Human Transportation of ‘Downers’

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CALGARY, Alta. – “Non-ambulatory animals are a controversial example of at-risk animals. There is no common understanding of whether or not they are fit for transport,” says Dr. Gord Doonan, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) chief, humane transportation of animals.

CFIA is conducting a non-ambulatory livestock consultation to develop criteria on what constitutes ‘unfit for transport.’

In Alberta, downers are defined as “an animal that cannot rise, remain standing or walk without assistance.” The Federal Health of Animals Act prohibits the loading and transport of animals that “by reason of infirmity, illness, injury, fatigue, or any other cause cannot be transported without undue suffering during the expected journey.”

There is a wide range of opinion on the acceptability of loading an animal whose capacity to withstand the stress of transportation is in some way compromised. Conflicting views among and within the various sectors and organizations have led to inconsistent decisions and practices. Dr. Duane Landals, registrar of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, says “The most humane method of handling non-ambulatory animals is to kill them on-farm. Shipping sick animals is never acceptable, but some injured animals can be transported if proper safeguards are followed (i.e. deep bedding, segregation).” The key is loading – can a downed animal be loaded humanely?

“No one can ever load a downer humanely,” says Dr. Terry Whiting, epidemiologist with Manitoba Agriculture. “The act of loading is the HACCP control point of animal welfare. We need to balance our purpose for an animal (food) versus its own interests.”

Whiting suggests that animal welfare and utilitarian principles must be balanced so that we may “survive the public criticism of animal agriculture.”

A recent Canadian Veterinary Journal article on non-ambulatory livestock transport says “It is simply impossible to move mature non-ambulatory livestock humanely, no matter how close to the slaughter plant. Early treatment, on-farm slaughter or euthanasia should be the course of action to deal with these animals.”

Economically, it is also difficult to justify transporting most downers. A CFIA survey found that almost four out of 10 non-ambulatory dairy cows could not pass inspection for human consumption.

“Considering the extra time and labour involved from initial loading through to processing at the slaughter plant, industry must ask whether it really pays to ship, transport, and accept these animals. It seems that economic pressure is a weak argument for subjecting a sizeable portion of downer animals to the additional stress of transportation,” says the article.

In Alberta, the Livestock Transportation Regulations state “No shipper or operator shall load or transport livestock that, by reason of infirmity, illness, injury, fatigue or any other cause, would suffer unduly during transport.”

However, an exception is made for livestock being transported to a veterinary clinic or directly to slaughter “as long as the livestock is loaded and transported humanely.”

The Alberta SPCA investigated how the downer cow in Canada’s single case of BSE was transported and found that an effort had been made to ship her humanely. Morris Airey, director of enforcement for the Alberta SPCA says “Under the current legislation, an offence was not committed.”

Alberta’s livestock industry is currently addressing this exception in the regulations seeking to make it illegal to ship downers to slaughter.

Alberta Pork, Alberta Milk and the Alberta Beef Producers are setting the bar higher with humane handling guidelines for each industry. The organizations and others in Alberta have taken the stand that downers should not be loaded or transported.

Ontario’s Transporting Non-Ambulatory Animals Regulations under the Livestock and Livestock Products Act states a veterinarian must issue a certificate for direct transport to slaughter for downer animals. Mike Draper, chief inspector OPSCA, says “A veterinarian has to certify that transport can be done humanely.” Otherwise, the animal must be humanely killed on-farm. However, nobody oversees transporters to ensure they have the equipment and training to handle non-ambulatory livestock.

– This article was reprinted with permission of Alberta Farm Animal Care.

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