Honouring Slain Horses at Ontario’s Barton Feeders
Owen Sound, once a busy port city, is strategically located at the mouths of the Pottawatomi and Sydenham Rivers on an inlet of Georgian Bay in Ontario. Tourism and agriculture are integral to the local economy. The Niagara Escarpment and Bruce Trail wind around the town which serves as the gateway to the Bruce Peninsula.
For decades, Owen Sound had the dubious distinction of being the town to take unwanted horses for slaughter. Even until recent years, people in Ontario’s horse community still believed taking horses to Owen Sound for slaughter was an option. If you look it up today, there’s little information to find about Barton Feeders.
For some time, I’ve been drawn to find out more about Barton Feeders and particularly where it was located. There has never been much information about who owned the plant and how long it operated. Also, there’s no record about how many horses’ lives were taken, or how much profit was made from their meat.
In 2018 after retiring, I moved to the Owen Sound region, and did a bit of research, but came up with little. Recently, I decided to research it again, and this time found what I was looking for. Ironically, I’ve driven by the location countless times. The former abattoir is located on a by-pass road south of Owen Sound – convenient for avoiding the downtown area. Seeing the site before, I thought it may have been an old auction yard, but I now realized it was at one time a slaughter plant. Upon checking with a local news outlet, it was confirmed.
I can’t describe the emotions I felt. I’d seen this place many times, and was oblivious to the suffering that had taken place here. I thought about when I joined a small group of people at a dedication to horses whose lives were taken at the Norval Meats horse slaughter plant near Dundalk, Ontario after its closure in 2010. I knew I had to pay tribute again – this time for the thousands of horses whose lives ended cruelly at Barton Feeders.
In July 1980, Maclean’s magazine published an article on horse slaughter, mentioning Barton Feeders as the place to take old, sick and blind horses in Ontario. Yet the article revealed that young and healthy horses were slaughtered there too. The markets mentioned were mostly European and Asian. Reading between the lines, it exposes that horse slaughter, even 40 years ago, was a profit driven business to satisfy market demand for a beef alternative – not a final solution for old, sick and unwanted horses.
A disturbing statistic from the article was that 150,000 horses were slaughtered in 1979 in Canada – almost half of the country’s entire equine population! (This does not take into account any US exports.) It’s obvious though that half the country’s horses weren’t “unwanted”. There was a high demand for horsemeat, and Canada’s meat suppliers were profiting from that market, at one time worth over $100 million annually.
By 2004, the annual number was down to around 50,000. In 2007, the USA stopped horse slaughter, and Canada’s US imports increased to absorb their numbers. It peaked in 2008 to over 113,000, but since then the numbers have steadily decreased. In 2020 less than 25,000 horses were slaughtered in Canada, including US imports.
Statistics have to be included in any discussion regarding this delicate subject, which many people – especially horse people – have strong opinions about. How can the numbers fluctuate so drastically, and why has this business been on a steady decline since 2008?
Before 2004, Canada had no national voice in defence of horses going to slaughter for human consumption. The mainstream population in large part had no idea this hidden industry existed. Even people in the horse community knew little about it, except that it was supposed to serve a purpose for unwanted horses.
In that year, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) was formed. Since that time the CHDC has made it their mission to expose the industry and educate Canadians and the world about the risks facing all our horses. People now are more aware of the dangers lurking for our horses – that they may end up in the wrong hands.
More people are keeping their horses through advanced age, knowing their equine companions have served them well, and deserve compassion and a cruelty-free end of life. The current slaughter numbers show that people are likely breeding their horses more responsibly, and more than ever we’re all aware there are good horses available for purchase or adoption – horses that deserve another chance.
While the CHDC continues to work to ban the slaughter of our horses in Canada, the industry continues, with only two plants owned by one family; Bouvry Exports in Alberta, and Richelieu Meats in Quebec. Ontario no longer has any federally licensed horse slaughter plants.
It’s gratifying to know Barton Feeders is long closed, and no plants exist in Ontario. It’s also gratifying to see that horse slaughter is on a continual decline in Canada. Now it’s time for the plants in Alberta and Quebec to close as well.
In a poignant gesture, I visited the old Barton Feeders site and paid tribute with flowers and a poem I wrote for the horses whose lives have been taken at Canadian slaughter plants, called Final Steps. In my observance there, I prayed for the horses lost there, and for all horses to be allowed to live in the protected pastures of a civilized nation.
Who asked for you to run this Earth?
First wobbly steps at your loving mother’s side
They gazed in wonder at your beauty
Shaky steps turned into powerful strides
Across the fields, flying without wings
Wherever they asked you to run, no matter
You obeyed with trust and sense of duty
How many strides did you run for them?
How many proud moments did you deliver?
Nothing asked in return, always there to perform
Now here, this frightening and unfamiliar ground
Nothing of this Earth, this cold concrete and metal world
Every step a tentative one
No chance to revolt, it’s far too late now
If only you could have turned and run – never stopping, never looking back
But you came here, delivered to walk these final steps
Fulfilling man’s dream, denying the betrayal that cannot be
Destined to hit that wall – no steps beyond
Never to fly again, that cold metal wall you would never pass
Your steps were as shaky as those first steps at your mother’s side
It ended here – but that wasn’t enough
Not until you were frozen in a moment, nameless now, never to move again
Maimed, mutilated, prepared to be devoured
“Betrayal” does not describe the injustice
Beyond that final wall, your world is forever gone
Not an invisible rainbow bridge
But a barrier that blocked all life beyond it
And you were no more
~ Shelley Grainger