SNOWMASS VILLAGE - A winter resort town near Aspen is at the center of a growing controversy.
Dan MacEachen, the owner of longtime dog sledding operation Krabloonik in Snowmass Village, is charged with eight counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
MacEachen is currently awaiting trial.
Some are questioning why Krabloonik is allowed to operate on town-owned land, despite decades of criticism over its treatment of animals.
9Wants to Know traveled to Pitkin County after receiving numerous emails asking us to look into the Krabloonik and its practices.
Snowmass Village is a town divided over the treatment of animals at what's billed as 'the largest dog sled operation' in North America.
Highly trained and specially bred, the 250 dogs of Krabloonik spend countless hours on the Aspen/Snowmass trails.
"They are definitely professional athletes," said kennel manager Dan Phillips.
Phillips says the animals are at their best in the frigid cold, between 20 below and 20 above.
They spend nearly all their lives outside.
"The longer they run, the better they get," said MacEachen.
MacEachen has been breeding sled-dogs for 44 years.
"It's a labor of love," he said.
MacEachen says the dogs are always chained to their kennels to prevent them from fighting each other.
He says a common cause of death for the dogs is cancer, and their average lifespan has dropped over the years from 13-15 years to 11-12 years.
When asked if MacEachen euthanizes sick animals, he replied "We shouldn't go there."
He won't talk about it, because MacEachen was widely criticized in 2005 for his longtime practice of shooting sick dogs and dumping them in a pit on the property.
"We had an area called death row," said former Krabloonik employee Harry Portland.
Portland spent nine years working as a musher, the term for dog sled driver.
"And what Dan [MacEachen] did was he took the dogs and held them down on his foot with this choker chain, shot them with one hand with a .22," said Portland.
Portland says workers threw the dying dogs into a pit full of feces.
"I still lose sleep over it," he said.
Portland went public, but was shocked to learn shooting and dumping dogs is legal under Colorado law.
Facing international criticism at the time, MacEachen promised to change his practices.
"Reports of abuse. Documented," said Bill Fabrocini, a co-founder of "Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs."
Fabrocini's group was outraged when, just one year after the dog shooting controversy, Snowmass Village signed a business deal with MacEachen.
"This is a very unethical lease," said Fabrocini.
Krabloonik pays $10 a year to lease land owned by the town.
The deal is good until 2026, costing MacEachen $200 over 20 years.
The cost of one adult sled ride at Krabloonik is $285, according to the business' website, http://www.krabloonik.com/.
"And they don't do anything to pull the lease. They just allow it to continue," said Fabrocini.
State records show MacEachen served one year of probation in 1988 for breaking the bones in a dog's face.
Krabloonik failed a state inspection in May of 2008 "because of a repeat critical violation," with some dogs needing veterinary care.
"The dogs just waste away," said former five-year Krabloonik musher Curtis Hungate.
Hungate went to the police, claiming a dog named Fernando froze to death in 2011.
"Basically this all boils down to care is not in the bottom line," Hungate said.
State animal inspectors have questioned whether sled dogs at Krabloonik are being adequately fed.
MacEachen says the dogs are athletes, and need to maintain a certain weight.
Court records show prosecutors served a search warrant at Krabloonik on Dec. 5 and charged MacEachen with eight misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty on Dec. 12.
Six counts pertain to food, water, and shelter violations and two counts are medical violations.
Prosecutors won't comment, citing an open criminal investigation.
"I know Dan loves his animals," said Snowmass Village mayor Bill Boineau.
Boineau is defending MacEachen and his business.
"A number of the people in Snowmass Village do believe it is a quality amenity," said Boineau.
Boineau says there are no plans to break the 20-year lease, which the mayor says was established after a subdivision was built near Krabloonik, restricting ski traffic from accessing the business and putting it in jeopardy of closing.
"We have an arrangement. And I need to honor that arrangement," said Boineau.
The "Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs" Facebook page has more than 1,300 likes, in a town with a permanent population of less than 3,000 people: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Voices-for-the-Krabloonik-Dogs/265661965842
The winter population increases to as many as 10,000, according to Boineau.
Boineau questions the real motivation behind the social media blitz against Krabloonik.
"It seems like this came down when a fellow was trying to buy it and he couldn't make it work," said Boineau.
That 'fellow' is Guy Courtney, Krabloonik's former general manager for the last four years.
"I wanted to buy Krabloonik for the benefit of the dogs," Courtney said. "It's always been about the dogs."
Court documents filed last week by MacEachen's lawyer say Courtney only began publicly alleging animal abuse and neglect when the sale fell through.
When 9Wants to Know asked Courtney to respond to claims that he is orchestrating a smear campaign against MacEachen, he replied "I think that's absurd."
Stuart Mace gave MacEachen his sled dog business in 1974.
The gift of 55 Toklat sled dogs came with a promise to carry on the tradition of loving and caring for the dogs.
Mace's daughter, Lynne Mace, believes that promise was broken.
"It makes me very sad," she said. "From a very noble business with noble animals and well cared for animals to a factory of funky looking dogs not being taken care of."
During 9Wants to Know's visit to Krabloonik, we saw one dog with an open sore, others with ribs showing.
But overall, the dogs we were shown appeared to be healthy.
Phillips said the animals are not being abused or neglected.
Employees were told not to answer any questions about the criminal charges or past allegations of abuse.
MacEachen says he is not angry at his critics.
"Perhaps they don't have the education to understand what is really going on here," he said.
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