As part of an educational and fact-finding mission, members of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada, visited the Natural Valley Farms equine processing plant in Saskatchewan to observe conditions, protocols and procedures at that facility.
With animal activist horse groups intensifying their efforts in Canada, the Saskatchewan Horse Federation and Ontario Equestrian Federation are networking with their sister federations and provincial Farm Animal Councils in the formation of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada (HWAC). The Alliance marks the coming together of these associations, and is supported by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), all of whom endorse the responsible use and care of horses up to and including their death, ensuring a high standard of health and welfare of the horse is maintained throughout their lives. The Horse Welfare Alliance provides a strong voice across Canada in support of the values and ethics relating to horse ownership and the use of horses.
On the bus ride out from Regina to the plant, Dr. Anne Allen (D.V.M.), the Acting Senior Staff Veterinarian, Equine Slaughter for the CFIA gave us the background information regarding the regulatory bodies and the legislation that governs all slaughter facilities in Canada. She further enlightened us on the Humane Equine Handling Manual that was created by and implemented at this plant. The purpose of the Manual is to ensure that all horses are handled with respect and dignity by trained and qualified staff in order to ensure minimal stress to the horses throughout the process. There are procedures designed specifically for the handling of the horse at each and every phase of the plant’s activities. Any person handling the horse at a specified area must be trained and qualified to work with the horses in that area.
As its name implies, Natural Valley Farms is nestled in one corner of the vast Saskatchewan prairies in the beautiful and legendary Qu’Appelle Valley. Its mostly white buildings are clearly visible from a distance. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the General Manager of the facility, who was accompanied by the head staff and the CFIA on-site veterinarian. Mr. Piller informed us about the procedures that are implemented at the facility, from the arrival of horses to the plant, to the sorting, and then to their death and processing into the food chain.
Our arrival coincided with the unloading of two single deck trailer loads of horses from the U.S. Our group was able to observe all the horses being unloaded and sorted into holding pens. At this time, Dr. Allen was able to shed some additional light on other legislation that dictated the rules for transport of these horses. Canadian laws regarding horse transport in this country differ markedly from those of the U.S. One key difference is that, in Canada, horses must be transported in a vehicle that allows enough headroom to permit the horse to have a natural stance and not to come in contact with an upper deck or the roof of the vehicle. This does not effectively happen in the US, where the horses are transported as “feeders” to the Canadian border in the pot belly trucks, then unloaded into the flat single deck trailers for their journey over the border to the plants in Canada.
It was in the initial unloading process that we met the operations manager, affectionately nicknamed “Junior”. Junior is a giant of a man and it was evident that he had a lot of experience in equine behaviour and handling. As large as he is, he moved gracefully and deliberately, taking great care in positioning himself strategically in order to anticipate the movement or, indeed, to affect the movement of the small herd. He was calm, quiet and controlled at all times. There was never any yelling or any aggressive behavior as he herded these horses through the chutes into different holding areas. All the staff moved the horses in such a manner as to ensure calm and orderly behavior.
All the horses were able to leave the truck on their own and none appeared to be in undue stress or discomfort. Many horses appeared as undernourished and dehydrated on arrival. The one stallion that was included in the two loads was transported in a separate compartment in the trailer and was segregated into a different pen. Water was made immediately available as the horses gathered in the first holding area. All other holding areas, including the building where the final processing took place, provided water for the horses.
The group then entered the plant in order to view the rest of the process. As we were a rather large group of observers, we were divided into smaller groups to view the different processes without causing undue distraction to the employees or the horses.
We observed the herding and sorting process as the horses entered smaller pens and gates were closed behind them. The horses traveled through a maze of pens where they were observed and separated into smaller groups. Any horse in a questionable state is put into a separate enclosure for review by the on-site CFIA veterinarian. The final holding area was circular in shape, with a gate gradually decreasing the area in which the horses stand. The horses were then encouraged to enter the final chute that narrowed to the width of a single horse. From here, the horses went in single file to the final chamber where a gate shut behind them, isolating the animal from the rest.
Elevated outside this chamber was a highly-trained and skilled operator who waits until the horse is in exactly the right position before administering the captive bolt stun gun. (The footing in this area, as in all areas of the plant, is excellent and slippage is not an issue anywhere in this plant.) The bolt enters the forehead at a specified angle that results in it being embedded deep into the mid-brain section of the brain. This procedure instantly drops the horse to the ground and it is rendered senseless. This is a quick and painless procedure for the horse. (No signs of fright or distress were exhibited by any of the horses observed at the various stages of the plant.) Two other staff members monitor the horse to ensure that it is, indeed, brain dead. If there is any doubt whatsoever of this, the stun gun is re-administered. These operators are so skilled at this plant that they consistently maintain higher than a 95% compliance rate with the required standards. Within 45 seconds of this happening, a complete cessation of all vital functions is achieved.
Members of the Alliance were then fitted with special clothing in order to observe the rest of the operation. This component was very similar to that of any abattoir or plant that processes meat, and again is governed by the very strict rules and regulations and enforced by the CFIA.
What impressed us the most at this facility was the high level of care and compassion exhibited by all the staff in handling the horses. The culture in the plant was one of doing their work expertly while providing these animals dignity by using the best welfare practices available. The horse slaughter industry in Canada is highly regulated to ensure proper animal welfare is observed and the safety of the meat that is being processed is protected. The government Veterinarian works on site with the staff whenever the plant is operational to ensure that all laws and regulatory protocols are followed. Should any irregularity in the processes occur, the plant is immediately shut down by the CFIA until it is assessed and corrected.
As horse owners, we cherish our horses. They are beloved partners on the trail, companions in life, workers on the farm, team-mates in equine sport and, for many of us, our best friends. In life, we must offer them the best available nutrition, shelter, medical, and farrier treatment and care. It is equally important, when our horses reach the end of their lives, that we handle their euthanasia with the same dignity. While many of us call our Veterinarian to euthanize our horses, the horse processing plants in Canada do offer a viable alternative.
We use our horses for very many diverse activities. Their life span can be a long one. While we respect each others’ right to use horses for recreation, business, or sport, the welfare of the horse should be paramount at all times. So it should be also when the horse reaches the end of its life. For many, horse slaughter would not be a choice but, for those who do choose this method of euthanasia, let us be more focused on the issue of animal welfare rather than on passing judgment on the choice of the method used by others.
In the United States, where horse slaughter for human consumption has been outlawed, we are seeing some very adverse situations. Unwanted horses are being turned loose to fend for themselves in the wild, only to be killed on the highways, starved and in other ways injured. Some unwanted horses are being neglected, as their owners are unable to afford euthanasia by a Veterinarian and subsequent burial or removal costs. Some horses are being transported for thousands of miles to the abattoirs in Mexico and Canada in the double-decker transports.
Surely, the salient point has been lost. It is not horse slaughter that is cruel or inhumane but the senseless pain and suffering caused by the aforementioned examples.
We witnessed the handling of slaughter horses at the Natural Valley Farms plant and can knowingly attest to the fact that their animal welfare practices are exemplary. The workers at the plant are committed to providing dignity to these animals, and all welfare and safety protocols are followed at all times. If there are problems, the protocols require that they be immediately addressed and corrective actions taken.
The work and efforts of the CFIA veterinarians both those at, and involved with, the plant, is laudatory. In all instances the welfare of the animals and their humane handling is of paramount consideration to our federal agency. In fact, Canada is known as world leaders for their regulatory and best practices programs for equine health and welfare.
Let us as horse owners and users therefore focus our efforts on horse welfare from start to finish instead of becoming sidetracked by philosophical differences of opinion. The “key messages” from this mission should become a part of our standard horse industry vocabulary:
- The humane treatment of horses is a priority of our industry.
- As horse owners, we are responsible for the care of our horses from the time they are acquired to their release to another party, or the end of their life.
- Codes of Practise for Horses are available and should be followed for horse care and ownership.
- Horse owners must determine the best end-of-life option for their horses.
- Horse processing is a humane end-of-life option.
- It is never acceptable to starve, abuse or release horses into the wild.
- The horse industry is regulated and Canada has world leading best practices to ensure the safety of our horses is paramount.
- We are ahead of other North American and EU jurisdictions in our regulations and practices.
- Our industry works closely with the federal and provincial governments to ensure standards of humane treatment are implemented and maintained.
The Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada promotes humane horse care “because we care about the welfare of horses across Canada”. [www.horsewelfare.ca]