A calendar-perfect pasture scene would not be complete without the image of a sun-dappled horse grazing on lush grass. Such images come to mind readily when we think of horses, and their spirit touches us.
But idyllic pastures are not the current reality for the thousands of draft horses who are shipped overseas by air cargo every single year and are slaughtered in countries where Canada has no jurisdiction or oversight. For many of these animals, feedlots are their past, present and future, with death in a foreign kill box their ultimate fate.
They leave our country from three major airports – Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Their destination is either Japan or South Korea, where basashi (horse sushi) is a coveted form of cuisine. Many have been purpose-bred in Canada for export, some by former PMU ranchers; others have been culled from farms and homes that no longer wish to keep them, having deposited them at auctions frequented by meat dealers. Some even enter the slaughter pipeline from the United States.
A further troubling reality is that anywhere from two to four of these large horses are herded into wooden crates, smaller than a single horse stall, for air transport. Sometimes these animals are so tall that their ears protrude through the netting covering the crates. By law they cannot be deprived of food, water and rest for longer than 28 hours. However, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) admits to using a “soft” approach as far as infractions to new transport regulations are concerned, at least until a period of grace ends in February 2022.
Typically, the journey begins when slaughter-bound draft horses are loaded into trucks at a Canadian feedlot, and are then transported to the airport to be forced into crates. Here they are often left standing in cramped confinement on the tarmac for 10-12 hours. Eventually, the crates of living cargo are loaded onto the aircraft for the duration of the flight – an additional 10-12 hours, until they are finally unloaded at their destination and are transferred to yet another feedlot, this time on foreign soil.
What we have learned about this industry is disturbing. In 2018, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) decided that we had seen enough. We sued the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for violating the Health of Animals Regulations concerning segregation and headroom requirements when large draft horses are shipped in small wooden crates for slaughter overseas. The government was quick to amend its transport regulations, eliminating the segregation and headroom requirements. In December 2019, we lost the case in Federal court, but our lawyer subsequently filed an appeal. The date for that hearing is still pending, and the fight for the horses and their welfare continues.
Earlier this year, the issue attracted the attention of iconic singer-songwriter Jann Arden. With considerable star power now supporting the movement to stop exports of live horses for slaughter, protest efforts against the industry are escalating. Ms. Arden has stepped forward to spearhead public awareness events and is speaking out staunchly against a practice that she feels needs to be stopped without delay.
According to documents obtained through Freedom of Information, numerous horses over the years have died during transport and in landing accidents. On one occasion, six horses perished. Another was found dead, upside down in its crate. As recently as May 2020, Japan reported a dead horse upon arrival, as well as four horses weak and lying down. In this particular case, the animals involved were youngsters, 17-18 months old.
The CFIA claims that all requirements for safe air travel are met when horses are shipped overseas for slaughter, and that the animals are treated humanely, when in fact this practice is in direct violation of international standards set out by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Canada is an OIE member country and should adhere to these agreed-upon standards, not ignore them.
For instance, the OIE stipulates that “horses should be transported in containers and be separated from each other if they are more than 145 cm. (57 in.) in height.” This is essentially the size of a large pony, not a draft horse. The OIE further states that horses should have 21 cm. (8 in.) of head clearance, in order to maintain their balance. This precaution is especially important during take-off and landing.
Unfortunately, industry and government are more concerned about profit than animal welfare. But the tide appears to be turning, with more concerned voices joining the chorus to ban exports of live horses for slaughter overseas. To achieve that goal, we encourage citizens across Canada to educate their Members of Parliament about this issue until our elected leaders realize that animals matter, and that horses belong in green pastures and good farm homes — not in tiny export crates.
For more information about CHDC and the work they do, or to make a donation, visit here.