Tucked away in a quiet stand of trees behind a subdivision in the south-west of Salmon Arm, a herd of horses roam happily in their fenced-in clearing. A pleasant breeze carries the unmistakable mixture of hay, oats and the musky scent of the horses as they idly nibble at a bit of grass, swishing their tails side-to-side to ward off pesky flies. These horses look healthy and happy; from the proud geldings to the caring mares coaxing along their little foals, they look like animals that any horse-lover would be proud to own.
However, the truth is that these horses were destined not for a life out in the field, but to be shipped off to slaughter for human consumption.
Belinda Lyall, founder of the B.C. Horse Angels, makes daily trips to what she calls her little piece of paradise in Salmon Arm to care for horses she has rescued from slaughter. Currently, she has over 30 horses in her care which she looks after while attempting to find them permanent homes.
Her first encounter with the industry she rallies against was at a horse auction in 1998, and she says this glimpse into the practice made her realize she didn’t know the true extent of the industry. In Canada, upwards of 60,000 horses a year are sent to slaughter, their meat being exported largely to Europe and Japan.
“I went to my first auction where I saw all these horses, they were loading them up in the double-decker trucks that would come and pick them up, it was just horrific,” she says. “I think that’s when I went from being really naive in general. If anyone had told me about this before, I would have thought it was all a conspiracy theory.”
In the years to come, she worked to stop horses from selling to buyers who send them to the slaughterhouse. These people, known as kill-buyers, attend auctions to buy horses in bulk to be sold to the slaughterhouse for a profit, often unbeknownst to their original owners.
“I think owners take their horses to auction thinking that they are going to get bought and find a home. A lot of horse owners aren’t aware of this slaughter which is shocking to me,” she says.
In an effort to prevent this, Lyall began purchasing horses and caring for them while searching for permanent homes. With this idea she went on to start the B.C. Horse Angels, which was registered as a non-profit in 2017.
“There are probably about 100 horses a year being saved, some other people took them in and helped, but I was paying for it all, my bank account just went right down to nothing,” she says. “We’re slowly trying to build up to ideally 5,000 members across the province, we want to be able to take care of any horse in B.C. that needs to be taken care of.”
Aside from rescuing and re-homing these horses, one of her goals is to create awareness of an industry that operates largely out of the public eye, taking advantage of loose regulations in Canada to make a profit.
A loophole that Lyall says allows the Canadian horse slaughter industry to thrive is in the inspection process. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requires food animals to be raised free of substances unsafe for humans. Many drugs given to horses would cause a red flag in an inspection, but the documentation in Canada allows for buyers to feign ignorance of unsafe substances.
Horses sold for meat in Canada must be registered with an Equine Information Document (EID), and the seller must disclose whether the animal has been administered medications while in their care. Because the kill-buyers act as a sort of middle-man, they can say these horses have not been given any unsafe substances while in their care. This allows them to pass a CFIA inspection because records of medication are lost in the paper shuffle between multiple buyers.
Lyall believes that a more robust documentation and inspection process of horses used for meat would essentially stonewall the industry in Canada.
“They claim that we’ve taken care of it because the owner says no drugs, and the kill buyer says ‘nope I don’t know about any drugs,’ and then they get slaughtered. So, it’s just a joke. If they had to actually provide long-term documentation that all these horses have had these drugs they could no longer legally do it,” she says.