The Alberta SPCA is investigating abuse allegations after photos of injured auction horses surfaced online in mid-October.
Social media posts from the Vold Jones & Vold (VJV) Beaverlodge auction on Oct. 13 show a horse with a bloody leg and another with an eye bulging out of its socket.
The event was the first livestock auction Sarah Hill had attended. The High Prairie woman has always loved horses, having bought her first one 23 years ago, but she was appalled at VJV’s conditions.
Hill said her mission was to save just one, and she did. After walking through “300 metres of slime” to pick up her three-year-old horse a few days after the auction, she said he was in decent shape, but his hip was sore from what she believes may have been a shock from a cattle prod-like object.
“I couldn’t take his hip tag off for a day,” Hill said. “This horse, I can brush him now, I can halter him, once he understands I’m not going to hurt him.”
She plans to rehabilitate and re-home the animal after what she calls a horrifying experience.
“It was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had but it was also one of the most rewarding experiences, too, because I got to bring [her horse] Sunny home,” Hill said.
She said some animals looked like they needed veterinary care to be put out of their misery.
“There are laws in place to intervene with this type of treatment of animals and I don’t understand why, because it’s an auction, it’s allowed; animal abuse is to be tolerated for one day,” Hill said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“The people that are experienced with horses don’t treat horses like that,” she added. “When I was at the auction, I just saw a bunch of people who didn’t have any respect for horses and don’t understand the horse.”
She has been writing to each level of government and is glad photos are surfacing.
“People should see where their horses are going,” Hill said. “If they think their horses are going to get a great home from the auction, chances are they’re not.”
Dan Kobe, communications manager for the Alberta SPCA, said he received several complaints about the Oct. 13 auction. An investigation was opened that could take weeks, Kobe said.
Sections 8, 9 and 10 of the province’s Animal Protection Act cover the sale and transportation of livestock, with one regulation saying, “no person shall unload any livestock at a livestock market or livestock assembling station that, by reason of infirmity, illness, injury, fatigue or other cause, is unable to stand or is unduly suffering.” If livestock becomes “unable to stand or to compete with other livestock for space, feed or water,” the operator must segregate the animal from the rest and notify the person who delivered it of its condition.
‘Experience it for themselves’
Jennifer Nelson, from Fort St. John, B.C., fell in love with a horse that was destined to become meat about four months ago.
“If you can try to save a couple and get ’em into a new home, it makes it worth it.”
Through Humanity for Horses, Nelson bids on horses based on a buyer’s budget and criteria. She bought 13 horses at the Oct. 13 auction, and she could not have a more different experience of the event. Conditions that day were normal — nothing to raise alarms, she said.
“Horses are in pens and they’re waiting to be pushed through the auction,” Nelson said. “The stands were pretty packed — 400, 500 people there.”
She said the majority of the animals appeared to be healthy, with no signs of distress.
“There was one injured one that maybe should not have been at the auction — it should have been put down by its previous owners instead of going through the auction,” Nelson said. “So that was one of the only real concerns for me. Just humanely, it’s not right for an injured horse to be put through that.”
She said the first horses through are the rideable ones — likely destined for a home and worth thousands. Next are the “run throughs” — the ones who aren’t in their prime.
“This year, for hay, it’s very scarce and some people just can’t afford to feed them all,” Nelson said.
She bought a horse for $25 that day, explaining the low price is because meat buyers won’t bid on grey or white horses.
Nelson said the horse with the eye injury was not mistreated by its owner and was looked at by a vet. How the animal got hurt — whether the eye was an abscess, a tumor or damaged by a foreign object — Nelson doesn’t know.
Nelson said people shouldn’t blast the organization on social media before getting the facts straight.
“I understand they have a passion for these horses, but you also can’t go running somebody’s name into the dirt without knowing all the facts and jumping to conclusions,” Nelson said.
“I think they need to experience it for themselves, because you can’t believe everything you see on social media.”
Nelson has been to both VJV’s Beaverlodge and Dawson Creek auctions, which are run by the same auctioneers. Whoever brings the animal to market is responsible for the condition it’s in, and shouldn’t reflect on the auctioneers, she said.
“I don’t think it’s totally inhumane what they’re doing,” Nelson said. “Yes, it is sad, it’s absolutely sad when you see that they’re going to go for meat, but you can’t help them all.”
‘From the horse’s mouth’
Peter Raffan, manager of VJV Auctions, grew up in the business and has been at it for 30 years. He said 30 staff members were overwhelmed dealing with 300 horses on Oct. 13 — three times more than they expected, possibly due to hay shortages across Alberta.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re looked after when they get here, but we can’t control what somebody brought in,” he said.
Raffan said the horse had an injured, not broken, leg before it got to the auction, and it has since been seen by a vet and treated with antibiotics. He said they refuse animals who are injured, but that one sneaked by, along with the one who had the eye injury.
“We didn’t see it and unfortunately, it got by our staff,” he said.
“People are under the misconception that just because the horses are there that they’re going to go for slaughter,” Raffan added. “A lot of the horses don’t go for slaughter. If somebody wants to come rescue the horses, they’re more than welcome to come and bid on ’em, and come and get ’em. We’re not trying to hide anything in any way, shape or form.”
After phoning the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Raffan said they will be at the next horse sale on Dec. 1 in Dawson Creek; the next Beaverlodge event won’t be until next year.
“They’ll be checking the horses that are coming in so we make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Raffan said.
“They’re an extension of the government,” he added. “They can be here and they can police it because we don’t have the ‘manpower’ to do it. I can’t reiterate enough: we can’t control — out of 300-and-some horses, we only had two that were in that bad of shape. I thought we were doing pretty good out of 300 head. The other 298, how come they didn’t make Facebook and there wasn’t some positive news on it?”
Raffan asks that people don’t take photos during the auction because things get “blown out of proportion on social media.” He would prefer people bring it to the auction’s attention instead of posting online.
For the couple of hours animals are under Raffan’s watch, their care is very important to him.
“We do our very best we can to handle all the animals that we can in the best of care that they would be at home, maybe even better than some places, but I can’t speak for everybody,” he said.
“What I would suggest is people, if they don’t know very much about auctions, I guess they could attend them and see what actually goes on, because the animals have feed and water when they get here,” Raffan said. “We try to look after them to the best of our ability.”
“It’s better to hear from the horse’s mouth than the other end.”