Krabloonik open for business this summer, shows off more changes
Danny and Gina Phillips would like you to think that the new Krabloonik is a whole different place.
They might be right.
The dogsledding business, which they purchased last winter, is open for the summer for the first time this year, offering dining on weekends and free tours of the kennel. And ever since the snow melted, the couple has been working hard on implementing and experimenting with new practices to try to bring the 40-plus year old kennel into the 21st century.
The couple bought the business from founder Dan MacEachen, who pled guilty to one count of animal cruelty in April. To get their lease approved by the town, which owns the land, the couple agreed to certain standards of animal care and “best practices,” as well the formation of a review committee that both parties are recruiting members for now.
Some of the Krabloonik “best practices” include standards for feeding, housing, exercise and a plan to reduce the number of dogs on the premises over time through adoption and spaying and neutering. Phillips said on July 24 that 110 dogs at Krabloonik are now spayed or neutered, thanks in large part to a program funded by the nonprofit Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter.
Spaying and neutering not only prevents unwanted births but also health complications such as mammary tumors in females, said Seth Sachson, director of the Aspen Animal Shelter.
“We’re preventing unwanted litters, and we’re helping protect the health of the animals,” Sachson said.
Physical changes to the grounds include replacing the wooden doghouses with modern plastic ones. It’s almost as hard to keep sled dogs cool in the summer as it is to keep them warm in the winter, Danny Phillips said, so he added umbrellas, sails and anything he could find that would work safely to cover the most exposed doghouses.
Tethering was one practice that some members of the public weren’t satisfied with. Historically, dogs at Krabloonik have been tethered to the platforms that their houses sit on, and while the owners told the town they would work toward allowing dogs more time off leash, they didn’t want to commit to a deadline back in March.
“I think off-leash exercise is critically important, however you have to be mentally cautious because of (issues) ranging from escapes to dog fights as well as unwanted pregnancies,” Sachson said. “You have to be really careful with what dogs you’re putting together.”
But Phillips has been experimenting with grouping different dogs together, trying combinations like an older male that will keep two younger males in line and a trio of females that are now able to spend the whole day off tether in a pen they have to themselves.
Looking at the group of females on July 24, Phillips said, “This is the future of Krabloonik.”
“It takes five to six months of training to get a group where you’re able to trust it,” he added. But progress is still happening faster than he expected.
Bland Nesbitt, a Friends board member and longtime advocate for better animal care at Krabloonik, said she thinks partitioning off smaller groups of dogs to run together is working well. Sachson said he is impressed with the progress, too.
“I think the dogs seem calmer, they seem happier, they certainly look better, they’re getting better medical care,” Nesbitt said of the dogs overall.
Some dogs may never be able to be trusted with other dogs, but if they’re in retirement, there are areas on the grounds now that allow them some space to roam on their own. And now Krabloonik is starting them young — on July 24, a litter of 4 ½-month-old puppies were running around together in a grassy area in the middle of the grounds.
“It’s a lot easier for us to train them from birth to live off tether,” Phillips said. “The goal is to try to see if we can do it.”
Tethering is standard across the dogsledding industry, and Phillips said he’s been getting calls from other owners about the things he’s trying. Historically, mushers believed that dogs that ran all day wouldn’t want to work, but said that hasn’t been the case. Dogs that are ready to work still get excited when the mushers come in their pens, and those dogs usually do the best job, he said.
“We’ve gone from what it was before to really standing out as the top innovative kennel in the industry,” he said.
Getting dogs adopted was another learning experience for the new owners. Krabloonik is trying to move back to a more purebred Alaskan husky, and so it has been adopting out younger animals that are smaller and have shorter hair in addition to the older, retired dogs. Some of the dogs that got adopted at the start of the ownership transition ran away from their new homes or couldn’t be placed with families, so the new owners are trying to prepare dogs for adoption by letting them interact with potential owners, play in a small pen that resembles a backyard, get used to playing with other animals and eventually, if they “graduate,” as calls it, move to an area directly behind the restaurant where they roam all day.
Purebred Alaskan huskies don’t just look cute and fluffy, they’re bigger and stronger, and fewer of them are required to pull sleds, Phillips said. So even as Krabloonik reduces its pack, it will still be able to offer as many rides a day as it did this season, when it added a fourth time to its already packed schedule and had a successful season despite an early end due to lack of snowfall.
Krabloonik now offers daily kennel tours at no cost, something Danny and Gina, as parents of young children, think is a fun, educational activity for families to do in the summer. Visitors thus far have included Camp Aspen Snowmass and local preschoolers.
Chef Edward C. Schmidt, who started this winter, has created a menu that remains rooted in wild game just as Krabloonik always has. The restaurant, which the Phillipses have made some small changes to like replacing the carpet and adding a gift shop, is open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays and brunch on Sundays this summer. Other changes include some landscaping and cleanup on the grounds.
“I don’t think the dogs really care, but for the people, they’ve really cleaned up the environment up there,” Sachson said. “I think that when people visit Krabloonik, the dogs will benefit because the people will be happy, they’ll spend more time there and they’ll spend their money there.”