Shed a tear for the real horses too
Spielberg’s fictional War Horse is a tear-jerker. The continued suffering of discarded animals is a tragedy
Peter Fricker, Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, December 29, 2011
This week many Canadians will see Steven Spielberg’s new epic film, War Horse. Based on a children’s book and successful play, the film describes the horrors experienced by a horse requisitioned for service on the battlefields of the First World War. Like the play, which made even cynical critics weep, the film is an emotional bomb-shell. As one British reviewer said: “This is a movie that will be watched generation after generation, with each one crying and cheering in the same places.”
When it comes to the history of horses, and not just their sacrifices in the Great War, crying is perhaps the most appropriate reaction.
Since about 4000 BC, horses have been carrying us on their backs, pulling our wagons, tilling our fields and enriching our lives as companions. They have performed in our spectacles and competitions, from Olympic equestrian events to rodeos to prestigious horse races.
They have also died for us. Despite their sensitive nature as prey animals, man trained horses as instruments of war from almost the moment they were domesticated. From Alexander the Great’s cavalry to the wars of the 20th century, horses have shed their blood for all our great causes and ignoble follies.
Canada supplied thousands of horses for service in the Boer and First World Wars. The average life expectancy of a horse in the Boer War was six weeks. More than 300,000 died. The carnage escalated in the First World War, with some estimates putting the number of horse deaths on all sides at eight mil-lion. Since machinery replaced them on battlefields and in other working roles, horses have had some relief from the worst of their historical exploitation – but not entirely.
In early December, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) released undercover video footage of horses being inhumanely killed at a horse-slaughter plant in St. AndreAvellin, Quebec. Dr. Nicholas Dod-man, an animal-behaviour expert at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, viewed the footage and stated: “The process was terrifying for most of the horses and, in many cases, horribly inhumane.”
In 2010, the CHDC exposed the inhumane slaughter of horses at two “kill plants” – one in Alberta, the other in Quebec. The CHDC’s under-cover video showed terrified horses being shot with a .22-calibre rifle, with some regaining consciousness and taking several minutes to die. The CHDC criticized the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for failing to properly monitor the plants. Despite promised improvements, horses continue to suffer horrible deaths in Canadian slaughterhouses.
And why are they being slaughtered? A recent Forbes magazine online exposé on race horse slaughter revealed part of the answer. Journalist Vickery Eckhoff found that more than 10,000 U.S. thoroughbred horses are shipped annually to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. Many of these are young, healthy horses – their racing careers can end at three years old but they can live to 30. Now they are worth more as meat for dinner tables in Europe and Japan.
The racing industry and journalists who cover the sport are largely silent about this. As Eckhoff says: “For some reason, though, the media won’t talk about this spectacular pileup of dead horses. They’re too busy covering the fun and investment side of racing, like partnerships and syndicates and tax deductions for yearlings.”
Horse racing is just one source of discarded horses. From rodeos to riding stables to private pastures, unwanted horses routinely go to auction and then on to slaughter. It’s simple economics: Horses outlive their usefulness and they’re expensive to keep. It would be kinder to have a vet euthanize them (unless they’re lucky enough to be taken in by a rescue group) but that’s costly too, especially when selling for slaughter can bring up to $600 per horse.
The truth is that most of the industries and individuals who make use of horses don’t take responsibility for their welfare when they’ve finished exploiting them. Yet breeders keep churning out horses, which soon end up unwanted and, ultimately, standing terrified on the kill-floor.
Perhaps it is too much to ask those who profit from horses to ensure they live long and happy lives, but, given all their sacrifices, can we not even offer them a humane death?
If you find yourself in a theatre weeping for a fictional war horse from a faraway time and place, shed a tear for all the real horses who have not only suffered throughout history, but who continue to suffer here and now.