Walking through the Calgary International Airport, you'll pass a bronze statue of wild horses running.
Entitled "Breakaway," the immortalized horses were intended to be a metaphor for Calgary's spirit and strength.
But there's another story of horses at the Calgary airport, a story some veterinarians are calling a "huge animal welfare issue."
For years, animal advocacy groups like the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) have opposed the transport of live draft horses to Japan for slaughter. In Canada, alongside Mexico and parts of Europe, this practice is legal, unlike countries like the United States where horse slaughterhouses are banned.
Horse meat is a delicacy in Japan, and places like Kumamoto specialize in fresh dishes like basashi—horse sashimi. Horse oil is also a sought after beauty product in Hokkaido, where it's used to treat wrinkles, acne and sunburns.
Slaughtering and selling horse meat has been outlawed in the United States, whereas in Canada, there are four active federal slaughterhouses producing horse meat for human consumption—two of which are in Alberta.
While most of Canada's horse meat is exported to countries around the world, horse meat is still locally available, especially in Quebec.
Canada is one of the only countries in the world still shipping live horses for slaughter, almost all of which are destined to be butchered in Japan, which is now Canada's number one importer of live horses.
While groups like the CHDC had hoped to see horse exports decline over the years, recent data from Statistics Canada show 1,350 live horses exported as a commodity to Japan between January and March 2017, a batch valued at more than $3.5 million.
Local horse producers, including mass operations like Bouvry Exports in Fort Macleod, ship thousands of horses each year by plane, a business that pulls in millions for Canadian exporters.
According to data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the 6,976 live horses shipped to Japan for slaughter in 2014 generated more than $18 million. Between 2012 and 2014, upwards of $40 million in Canadian dollars were seen from the export of more than 14,000 horses.
The number of live horses shipped from Canada to Japan have dropped since January, but prices per horse have increased; according to Statistics Canada, the average price per horse in February 2017 was $1,927, compared to March's average of $5,490.
Raised solely for meat in remote, muddy feedlots in Alberta, it's not just the final destination of these horses that troubles vets. Dr. Judith Samson-French, a private veterinarian who owns Banded Peak Veterinary Hospital in Bragg Creek, said her primary concern is how the horses are being transported.
When ready for shipping, local exporters load horses into large trailers where they are taken to the Calgary airport. The horses are then loaded two, three, even four to a crate where critics have claimed they can remain for up to 26 hours until they land in Japan.
"They're way too crowded," said Samson-French, who has been working with groups like the CHDC to lobby for the humane treatment of slaughter horses in transit. "They're trapped in wooden crates for up to 26 hours without access to food, water or medical care."
According to freedom of information documents obtained by the CHDC and provided to VICE, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) banned shipping draft horses—a breed that can weigh more than 900 kilograms—four to a crate because it was considered overcrowding and not compliant with animal health regulations.
Dr. Maureen Harper, a retired CFIA vet who worked with the federal government for 30 years, has spent a lot of time overseeing the transport of live animals. After coming across footage taken by animal rights activists like the CHDC in 2016 and 2017, Harper said she fears these animals are once again being shipped four to a crate, despite the ban put in place almost five years ago.
"When they're being crammed in like a can of sardines, the loading density is compromised," Harper said. "There's not enough room for them to stand properly, and if a horse goes down, it doesn't have a chance of getting up."
But CFIA officials dispute any suggestion of animal mistreatment, noting that there have been less than a dozen horse deaths recorded since 2012.
In an email, the agency said, "all horses are inspected by the CFIA prior to export by air" and inspectors "work diligently" to ensure all animals are "transported humanely in a way that does not cause injury or undue suffering."
Despite the agency's claim that all live horses shipped to Japan are transported humanely, there have been past incidents of horse injuries and death during these lengthy, overseas flights.
On a flight from Calgary in August 2012, six horses were found dead on arrival in Japan. Two months before that, CFIA recorded an incident of another horse on a trip from Calgary found dead "upside down in the crate."
A ban was then put in place after CFIA FOIP documents reported that overcrowded shipments "exceed the IATA (International Air Transport Association) live animal regulations by so much that it is likely to result in suffering."
Following the ban, a horse in a "high density compartment" went down in a shipment in 2013. It was stepped on by other horses in the crate for the remainder of the flight to Japan. That horse was also found dead on arrival.
After reviewing videos and photos taken by the CHDC and other local animal welfare proponents in the last 18 months, both Samson-French and Harper are worried the situation has not improved in recent years.
"You're affecting the well-being of animals—it's a little different than a sack of potatoes," Harper said. "I'm trying to shake the CFIA into reality. They can't ignore their own legislation and in doing so, possibly put animals in peril."
Video footage shot by the CHDC at the Calgary airport in March 2016 shown to VICE appears to show three draft horses in a crate, one horse so tall both ears are poking through the roof of the crate.
Current health of animals regulations state no animals are to be transported by air "unless each animal is able to stand in its natural position without coming into contact with a deck or roof."
Another photo from January 2017 shot at the Calgary airport appears to show four draft horses packed into a crate awaiting a flight to Japan. When asked about the recent photo, the CFIA responded that "containers of three or four horses could be permitted depending on the specific animals involved."
However, some scientists and animal experts say that should never be allowed. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), to avoid aggression leading to injury, "horses should always be transported in individual stalls or pens."
According to the journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, "high stocking density of horses during transport increases the incidence of falls and injuries." The study also noted that "horses with the smallest space allowance showed the highest number of aggressive interactions."
Current Therapy in Equine Medicine also reports that overly high stocking density results in "constant struggles among horses" because they have a difficult time maintaining balance. Regaining footing or avoiding stepping on a downed horse is also "clearly hampered by high density."
Former CFIA vet Harper said that not only are the long travel times for crated horses "extremely stressful," but large, unsegregated horses are exposed to biting and kicking.
Still, the CFIA maintains that "horses travel safely and comfortably without segregation."
CFIA said only 11 horse deaths have been recorded since 2012. But both Samson-French and Harper said that doesn't mitigate the hours of psychological and physiological stress these horses suffer during their crated trips to Japan.
"They rationalize it by saying that the animals are going to be slaughtered anyways, but that's the wrong attitude to take," she said. "That's all the more reason they need to be treated in a humane way. If we don't step up to the plate with respect to the welfare of animals, who's going to?"
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