With much of Ontario blanketed by snow to some degree, it's an excellent time to go for a dogsled ride - in Jamaica. Not only will your toes stay warm, but so too will your heart when you learn the dogs pulling you through the bamboo forests were rescued from death's door. The mean streets and back allies of Kingston, Jamaica's capital and largest
city, are awash in abandoned and orphaned dogs scrounging out a meagre living.
Danny Melville, a Jamaican businessman, was hoping to give a few of those dogs a better life by bringing them to his Chukka Cove Farm near Ocho Rios where he operates wilderness tours on horseback and all-terrain vehicles. A friend vacationing from Minnesota told Melville about dogsled racing back home and that triggered the thought, "Hey why not here?"
Melville remembered the worldwide attention earned by the Jamaica bobsled Team competing at the Calgary Winter Olympics and he mentioned the idea to his friend Jimmy Buffet, the singer-songwriter. Together they launched the Jamaica Dog Sled Team. They now have a 16-dog team pulling a rubber-tired sleigh around a ruggedly beautiful farm on Jamaica's north shore. But the ride is only part of the thrill.
Bonding with the dogs, getting them dressed in their harnesses and hearing the story of how they got to Chakka Cove Farm is a wonderful experience.
"Most of these dogs had never known love or kindness from a human being before they arrived here," said Devon Anderson, chief musher at the farm and the only black face you'll find in professional dogsled races in the northern hemisphere.
"People would throw stones or knives at these dogs in the streets of Kingston, so when we got them there was a lot of patient, gentle work to be done just to get them to trust us and not cower in fear," said Anderson.
They are now among the happiest, healthiest, friendliest dogs on the island. They don't look like dogsled teams we see in Ontario. These are all mongrels.
"They look like a Jamaica dogsled team should look," says Buffet in a movie made about the team called Sun Dogs.
Melville and Buffet see their dog team as much more than the rehabilitation of two dozen street dogs. The kennel is also the basis for a campaign to reduce the violence and poverty also found on Jamaica's streets.
Youths hired to work with the horses and dogs and maintain the ATVs at Chakka Cove Farm usually can't read or write when they are hired, but part of their employment also means attending school.
And it means learning to treat animals with love and respect, which is the start of treating people and all living things with love and respect.
Melville works closely with the Jamaica Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where he has recruited many of the members of his sled team. One of the programs he helps sponsor at the JSPCA brings young school children into the animal shelter in Kingston so they can see what happens to many dogs living on the street.
"If we can teach the children to cherish and respect animals it's a step towards heading off a violent lifestyle towards animals and fellow citizens as they grow older," said Melville.
A 90-minute ride with the Jamaica Dog Sled Team costs $43 and includes lunch at Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffet's restaurant at Island Village. And for $100 you can operate your own sleigh after a short mushing lesson.
If you're on Melville's farm on Jan. 26 or 27, Devon Anderson won't be your musher. He'll be in Ontario's deep snow competing for $10,000 in prize money at the Haliburton Highlands Dog Sled Derby at the Delta Pinestone Resort.
And on Feb. 9 and 10 Anderson again will forsake Jamaica's white sand beaches and 32 C weather to head to Kearney, just north of Huntsville to compete in the dogsled races which are part of Kearney's Winterfest.
Now there's a man who loves dogs.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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