Animal welfare advocates have filed a legal complaint with the federal government after a December 2022 shipment of live horses to Japan exceeded the legal 28-hour limit without food, water or rest.
Kaitlyn Mitchell, the Winnipeg-based director of legal advocacy for the non-profit group Animal Justice, filed the complaint to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) after hearing from advocates who monitored the horses being brought to the international airport in Winnipeg and loaded on a Korean Air cargo plane on Dec. 11, 2022.
When they realized the flight was delayed nearly five hours, they tracked the plane online.
“It’s a combination of being absolutely heartbroken and absolutely furious because we know the journey that these horses have in store for them,” Mitchell said. “These horses cannot speak for themselves so we need Canadians to speak up for the horses.”
“We asked them [CFIA] simply to uphold the law. And so far, they’ve refused.”
WATCH | Horses are unloaded from semis at Winnipeg airport and onto flights to Japan:
Outside the metal airport security fence, Danae Tonge of Manitoba Animal Save was one of the people photographing and videotaping the 79 horses being unloaded from semi trucks.
She said they were put three or four deep into wooden crates and left on the tarmac for hours until they were re-loaded onto the plane.
“It’s especially hard for horses, who are easily panicked and have strong flight instincts. They are very stressed by the noise, the turbulence and being forced to stand the entire trip,” Tonge said recently.
Animals in transit for 30+ hours
The flights typically stop in Anchorage, Alaska, for re-fuelling and a crew change, Tonge said, but the December flight experienced delays in Winnipeg, then had to reroute through Seattle because of a blizzard in Anchorage.
By the time it reached Seattle, Tonge said the horses had already been in transit an estimated 16.5 hours. They had to wait 3.25 hours before the flight took off. It was another 11.5 hours to Kagoshima, Japan, for a minimum 32.5 hours without food, water or rest. It’s not known how long it took to get to the Winnipeg airport or transport the horses from the airport in Japan to a quarantine site.
However, Tonge said it was a clear violation of Manitoba’s Animal Care Act and federal Health of Animals Regulations.
WATCH | Canada isn’t doing enough to protect horses flown to Japan for slaughter, advocates say:
“I just want people to know what’s happening and to be outraged by it and to do something,” she said.
The horses, many of them Clydesdales and Percherons, are bred and shipped to be slaughtered for meat.
Following the flight, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition filed an ATIP request with the CFIA. An interim report released last week noted three horses were found to be “down in the crate when they arrived” in Japan.
“If horses are down, they are very prone to conditions like colic, especially in unfamiliar situations and stressful situations,” said Brittany Semeniuk, animal welfare specialist at the Winnipeg Humane Society.
“For horses, it’s extremely serious. It can be often fatal.”
The ATIP document includes emails and texts sent between people in Winnipeg and Japan. Their names, addresses and contact information are redacted.
One unidentified person wrote: “This has to be one of the most troublesome shipments we have ever had. Hopefully horses arrive safely and we can put this one behind us.”
‘Best thing for the horses’ to carry on with flight
Lyle Lumax of Carolyle Farms in Swan River, Man., told CBC News he may have written that comment. He confirmed this was his shipment of horses and that he was on site at the Winnipeg airport when they learned the Anchorage airport had been shut down because of weather.
Lumax said the plane was already more than half loaded, so he and his team started making phone calls to figure out where they could land and find a crew able to fly the plane to Japan.
He said a group composed of himself, his logistics planner, the importer in Japan and the CFIA inspectors ultimately decided to go ahead with the shipment because it would have taken four hours to unload the horses and another five to get them back to the farm, and every time they are moved, there is a risk of injury.
“We just found another airport that had two pilots and decided between everybody, ‘Let’s get her done. Just do it.’ And everybody, every part of the equation, was there. And we decided that for a couple hours [over the legal limit], this was totally the best thing for the horses,” said Lumax, 70, who describes himself as a horse lover.
“All we would do by bringing them home, to stay within the limit, [is] put the horse at more risk. And that’s in the air, that’s in the loading and unloading and driving.”
Lumax said he has flown as an attendant on more than 20 shipments to Japan and he checks on the horses multiple times during the flight. He said the horses will sleep standing up most of the time and that they are comfortable in the crates.
In documentation from his attendant who was on the December flight, Lumax said three horses fell in their crates during landing, but were able to stand up to be off-loaded, and made it safely to the quarantine site.
He said many cargo pilots are not used to flying livestock so he’s had to tell pilots to “use the whole runway” during takeoff and landing and be gentle with the brakes.
“My business depends on [getting] the horses to the plane in the best shape they can be, 100 per cent of the time. To get the meat for their restaurants, they need the horses there in the best possible shape,” he said.
‘No enforcement actions … are planned’
In an email statement to CBC News, a Korean Air spokesperson said the company is aware of the Canadian regulation on the carriage of live animals, which restricts more than 28-hour flights and requires an equine flight attendant for the duration of the journey.
“We confirm that all the regulations and requirements are being thoroughly implemented and met without any exceptions,” the spokesperson wrote.
He said the rerouted itinerary through Seattle added “a few hours” from its original flight plan, resulting “in a total flight time of 17 hours and 52 minutes on the concerned journey to Kagoshima.”
“We are committed to safe and quality transportation of our clients’ consignment to its final destination. We abide by all relevant operating procedures, and by the rules and regulations set forth by IATA and all concerned authorities,” he wrote.
However, in a letter to Mitchell dated Jan. 6, 2023, the director of operations for Manitoba Region of the CFIA acknowledged the 28-hour limit was exceeded.
That is corroborated in the ATIP report, in a report by a CFIA inspector Dec. 12 that states: “A review of the flight was done and it ended up on the 30-hour mark.”
In a response to Mitchell, the CFIA said “no enforcement actions related to this flight are planned. The CFIA continues to remind all parties involved in the export of horses by air about their responsibilities, including the importance of having appropriate contingency plans for all shipments and co-ordinating ground and air transport logistics to complete shipments within the 28-hour limit.”
Petition to ban live export of horses
Up to 4,000 horses are shipped annually by air from Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg to Japan for human consumption, Lumax said, adding that they sell for $8,000-9,000 each. Exported horses are fattened in Japan before being slaughtered, according to the CFIA.
Advocacy groups are calling on Marie-Claude Bibeau, the minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, to fulfil a December 2021 mandate letter from Prime Minister JustIn Trudeau telling her to “ban the live export of horses for slaughter.”
They have a high-profile champion: Canadian musician Jann Arden, who has witnessed many horse shipments and calls the whole process “heinous.”
Arden has started an awareness campaign, Horseshit.ca, urging Canadians to contact their MPs and sign a House of Commons petition calling for a ban on this practice.
The petition notes the Liberal Party committed to banning the live export of horses for slaughter in its September 2021 election campaign platform.
Sponsored by NDP MP Alastair MacGregor, the petition will be presented in the House of Commons after it expires on Feb. 7.
“The world is watching,” Arden said in an interview with CBC News. “When we’re being really taught and scolded about how we are living our lives, thinking local, eating local, eating less meat, watching our carbon footprint, not flying around, never mind flying horses every few weeks, 8,000 kilometres, so that rich people can eat raw horse meat.”
Lumax vehemently disagrees with a ban, which he says will kill an industry bringing in tens of millions of dollars to the Canadian economy — money that is reinvested on feed, equipment, diesel, staff salaries and the colts bred for this purpose.
In a statement to CBC News, Bibeau said “we are engaging with key stakeholders to determine the best course of action to ban the export of live horses for slaughter. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency continues to enforce the relevant regulations to ensure that horses are fit for travel and transported humanely.”
A CFIA spokesperson could not say if the issue will come up at the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, in May.
Part of the complication is how to make changes without impacting the transportation of horses for other reasons, like going to the Olympics or to London for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.