Horses from Winnipeg sent abroad for slaughter
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Horses have forever been admired, featured prominently in popular children’s books and television programs, noted for being sleek, majestic, poetry in motion. But they also have a high level of emotional intelligence. A University of Sussex study found that horses can read emotional cues from our facial expressions, not only recognizing human emotions, but also deeply absorbing them.
“Looking into their eyes, there is almost a spiritual quality,” said Colleen Walker, owner/operator of the Little Red Barn (LRB), an animal sanctuary in Winnipeg, and home to a variety of rescued farm animals otherwise destined for slaughter, including horses saved from local auctions.
“Anyone who has spent a lot of time with these highly sensitive, sentient animals knows they experience a wide range of complex emotions: joy, pain, distress and pleasure; have family bonds and friendships no different than any other living being. Working with horses, we know these gentle giants feel very deeply.”
Walker recalls a visit from a woman and her elderly mother who lived with Alzheimer’s and hadn’t spoken in over five months. Upon spending time with Scotty, one of the oldest LRB horses, she smiled and called him Jack, remembering her own horse named Jack when she was a young girl.
“We have seen miracles with visitors connecting with the horses on a personal level. Horses are often chosen as therapy companions due to their soothing nature and, looking into their soulful eyes, it’s not hard to understand,” Walker said.
“Visitors have experienced sensations of peace and overall feelings of wellness, confirmed by research regarding the benefits of being around horses, including decreased heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety and stress related to increased beta-endorphins. We have seen children with ADHD or ADD calm themselves by being around the horses, or by hugging, stroking or grooming them as the horses allow.”
It can be jarring then, to know that Canada slaughters roughly 25,000 horses annually and is one of the top exporters of horse meat in the world, with an annual revenue of roughly $80 million.
Canada’s horse exportation industry ships from 3,000-5,000 horses annually. (Canada has exported more than 40,000 draft horses since 2013.)
Draft horses bred specifically for exportation are shipped out from Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. This, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of Canadians are against exporting live horses for slaughter, according to Manitoba Animal Save, an animal advocacy organization. The Liberal Party committed to banning the practice in its September 2021 election campaign but, as of yet, nothing has changed.
“I’ve seen the videos of the horses being unloaded from the transport trucks at the airport to standing in cargo crates on the tarmac,” said Walker. “Horses are flight animals. I can imagine the terror they feel as they stand helpless in the crates as the massive, loud cargo plane lands for loading, never mind the long journey ahead to another country. The trusting nature of the horses breaks my heart every time. They willingly go where they are led, unknowing they will be leaving their homeland forever to their deaths.”
Danae Tonge, of Manitoba Animal Save, has been documenting the shipments out of Winnipeg for over five years and working to spread awareness among Manitobans.
“With the Liberals’ promise to ban live horse export on their last federal re-election platform, along with the mandate letter sent to the minister of agriculture and agri-food, the government recognizes that Canadians are ashamed of this industry and support the ban,” said Tonge. “We have to hold them to their word and not let it end up as so many forgotten election promises — these shipments continue to leave Canada and horses continue to suffer.”
Winnipeg ships horses monthly, from fall to spring, sometimes in extreme conditions without protection from the elements, primarily to Japan and occasionally to South Korea. Horses are slaughtered for sashimi, an expensive Japanese niche market delicacy.
“It’s very lucrative for the producers supplying these horses for export,” said Tonge, adding that Japan pays upwards of $8,000 per horse.
Horses are packed into wooden crates without food or water, and very limited headroom. Tonge has frequently witnessed the shipments, which have left her with indelible memories.
“The horses are usually very quiet; they know something is not right. Often, they will not want to leave the trucks and workers will bang on the truck sides to frighten them out. The horses then enter the cargo building, where they are crated three to four in a wooden crate. The crates are sealed and then driven to the tarmac to await the plane. The plane takes a few hours to load the crates by lift, and it is eerie to see all the horse crates lined up in the field being loaded one by one.
“They are terrified, subject to turbulence and air pressure changes and some may fall during turbulence or take off, and be trampled by their crate mates, unable to escape. They cannot move around; they cannot lay down.”
Tonge recalls a recent horse shipment from Winnipeg in which travel time had exceeded more than 30 hours. Three horses were found down in their crate upon arrival in Japan. There have been several documented incidents of injured or dead horses on flights from Canada to Japan.
“We don’t like it, we don’t support it, and that’s exactly why the Liberals put it on their re-election platform. It was an easy win for them, but now that the time has come to act on it, they are nowhere to be found,” said Tonge, who has been following up for months, with no reply.
“Canadians are fed up; we want answers and we want the ban.”
Meanwhile, Scotty, the largest and one of the oldest LRB Belgians (one of the breeds commonly shipped to Japan for slaughter) and saved at the Gladstone auction, continues to greet and delight visitors, relaxing side by side with his best friend George, the pig.
Visit Manitoba Animal Save and the Little Red Barn on Facebook and Instagram.