Written by: Heather Clemenceau
In April I attended The National Animal Welfare Conference, offered by The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. The CFHS represents all the humane societies and SPCAs across Canada. So as you would expect, the presentation consisted of a broad range topics related to cat overpopulation, animal shelter stats, hoarding issues, spay/neuter, along with some coverage of farm animal issues, including representation from OMAFRA and the Alberta SPCA on horse slaughter. I had been looking forward to this event for weeks….
Within the various humane groups, welfare standards, which vary considerably, are reviewed and debated worldwide. The humane societies and SPCAs do not even agree on the issue of what constitutes good welfare, despite the existence of codes of practice. This schism was made more obvious by the presence at the conference, of strict vegans juxtaposed against those who still justify eating animals but want to improve their welfare while doing so.
The treatment of several issues addressed at the conference was wildly inconsistent, IMO. For instance, we had delicious vegan lunches and snacks, and panel discussions on the importance of developing food policies for animal events. On the other hand, the conference content was generally delivered with a view to making animal use more comfortable for people rather than the animal. By offering vegan fare there is the suggestion that perhaps we shouldn’t be eating animals, and yet we have presentations that malign animal activists as well-meaning but utterly misinformed people who are just “too sensitive?”
The bulk of horses in Canada are found in Alberta and anti-slaughter advocates have had challenges appealing to many people in that province due to the ranching and Stampede culture. Protesters at the recent Bouvry slaughterhouse in Alberta were subjected to strong negative feedback, to put it politely. There is certainly a notable variation between the principles, opinions, sentiments regarding horse slaughter in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada. Knowing that at least one of the speakers on horse slaughter was from Alberta, I expected them to graywash the issue of slaughter – I must be psychic because that’s really how it played out. I believe that presenting horse slaughter as acceptable, safe, or humane, even grudgingly, is inconsistent with the values of a humane group or SPCA.
There were two equine vets for this segment, each presenting for about 45 minutes.
Dr. Marion Anderson – Alberta SPCA, presented first. She has a practice in Saskatoon and became President of the Alberta ASPCA in 2012.
The only real issue I had with Dr. Anderson’s presentation was that she depicted slaughterbound horses as generally being geriatric, poorly bred, of poor conformation; with behaviour issues, unrecoverable lameness or injuries – sort of a eugenics program for these horses. The positives of her presentation were that she did provide valid points when addressing the backstory of horse overpopulation, along with a good breakdown of horse use in Canada:
- horses are remaining healthier, living longer, and are therefore more difficult to find lifetime homes for;
- society has an aversion to horse slaughter;
- US “ban” on horse slaughter;
- demand for the horses has lessened due to lower rural population, aging baby boomers, economic hardship
- Indiscriminate and uncontrolled breeding
- Inadequate and improper training methods lead to behaviour issues
- Fewer people interested in riding and tend to prefer more sedentary and technological pursuits
- In 2010 the median age of horse owners was 50- 59 years
- 24% of all horse owners are over 60
- Increasing costs associated with horse ownership
However, Dr. Anderson’s presentation conflicted with statements by the USDA and other groups that found that about 92% of all horses are young and healthy and capable of living longer lives. Her presentation can be viewed online at the CFHS site here and in PDF format here.
The second presentation was made by Dr. Bettina Bobsien – she’s a vet in private practice who has worked with the BC SPCA on farm animal welfare issues and was a member of the committee that drafted the current Equine Code of Practice. Dr. Bobsien reminded the attendees that the new equine code of practice went from 25 statements up to about 75 statements which is obviously an improvement in welfare, albeit one that has no teeth because it’s a recommendation rather than a requirement.
IMO, Dr. Bobsien’s presentation was a lot more problematic – probably not just for me but for others in the audience as well. The Dr. took the approach that horse slaughter is necessary and much maligned by activists who spread “myths.” She spoke of unintended consequences for the US after the cessation of slaughter including starvation and abandonment, which have largely been debunked, perhaps most famously by John Holland of the Equine Welfare Alliance in the states.
As the presentation unfolded, I did a double-take when I saw on the projector, images from CHDC’s own website and blog being presented as “myths” about horse slaughter. Dr. Bobsien did not name the CHDC in her presentation though, and implored the audience to refrain from embracing “activist hysteria.” It is perhaps noteworthy that Dr. Bobsien’s conference slides have not been made available for downloading at the conference website. Perhaps it was due to the pushback from some audience members (myself included) who sought to correct some statements, or maybe the CFHS felt the slides were too controversial.
So here are a few of Dr. Bobsien’s “Myths” of Horse Slaughter (the “myth” in bold, followed by Dr. Bobsien’s response in red, and my response in grey italics).
- Horses are or should be companion animals. We Have a special relationship with them. “They are livestock.” I think many horse owners have special relationships with horses just as they do with dogs and cats and other pets. They happen to live on farms due to their size and range requirements, but we spend thousands on board or on tack that isn’t spent on livestock. And we have a special relationship with horses historically that we simply don’t have with other animals.
- Horses treated with toxic chemicals mean that the meat is tainted – example: phenylbutazone: “Horses given bute are clear in 21 days and meat is fine to eat. The EU put restrictions on imported horse meat because of a claim about toxic meat in horses originating in Canada.” I did challenge Dr. Bobsien on this and she finally said that the science and the regulations don’t match up. Dr. Bobsien spoke about bute being kinetically withdrawn from the tissues within 21 days, but made no mention of the fact that the CFIA prohibits its use in food horses entirely. It’s the metabolized compound that can be found in tissues afterwards that can kill you. In a survey, 96% of respondents said they used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to control the joint pain and inflammation in horses, and 82% administer them without always consulting their veterinarian. More than 1,400 horse owners and trainers were surveyed to better understand attitudes toward NSAIDs. Additionally, 99 percent of horses that started in California last year raced on bute, according to the Daily Racing Form. The pro-slaughter doctors and veterinarians who attempted to refute Dr. Marini et al’s study a few years back expected everyone to accept their supposition even though it exemplified an argument from ignorance, which started out as an appeal to authority, (not unlike Dr. Bobsien’s presentation). Sue Wallis and Dave Duquette (of United Horsemen’s Group and the now-defunct IEBA) asked everyone to accept the word of a veterinarian who is an expert in his own field (Dr. Henneke – body scoring), but who is commenting on a field outside of his area of expertise. Dr. Henneke supports the assertion that bute exits the system completely. So what? He’s not a toxicologist. When you want to discuss the Henneke scale, he is completely qualified to render an opinion. Similarly, if Einstein makes a suggestion about relativity, you’d better listen. If he tries to tell you how to ride a horse, you can tell him to keep his day job. In the US, Canada, and the EU, bute is not permitted to be used for food animals. PERIOD. That simple acknowledgement renders any other discussion on toxicology rather moot. There are no safe levels for known carcinogens, which is why it’s pointless to discuss to what degree bute is or is not eliminated from the tissues. Harm is assumed. Discussions of toxicity or “safe levels” are reserved for non-carcinogenic effects. Furthermore, the “precautionary principle” is recognized in international law, and it of course stresses that the absence of scientific certainty about a risk should not bar the taking of precautionary measures in the face of possible irreversible harm. First, do no harm.
- Horses that are sold to slaughter go directly to slaughter. “No they are held for 180 days.” On the larger feedlots in Alberta there are probably situations where some horses are held for a period of time. But If you look at the Health of Animals Regulations Import reference document, section 5, if imported horses (from the US) are going directly to slaughter they must be slaughtered within 4 days of their arrival. If you have horses coming up from US auctions when does this drug withdrawal take place? When horses arrive at LPN or Richelieu in Quebec from auctions in the US, they aren’t holding them for 180 days – they are killing them within days.
- Kill buyers, feed lot owners, and transporters are the ‘bad guys’. “Proper blame should be directed towards the persons who overbreed. 5 minutes of terror is better than months of starvation.” Again, why are there only two choices – slaughter or starvation? We can certainly cast blame in the direction of people who produce horses in a “puppymill” type of production line. But everyone is complicit in this sordid business – from sale barn owners, transporters, slaughterhouses, and most definitely kill buyers – all have played a role in facilitating fraudulent transactions and abuse against horses. Many of these individuals and businesses have been fined or packed off to prison for their crimes.
- Horses should go to rescues instead of slaughter. “Rescues are overfull, unregulated.” That is true even though some are registered charities, but so too are kill buyers totally unregulated, and they have input into the food chain. Sales barns sometimes fill out EIDs without input from former owners. I agree that rescues cannot possibly absorb upwards of 100,000 unwanted horses per year. The answer lies in other solutions, including on-farm euthanasia, hay banks, financial support for rescues, and alternative disposal options such as rendering, mortality composting, and biodigestion. Dr. Bobsien herself also pointed this out.
From the presentation we could see that the Dr. appears to own a very nice dressage horse that is probably very well trained with nice conformation. If slaughter is not a good enough end for Dr. Bobsien’s own horses, why is it acceptable for others to suffer this fate? This is what anti-slaughter advocates object to – we don’t think it’s an acceptable end for any horse. Neither of the presentations we saw on this day gave any recognition or discussion to the suffering of non-food animals such as horses. It’s obvious that most advocacy by humane groups and SPCAs is focused on advancements for the typical “food” animals such as chickens, cows, and pigs, while little effort is expended to the plight of the unwanted horse. Plenty of criticism is lobbed at the negligent owners and backyard breeders or horses, where it also must lie, but kill buyers seem to get a pass. Neither presenter touched on transport times, live export deaths, injuries, sickness, or pregnancy.