips maintains that he was not aware that the Best Practices Plan would be part of the lease when it was developed in 2015, but he and Krabloonik co-owner Gina Phillips did sign off on the lease with the plan attached.
He also has said that he faced challenges with adopting out sled dogs to the right homes and that during the pandemic, Krabloonik tapered off on spaying and neutering dogs amid limited resources. Phillips has said he wants to adopt out dogs and reduce the kennel numbers to 100 working dogs but there are still more than the lease-dictated maximum of 175 dogs onsite. The town had verbally given the Phillips leniency on the total number of dogs on the property in 2021 and flexibility on the adoption program in 2018 with but council members are now adamant about action.
Sachson, who is the director of the Aspen Animal Shelter and president of the Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter, said at the meeting Monday night that he could round up at least 50 people who could speak to the success of adopting a Krabloonik sled dog from the animal shelter and that the Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter was “always willing” to financially support spaying and neutering of Krabloonik dogs.
Off-tether exercise for the dogs was also a prominent concern at the meeting.
State regulations from the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) prohibit the use of dog houses with chains as an enclosure, but dog sled facilities in good standing can request a waiver if they submit and implement an exercise and training plan for the dogs, according to PACFA rules.
Phillips had provided to the town and to PACFA documents showing the exercise records and spay and neuter tracking program. Copies of the charts show slashes (a / symbol) to mark a minimum of one hour off-tether for a dog on a given day, according to an email from a Krabloonik Reservations address to PACFA inspector Kari Kishiyama.
Bill Fabrocini, now a member of the review committee, had acquired the charts via a public records request from PACFA and sent a link to a Dropbox folder containing the charts from the fulfilled request to The Aspen Times.
Sample off-season charts show, for many dogs, one slash every six days, indicating about one hour off of the chain for that dog each week. Charts during the winter season when dogs are running sleds look much busier, and many dogs have five to seven slashes in a row on the chart, denoting at least an hour off the chain attached to their house almost every day of the week. Year-round, charts indicate that several retired dogs are off-tether all the time.
Former Krabloonik employees as well as some committee members and council members have identified the impact of limited staffing on Krabloonik’s ability to ensure all dogs get time off tether.
Krabloonik had between one and four employees in the offseason of 2021 and as of mid-March 2022 had nine animal-related staff, Phillips wrote in a March 15 email; Krabloonik has had nearly 200 dogs on site at times, though that number has decreased as some dogs were brought to the Aspen Animal Shelter for adoption. Krabloonik is currently supposed to give each dog two hours of off-tether exercise per week, Phillips said.
Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk and Madsen questioned whether the records were sufficient proof that the dogs actually got off their tethers. Fabrocini also raised concerns about the authenticity of the charts and who completed them.
“I want to know, as I would hope you would want to know, who signed off on these charts,” Fabrocini told the council.
“There’s a lot of details that go into that chart, which you’re right, you’re missing, and you need that information,” Fabrocini added. “But the most important information is, who are the employees on site? You need to know that regularly.”
Though the documents include a space for a musher to sign off on the records, that space is left blank on the charts Krabloonik provided to PACFA.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it’s happening,” Shenk said. “So for me, little checks on a paper aren’t working. … It’s obviously been questioned by a lot of people within the community and other places, so I mean, I don’t know — I don’t know what the evidence should be, I’m not in this business, but it seems like it has to be something more than that, because anyone could come in and just scribble things on a piece of paper.”
Finding the ‘path forward’
Madsen and other council members like Goode and Tom Fridstein said that they see a role for Krabloonik as an amenity for the town if everything is done right and the facility meets all requirements and best practices. But they also said they need more substantive proof and a course of action to know that everything will be implemented as promised.
“We have a lot of people that are after us to ‘do the right thing,’ and basically shut Danny down,” Goode said. “I’m not anxious to shut you down. I think the town needs that icon, for Krabloonik to be there. Now, it’s been there for a long time, and I think it needs to be improved, and I think that’s the job, in my opinion, the job for the (Best Practices Review Committee).”
Madsen said he sees reports from the review committee as a way to advise the town on how to find that way to move forward, and that he sees program documentation as a way to prove that Krabloonik is improving.
Shenk said she would like to see both reports from the review committee and action from Krabloonik at the same time, without waiting for more reports to prompt more discussion.
“We have to see action on these things, I have to see action on these things,” Shenk said. “I can’t sit and just say, ‘OK, you know, let you guys go out, make and report and come back to us.’ They have to happen simultaneously, in my opinion.”
Monday’s meeting was originally proposed as a way for the six members of the volunteer Krabloonik Best Practices Review Committee to meet with one another and with the town council, and to discuss their role and the rules of the Best Practices Plan attached to Krabloonik’s lease. Five of the six members are new to the committee.
After the Best Practices Review Committee dwindled to just one member in February, the town and Krabloonik appointed five new members to fill vacant seats on the six-person committee. According to the terms established in their lease, Krabloonik’s owners get to choose three members and the town council chooses the other three.
Seth Sachson, the director of the Aspen Animal Shelter and president of the affiliated Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter group, is the one member who has remained on the board since its inception in 2015. He is a town appointee, which left two other spots for council to fill.
The two other town-selected members are Bill Fabrocini and Karyn E. Spiropolous.
Fabrocini co-founded the Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs (later renamed Voices for the Sled Dogs) and was an active member from 2010-15 before he took a hiatus for several years. The group of activists were particularly vocal critics of the operations at Krabloonik when it was operated by Dan MacEachen and are advocates for improved standards of care and off-tether programs in the dogsled industry at large. Fabrocini also was among those who lobbied at the state level to develop the tethering waiver requirements.
Spiropoulos, who lives in Carbondale and works in education, is a longtime valley resident who has expressed a keen interest in sled dog operations. She has visited several kennels in Alaska and also has visited Krabloonik.
Krabloonik’s three appointees are Andy Gillis, Stacy Rothenberg and Bisque Jackson.
Gillis applied to the committee through the town’s application but the town selected Spiropolous and Fabrocini for its two open seats; Krabloonik appointed him to one of its three seats on the committee. He operates an invisible fence dealership in Basalt and works with dogs daily, he wrote in his application. Gillis noted in his application that Sachson recommended him for the committee.
Rothenberg is a two-decade resident of the valley who met and became close friends with former Krabloonik operator Dan MacEachen in her second year here, she noted in a biography submitted to the town. She and MacEachen spent “a lot of time together at, and outside of, Krabloonik.” She also is a longtime volunteer with foster dog rescues.
Jackson is a local veterinarian who sometimes works with the Krabloonik animals onsite. (Krabloonik will sometimes seek out veterinary care elsewhere for services Jackson does not perform or when Jackson is not available, Phillips said.) She was not present at the meeting this week.
A need for clarity
Though council emphasized the value of reports from the volunteer Best Practices Review Committee, members of the committee made clear on Monday night that, in fact, they aren’t entirely clear on the scope of their authority or responsibilities.
Sachson, Fabrocini and Karyn Spiropoulos had all previously expressed to the town that they believe the existing Best Practices Plan lacks some quantifiable measures that the committee could monitor. They reiterated that Monday night, and Andrew Gillis shared similar thoughts.
Committee members also asked for guidance on what the committee can and can’t or should and shouldn’t do.
“I think we all need to know, if we’re going to move forward, What are our rights? What are our obligations?” Sachson said.
Sachson said he has spent hours upon hours in conversation with people concerned about the welfare of the Krabloonik dogs and, in turn, in conversation with people who have the authority to enforce it at the town and at PACFA. Sachson said the lack of clarity about the authority and responsibility of the committee made him feel like he was in “no man’s land.”
The committee’s role as stated in the lease, is to “inspect and review the operation of the Krabloonik Kennels to determine the extent to which Tenant is complying with the Best Practices” on a quarterly basis and to prepare an annual report on compliance with Town Council.
They can also file reports “describing any circumstances or events which the BPRC believes violate the Best Practices or jeopardize the health, safety or well-being of the Krabloonik sled dogs,” the lease states.
Committee members have faced intense public pressure over the current operations at Krabloonik, but they cannot demand records, and they cannot take any regulatory action.
That is up to the town, and several committee members expressed frustrations that town officials have at times deferred to the committee when it is actually the municipality’s responsibility to enforce the lease.
“At the end of the day, the committee has limited authority and no resources at our disposal,” Sachson said while reading a prepared statement. “We are not the landlord, nor are we trained investigators from the Colorado Department of Agriculture. We are simply a group of volunteer citizens who have been placed in an untenable, no-win situation.”