The Sunday Magazine

A woman's fight to rescue horses from slaughter in the B.C. Interior

For the past 20 years, Lyall has worked full-time rescuing reject horses from slaughter. She started B.C. Horse Angels, an operation she runs by herself. It’s a full-time job rehabilitating the horses and adopting the ones she can out to good homes.

Belinda Lyall has spent the last 20 rescuing and rehabilitating slaughter-bound horses

Belinda Lyall on the 30-acre property of B.C. Horse Angels in Salmon Arm, B.C. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)
Belinda Lyall is a 59-year-old lifelong lover of horses. The thought of beautiful old, injured or unwanted horses being dispatched to an abattoir was horrifying to her. So she's devoted her life -- and 30 acres near Salmon Arm, B.C. -- to saving and rehabilitating horses that would otherwise be bound for the slaughterhouse. Jennifer Chrumka tells the story in her documentary called "The Value of Horses."

Standing on a rolling pasture on the outskirts of the small town of Salmon Arm, B.C., Belinda Lyall takes stock of her horses. The herd of nearly four dozen is an assortment of breeds. Their backgrounds are as mixed as their colours. 

"These are all horses that would have shipped for meat, that had nowhere else to go. These are all reject horses," Lyall says as she surveys the 30-acre property she currently leases.

For the past 20 years, Lyall has worked full-time rescuing reject horses from slaughter. She started B.C. Horse Angels, a corporation she runs by herself, taking in slaughter-bound horses, rehabilitating them and adopting out the ones she can.   

"There's some that came in looking really out of proportion, because they were starved. They looked like they had no hindquarters and big heads. Then they grow into their body once they're being fed, and they're all stunning," said Lyall.

Two of the rescued horses that have been rehabilitated, grazing on the open pasture. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

$50-million industry

Agri-Food Canada reports that over 54,000 horses were slaughtered in this country in 2016. Horse slaughter is a federally-regulated industry that had an export revenue of $50 million in 2018 —  a fraction of the value of beef or poultry exports, but unlike most of the meat consumed in North America, the vast majority of horses weren't raised to be eaten as meat.

Lyall's first glimpse into the slaughter industry came when she attended a horse auction in 1998. She stumbled across a pen of horses that were about to be shipped off for meat to Bouvry Exports, the slaughterhouse in Fort Macleod, Alberta. 

"During the sale, you almost go numb when you're watching it," Lyall recalls. "And then it kind of would hit me sometimes about a week after sale, just out of the blue ... just the thought of what [the horses] would go through is just horrific." 

Ever since, Lyall buys as many slaughter-bound horses as she can by begging for donations on social media. To buy horses outright, she outbids the meat buyers or "kill buyers" at auction.

Part of the auction world

Nico Hanemaayer works for the B.C. Livestock Producers Co-Operative Association where they hold auctions twice a year in Kamloops, B.C. Selling horses to meat buyers is "just part of the business," he said.

"Everybody's allowed to buy at auction, that's just the way it is. So if he's the highest bidder, he's the highest bidder, that's just part of it," said Hanemaayer.

Nico Hanemaayer is the controller for B.C. Livestock in Kamloops, B.C. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

One of the fixtures in the horse slaughter industry in the B.C. Interior is 88-year-old Walter Ulansky. He has been buying and selling horses for most of his adult life and is the first to admit he's the target of criticism. 

"Out in the world, everybody that thinks of a horse buyer that ships horses for slaughter is a terrible guy, but don't feel that way. I'm not that terrible and I have shipped horses that way, but I've done them a favour," said Ulansky. 

Walter Ulansky standing with two horses he bought to sell for meat. ( Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

People who support the slaughter industry, like Ulansky, see it as a viable pathway for dealing with the large number of unwanted and neglected horses in Canada.

'A tough thing to deal with'

Yet animal activists, like Lyall, hope that with enough awareness, the slaughter industry will be shut down, just like in the United States. In 2007, the U.S. government defunded inspections to slaughter facilities. 

Gayle Ecker, the Director of Equine Guelph at the University of Guelph, says if Canada were to put an end to horse slaughter, a five- or 10-year strategic plan would need to be developed.

"I think we can learn from the United States on what happened when they banned slaughter outright, because all of a sudden, [they] had 40,000 spaces for horses in rescue facilities and they estimated there were 100,000 horses that were considered unwanted. That's a tough thing to deal with," said Ecker. 

'It's about the horses'

Belinda Lyall with Gypsy, one of her first rescued horses. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

This fall, Lyall has spent her days pleading for donations of hay and building a shelter for the horses to get through the winter. She also bought two new horses that were bound for slaughter, bringing the number of horses at B.C. Horse Angels up to 42.

"Last thing I want is more horses. But it's about the horses and getting them safe. This mare is a prime example of a horse that would end up in the meat pen faster than you can blink if she was resold, I can guarantee that."

Click 'listen' above to hear the documentary. 


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