'We want them to follow the law': Court to hear case on horses shipped overseas for meat
VANCOUVER - The ongoing practice of shipping horses from Canadian airports to destinations overseas where they are slaughtered for meat is now the focus of a lawsuit heading to federal court this week in Vancouver.
The animal law lawyer representing the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, Rebeka Breder, said her client wants the court to order the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to follow the laws regarding segregating larger horses and making sure the tops of their heads cannot touch the tops of the crates they are transported in – rules the coalition alleges have been broken for years.
“This is the first time that an animal protection organization in Canada is challenging the government and bringing a lawsuit against the government for the way it transports animals,” Breder said.
“This case can have enormous implications on the way the government handles the protection of animals during their transport.”
In their notice of application, the coalition points out the Health of Animals Act Regulations require “every equine over 14 hands in height shall be segregated from all other animals during transport by air,” and “each animal is able to stand in its natural position without coming into contact with a deck or roof."
“What we are seeing is that the government is repeatedly putting horses together, so totally contrary to the law, and allowing the tops of horses heads to touch the tops of crates,” Breder said, and added they know there have been horses who have died and have been injured during transport.
“The government says that it cares about animals, but what we’re seeing in this case in particular, is that they don’t. We want them to follow the law.”
The executive director of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, Sinikka Crosland, told CTV News Vancouver their non-profit organization has been watching live shipments of horses for slaughter since around 2012, and has video and photos from airports in Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg.
“These are large horses, most of them draft horses or draft crosses which are very, very large horses, and they’re being put in multiples into these small crates,” Crosland said. There are often three to a crate, according to Crosland, and they have witnessed as many as four housed together. She said they’ve also seen horses with “their heads sometimes touching the ceiling of the crate."
“The way they load the crates in, there’s really no way to help horses when they become panicked,” Crosland said. She noted there was a shipment where six horses died in 2012: a government document dated October 2013 outlined how the animals died during transport, and their deaths were attributed to “a substantial plane delay of over 24 hrs, as well as the unusually large size of this specific load of horses.” The document goes on to say the CFIA conducted a review as a result, leading to an increase in crate size and the capping of maximum horse weight in the crate.
Crosland said there was another case where a horse was found dead and upside down in a crate.
“This was just totally appalling to us, and we thought we must do something about it,” she said.
In an emailed statement, the CFIA said the government will “respect the process before the federal court.”
“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency takes issues of animal welfare in Canada very seriously and we are committed to the humane transport of animals,” it said.
They added every air shipment of horses that leaves Canada is inspected by a CFIA vet, and the horses will not be allowed to leave if the vet is not satisfied they can be transported “safely and humanely.”
In court documents, the Agriculture ministry said amendments to the current regulations are set to come into effect in February 2020, and will allow for compatible animals to be crated together. The government said the CFIA is currently operating with an interim policy, implemented in August 2017, which also doesn’t require segregation of larger horses as long as they get along.
“The current requirements to segregate horse (sic) exceeding 14 hands for transport by air is deemed to be no longer relevant and is not based on science or animal behavior,” the ministry said.
The ministry said the current requirement for head room will also be replaced by a “provision that prohibits loading, confining, or transporting horses unless the animal is able to maintain its preferred position with sufficient space to permit a full range of head movement,”, and added: “…there may be variation among different classes or breeds of animals as to how they hold their heads.” They said according to the interim policy, a horse standing in its “natural quiet but alert position must not have its ears in contact with any solid overhead structure”, but occasional contact with the netting around the crate is acceptable.
The government is arguing the planned changes to the law essentially render the matter “moot."
“The live controversy, in all likelihood, will no longer be present when this court is called upon to reach a decision on the application.”
Crosland said she finds it hard to believe how the CFIA manages to determine which horses are compatible while on their way to slaughter. She said it’s not known where all the horses in the air shipments come from; the coalition believes some may be purpose-bred for meat production, but Crosland said others may come from auctions, and could possibly include former pets. She said it appears some of the horses were formerly working animals, as the coalition has spotted some with braided manes and docked tails.
“We certainly want to send a message that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is not above the law,” Crosland said.
She said the shipments are primarily destined for Japan and South Korea.
“It’s considered a delicacy, and they make a kind of sushi out of the horse meat,” she said.
Crosland said her group would like to see the industry stopped all together, describing it as inhumane.
According to information from Agriculture Canada, so far in 2019 there were 1,395 horses exported for slaughter as of June. Last year, there were 3,396 sent overseas. In 2017, there were 4,846.
The lawsuit is scheduled for a two-day hearing beginning on Wednesday. The timeline for a decision in relation to the judicial review is unknown.