VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The province of British Columbia vowed a crackdown on animal cruelty on Tuesday that it hopes will help erase the international "black eye" it took over a mass slaughter of sled dogs.
But officials rejected calls to ban the increasingly popular industry of sled dogs tours of the back country, saying most operators give better care to their working dogs than do many pet owners.
The province launched a review of the industry and its animal cruelty laws in January after the discovery that 100 dogs were shot to death and buried in a mass grave near the ski resort village of Whistler, north of Vancouver.
The dogs were killed in April 2010 shortly after the Winter Olympics ended, when an expected increase in tourism bookings failed to materialize and the tour company allegedly decided it was too expensive to maintain the animals.
The dogs were not involved in the Winter Games themselves.
"It was a terrible black eye for British Columbia, there was absolutely no question about that," Premier Christy Clark told reporters as she unveiled the findings of a task force review of current animal protection regulations.
The province will adopt the recommendation that the maximum penalty for animal cruelty, including pets, be increased to a fine of C$75,000 ($77,850) and up to two years in prison -- the stiffest penalty in Canada. Current penalties range up to fines of C$10,000 and six months in jail.
Sled dog tour operators, who are now largely unregulated, will be subject to increased inspections, and the province will develop standards for animal care -- including how and when they can be put down.
Environment Minister Terry Lake, a veterinarian who headed the task force, acknowledge the province came under public pressure to ban the industry, but decided that was not needed.
"I can tell you from my experience the vast majority of dogs that are operating in that industry have better quality lives than many, many pet animals," Lake said.
The investigation into the Whistler killings continues, and the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said on Tuesday that criminal charges are expected to be recommended after the dogs are exhumed this spring when the ground thaws.
The worker who shot the dogs has said he felt pressured by his employer to kill the dogs quickly, but the company has said it was told the animals would be euthanized humanely.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson