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Live horses being transported from Calgary to Japan for slaughter in September, 2017.Canadian Horse Defense Coalition

Live horses shipped from Calgary to Japan for slaughter went more than 30 hours without food and water in crowded conditions, Access to Information documents show.

While that time period fell within current federal regulations, it was longer than the time that would be allowed under proposed new regulations for animal transport. The incident highlights the controversy around a small, but lucrative, trade some would like to ban.

The documents were obtained by the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition, which wants a ban on both domestic slaughter and shipment of live horses for slaughter for human consumption, arguing that horses are typically raised as sport and companion animals, not for food.

“One of the reasons is the humane factor – that in the industry as a whole, we don’t feel that [horses] are being treated humanely – whether it’s in transport, feedlots, auctions, the whole works, [including] the slaughterhouse,” coalition spokeswoman Sinikka Crosland said.

In Canada, horses can be slaughtered in approved facilities, which produce meat primarily for export markets. Live horses can also be shipped from Canada to other countries for slaughter. Over the past decade, that trade has been dominated by Japan, where horse meat is popular – and resulting in increased shipments of horses to Mexico and Canada.

Canada exported 4,846 live horses to Japan for slaughter in 2017, for a dollar value of $11.5-million, or about $2,400 a head, Statistics Canada says. The trade has gone on for at least a decade, with about 5,800 horses shipped to Japan in both 2015 and 2016, the agency said.

Horses are also slaughtered in Canada in federally and provincially-inspected slaughterhouses, but the numbers are declining; from 113,318 in 2008 to 53,833 in 2016. As of last year, Statistics Canada stopped releasing horse slaughter numbers, citing confidentiality because of consolidation in the sector.

In the United States, there has been a ban on federal funding for horse slaughter inspections since 2006, in effect banning domestic slaughter – and resulting in increased shipments of horses to Mexico and Canada.

In the shipment from Calgary International Airport last September, the documents show a flight delay meant about 106 horses bound for Kagoshima, Japan spent 33 hours without food or water.

The broker in charge of the shipment was worried the delay might push the total transport time for the horses beyond the 36 hours the regulations allow, according to the documents.

“I assured her that we are keeping close eye on this delay and we will make sure everything will be compliant,” said one internal email. Names and titles of the correspondents have been redacted.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was also monitoring public interest in the shipments.

“A message was left on Calgary Animal Health phone line indicated that she believes that she is witnessing inhumane transportation of horses at the Calgary Airport,” says a CFIA e-mail, dated September 12, 2017, and sent with the subject line, “Daily Issue: Inquiry related to horse transport of Japan”.

Revisions to Canada’s existing Health of Animals Regulations, published in the Canadian Gazette in December 2016, suggest the length of time horses can be transported without access to food or water should be shortened to 28 hours from 36 hours.

The existing guidelines “do not reflect current science regarding the care and handling of animals, do not align with the standards of Canada’s international trading partners, and are not aligned with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) welfare standards for animals,” says a government analysis statement.

The coalition and other critics allege the CFIA is not enforcing its own regulations related to the shipments.

The agency maintains horses can be shipped without segregation – contrary to regulations – because they are social animals.

“Horses prefer travelling together over being isolated as long as they are compatible by nature and have sufficient floor space,” said Anna Matos, a CFIA media relations officer.

Former CFIA veterinarian Maureen Harper said brief airport veterinary assessments are not sufficient to determine if horses are compatible enough to be shipped together.

“Program direction does not supersede a regulation,” Dr. Harper said.

The CFIA said veterinary inspectors are present for each shipment and “enforce regulations on a consistent basis.”

Bill desBarres, a former horse breeder and spokesman for the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada, an industry group, said the shipment of live horses from Canada to Japan is highly-regulated and animal welfare is a priority.

“We have veterinary practitioners who work with the airlines, the shippers and the recipients [of the horses],” Mr. desBarres said.

“They are all specialists and the horses are better-treated than lots of humans on flights from what we’ve heard lately,” he added.