Written by: Pam Asheton

A look at the welfare concerns around transporting live animals internationally.

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Canadian Horse Defense Coalition Photo

Statistics in 1800 indicated a world population of approximately one billion. Projected figures for 2050, estimate nine billion humans wanting cheap affordable food. As such, a whole worldwide food transportation system is evolving, involving huge logistical operations from ground-to-air. There are hogs regularly travelling in cargo, day-old chicks flying worldwide, lobsters, cattle, sheep, laboratory animals, reptiles, rare species and even zoo deliveries.

It might come as a surprise to some, but Canadian horses are also among these travelers – and we’re not talking just top-class athletes enroute to competitions. Purpose-bred feedlot horses (from Saskatchewan and southern Alberta), usually draft horse crosses of young ages, regularly wing it over to Japan to become edible delicacies.

Helping facilitate this international trade in Canada is the Calgary Airport Authority (YYC), who, at the beginning of May, unveiled their brand new 30,000 square-foot live animal handling facility to European, Asian and North American markets.

With more than 15 years of planning, the $50-million project is ready to take-off. The ‘International Animal Lounge YYC’ operations manager, Keith Serrien, previously worked for Overseas Horse Services shipping competitive horses worldwide.

YYC admitted, at their opening ceremony, that investment has gone into welfare issues addressed after deaths and accidents at their facility. For instance, loaded wooden pallets waiting out on the tarmac have been subject to delays when mechanical problems delayed take-off times. One commentator explained, “In the past, we had a mobile ramp operated with a forklift and that was steep for them. There were a lot of horses that would actually jump out of the stall onto the concrete.”

In one case, noted documents from the House of Commons, dated January 27, 2014, six horses perished during air transport in August of 2012. The reason for the fatality was deemed to be a unique case involving a substantial plane delay of over 24 hours, as well as the unusually large size of this specific load of horses.

The report also stated that “a direct result of the review was an increase in crate size, submission of a valid contingency plan by each shipper and the capping of maximum horse weight in the crate to 6,600 lbs.”

Sinikka Crosland, executive director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, noted that the handling of horses during transit is a major concern. “Ensuring the comfort of live animals during transport is an animal welfare challenge at the best of times, and clearly impossible when horses [that] are being shipped from Canada to Japan for slaughter are crammed three to a crate, and at the mercy of flight schedules that can sometimes result in lengthy delays without food and water.”

According to Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations, 26 hours without food or water in transit is legally permissible. And if mechanical issues require waiting for repairs, or a put-down elsewhere, those airports do not necessarily have handling facilities for the animals who inevitably must stay on board.

Ventilation, humidity, dehydration, faeces accumulation and slipperiness underfoot, plus temperature variations controlled on cargo transit, usually with one flight attendant on board, are currently areas open to limited monitoring. Fluctuations in pressure and noise levels in close proximity to large jet engines are also significant concerns.

At the recent Animal Transportation Association Conference in Calgary, it was recommended that closed-circuit television cameras be installed in such facilities to encourage high welfare standards. This is a practice advocated by their keynote speaker, renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin. In addition, it was suggested that staff receive training courses and monitored supervision when handling livestock.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is the Federal jurisdiction, with veterinarians having to sign off each flight declaring animals are fit to travel. Concerned persons can write in with enquires, or to file a complaint.