I began this year with my honeymoon. Something I had been looking forward to for the longest time; and because I was so enamored by the documentary I saw on NatGeo, I included Svalbard on the itinerary.
For those of you that don’t know, Svalbard is a small island to the north of Norway, (about two hours away by flight from Oslo). It is mostly an arctic dessert, covered in snow. What is perhaps most interesting is that it experiences the polar night (no sunlight) for 6 months and the midnight sun (no nightfall) for 6 months. It was hard to believe a place like this existed. It’s the northern most habitable place on Earth. That in itself was enough to get me super excited.
I wasn’t disappointed. I was overwhelmed by the sheer rawness of the beauty and the untouched state of the environment. It was unlike any other experience, and I fully intend to return there some day.
It was just around twilight so we had the hint of light, the weather was pleasant at minus 13, and we had booked ourselves into an adventure camp which made it all the more exciting. The population of humans is 30,000, and the population of the polar bears almost the same.
Areas were marked where we could roam freely. Any further and a guide and a gun were a must, just in case we ran into a polar bear.
On a snowy stormy afternoon where it was pitch dark, we decided to go dog sledding. It was scary at first, but ten minutes into the ride, I realized there was nothing to do but trust the dogs J They knew what they were doing.
The sleigh had 6 dogs. Two females up front that did the sniffing to find their way through the darkness and the mountains of snow. The remaining 4 were males who did the hard work of pulling and tugging us along. I was amazed how they found their way with no light and nothing but snow for miles, but they did! They even fought amongst themselves because they all love sledding. If the guides aren’t careful, the dogs get into a fight for not being privileged enough to get picked to ride for the night.
They were all barking, yelping and waiting to get picked. They all lived in the dog pound together. They had their tiny boxes to sleep in, some water and enough lead to move around. They looked perfectly happy. The furry huskies were some of the strongest and most agile dogs I had seen.
Once the ride was done, as is the custom in Svalbard, we and the guide sat for some coffee and hot coco. It was delightful, given the experience of having been dragged over mountains of snow with temperatures of minus 13. It was cold!
I asked the guide how many dogs they had. “70” he said. I thought it was amazing they could manage so many. I asked him how long they could do this before they had to retire. “Around 7 years, after which they’re too old to ride”, he said. I continued to ask, “What happens to them after that?” He said, “Well we try to get a family to adopt them. Most of them will get adopted, but there will be some that do not”. “What if they don’t get adopted?”, I persisted. He said, “One of the guides takes them, we keep them for a week or ten days, treat them like royalty, let them live in our houses and then unfortunately, we have to put them down.”
I was shocked. I continued, “Well what do you do? Take them to the vet and put them to sleep”? He said with a straight face, “No, it’s too expensive to do that. We have to shoot them”. My heart broke. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I asked, “What do you mean too expensive”? He informed me with a solemn face that there was only one veterinary doctor on the island who charged too much money. It was more expensive to treat dogs than to treat humans.
I was afraid to question further but I did. “Well what happens if they get sick before they get old? Don’t you get them treated then?” He said, “Well if the dog recovers, its fine. If not, then sadly, they have the same end”.
I looked back outside at the 70 dogs barking and wagging at the next set of people who came in to participate in dog sledding. They looked perfectly happy, excited to run out on to the fresh powder. As if sensing my dismay, the guide said, “We do the best we can while they’re alive and healthy. They have a good life.”
I left hoping that each of them got to run, tug and pull enough people before they met their end. The happy little fellas didn’t even know they were heading there.