The following is a recounting of a recent experience at an auction in Ontario, as seen through the eyes of a supporter:
It’s 2:30pm. The horses go through the auction ring sometime around 3:30, but exactly when the horses are put through depends on the number of animals at the sales barn. I drive up to the parking lot – I see a large number of horse trailers. This is a good sign, as eight horses from a backyard breeder are rumoured to be sold at this rural auction today. I had seen posts on social media and a member of the auction staff had told me about the horses coming here today. The large number of horse trailers suggest people are interested in rescuing these horses and preventing them from going to meat.
I park and walk quickly through the parking lot passed the outdoor vendors who are packing up their wares at the end of the day. This is the end of the day for them, but not for the animals here – many without hay or water for several hours. For the animals here, this just the beginning of the long journey toward the kill box. They will be forced into crowded trailers and driven for hours in the hot sun, and deprived of hay, water, and rest for 36, 54 hours or more. And then they will be unloaded into a kill pen or a feedlot. At the kill pen they will be prodded and shoved along towards a death that may take more than one bullet. At a feedlot they will have to struggle and fight for food with more crowded long trailer journeys ahead of them. This is the early part of the journey towards slaughter for these animals.
I have no idea if the horses have gone through the sale or not. I walk through the office, and towards the sales ring. I can see the backs of men in front of the doors – the place is packed. There are young cows going through the sale – no horses. I look into the audience on bleachers and see that there are a lot of women present. This is also a good sign. The women who come to this auction usually are here to rescue horses. The livestock dealers are almost always men. There is some hope with these women here as women show up to rescue horses from the kill buyers. I feel somewhat relieved. Back out in the office, I look at the board – horses are several animals away from going through. I have time to look around walk over to where the horses have been kept in pens in the past.
There are only 2 horses – a dappled grey percheron gelding and a standardbred mare. I caught my breath when I saw the dappled grey – he reminded me of one of our own horses who escaped the clutches of the kill buyers here a few years ago. But no sign of the 8. Perhaps they didn’t load? Where are the eight from the backyard breeder? There was a white one, a chestnut and some foals of different ages in the pictures posted on the internet. Hmm, where are they?
I walked back toward the office to ask the staff. There were 3 women standing outside the doors. “Excuse me,” I said, “do you know anything about the horses here today?”
“Those two over there aren’t together, there is an old guy who brought the standardbred. He’s walking around and would know about her,” a shorter woman with her hair in a bun answered.
“But I thought there would be more,” and I looked back towards where the percheron was
“Oh yes, there are eight, way in the back,” she said, “Way in the back,” and she waved her arm/
“I can’t see them. How can I see them?” I asked
“You have to climb the fence, and then go through the maze of gates and pens. I’ll show you, come with me,” she started to walk toward the animal enclosure.
“Oh, no I am not going to climb fences it’s ok, I was just wondering about those horses,” I said.
“Yes, they are from a breeder, the woman died. The colts are all inbred. And one of the horses, a mare with a baby, she looks like she’s dehydrated. They’ve had no hay or water since Thursday morning”
“Thursday morning?! What? Where’s the inspector, where’s the vet?” I stepped back.
“The vet was here”
“Didn’t he see them?” I asked
“The inspectors are all over this place,” a woman shook her head. I had no idea whether she thought this was a good thing as the inspectors could then enforce regulations, or whether she thought this was a bad thing as she herself could not break regulations.
“But no food or water since Thursday morning, that’s over 48 hours,” I pointed out.
One of the women joined in the conversation at this point “I was going to bring my mares here.”
I said “You wouldn’t want to do that, there is a high chance that they would go to slaughter. You would not want that for them.” And she just stared at me. I repeated my point “If you bring horses here, there is a very high chance they could go to slaughter and that is a horrible thing to do. You wouldn’t want that for your horses.” She stared, blankly.
And she went on “I brought a pony here a few years ago, they wouldn’t let him go through the sale. They said he was lame – broke his leg or something. He was fine though when he got on the trailer. I don’t know what happened.”
I listened to her, here was a woman who had no concern about the condition of her pony nor about the fate of her mares. So, it seems I was naively mistaken about women at the auction – this one was planning to bring 2 mares and was annoyed that her pony was turned away from the sale. She did not seem to have cared that he had an injury that would have caused him considerable pain. I wondered later what on earth happened to that pony. And the mares? She will probably bring them one day, pocket some money. When bored she will buy more horses and keep the cycle of backyard buying and dumping at auction for quick money when bored.
As I stood there listening to their conversation I texted my vet about the horses not having hay or water since Thursday. My vet is the duty vet at this auction. I mentioned also that I had been told that one of the horses appeared to be dehydrated.
I turned the subject back to the 8 horses from the backyard breeder – “Do you know if people here are thinking of buying them or rescuing them from the kill buyers.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of people here today, some of them are interested.” I wondered if these women were linked to the family of the breeder who died or if they were somehow connected to kill buyers. The one with the bun did seem to care about the horses, but the other two did not seem so interested.
I walked back to my car and called the provincial inspector for livestock auctions and left a voicemail message – informing him that I had been told that there were horses without hay or water for over 48 hours and where was the oversight. He called me back right away. He called the vet also and ensured that the horses would be thoroughly checked out by the vet. He also said there was someone who was to inspect this auction today; but that person was unavailable. Hmm.. hopefully the question of hay and water will be raised.
And the outcome for these horses? A few of them were sold for between $800 and $1000. That’s a lot of money for this auction. The horses sold for these higher prices went to private homes. Hopefully they are good homes where the owners are dedicated, responsible, resilient, and compassionate. The others I was told went ‘somewhere else’. Where? Kill buyers I would think for $100 to $200. People like the woman with the 2 mares and the pony may hear about the $1000 and think that’s a good amount of money for an unwanted horse. That high price might just motivate her to ship her 2 mares to the same auction. She might find the gamble exciting – how much money she will get for them. And she can gamble with the fate and lives of her mares.
And what became of the horses and my calls regarding hay and water? The horses went through the sale, dehydrated or thirsty or not. Hopefully for the next few weeks, inspections at this auction will be just a bit more thorough. But then again, more backyard breeders and bored owners will bring their unwanted horses here where the public cannot see them before the sale.
In the past the horses were in outside pens, where members of the public could see them easily. The public used to be able to easily photograph the horses, ponies, or donkeys, and send pictures to friends who might be interested. By being able to interact through the pen’s wooden slats, we were able to get a sense of the nature of the horse, his/her age, and temperament. We were able to start to form a bond in fact. But now the horses are hidden away in the depths of the pens. I guess the management of the auction grew wary when members of the public showed care, put a bucket of water into the pen, offered some grass to a hungry pony. Or insist on regulations being followed. Why? Did the caring people who offered a handful of grass or a pat on the nose elevate the horses to a social place of being cared for, of an animal that mattered? Did the management resent that compassion and care? One would think that placing the horses where the public could see them would work to increase the interest in buying them and thus increase the sale price and profits. Perhaps the interest in the horses and the insistence by some members of the public that the horses be treated with care and respect made the management feel uncomfortable. Now the horses are hidden in the back pens and we do not know that they are there. We do not know who they are, where they came from, or even if they have access to hay and water.
Just as the horses at auction are hidden, Canada hides the number of horses slaughtered in this country. A dark secret indeed.