Widespread cruelty in blood harvesting industry

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MAST (the Icelandic food and veterinary authority) is investigating undercover footage from AWF/TSB (Animal Welfare Foundation/Tierschutzbund Zürich), showing animal cruelty as blood is taken from pregnant mares in Iceland.

Beaten with metal bars

The video was posted by AWF/TSB on YouTube and shows people hitting the horses with rods and sticks. “The practices shown there appear to run counter to operating requirements that are intended to assure the welfare of the horses. MAST takes this matter very seriously,” a statement says. 

There are close to 5,400 so-called blood mares on 119 farms in Iceland. ‘Blood mares’ are pregnant horses whose blood is routinely taken and sold. It has a variety of applications, including in the making of a drug that artificially induces young sows to come into heat earlier than they naturally would do. It is profitable for the pork industry if weaned sows fall pregnant unnaturally early. 

Regulatory failure 

Welfare is supposed to be ensured through monitoring of the horses themselves and their living conditions, but also during the blood taking process as well. “That operation is regulated by mandates set by MAST. The blood taking itself is the responsibility of the biotechnology company Ísteka ehf., which uses the product. Vets employed by the company see to the process of blood taking. There is a requirement for active monitoring of Ísteka ehf., with the horses’ welfare during the blood taking period and annual reports a part thereof,” the statement from MAST reads. 

The Bændablaðið agricultural magazine reported last December that Ísteka has needed to quadruple the size of its premises over three years due to its rapid growth. 

Stopped operations five times 

MAST says it visits around one-in-five blood mare operations every year during the blood taking period, and another one-in-five over the winter. Operations are halted if serious concerns are raised—something which MAST has apprently ordered at five locations since 2014. None of those cases, reportedly similar to the conditions in the video, were reported to police.   

The MAST statement adds that monitoring suggests blood taking in Iceland is within set limits for health and welfare and that death due to accident or illness among blood mares is among the lowest rate known in animal husbandry. A MAST vet specialising in horses says, however, that the video online clearly shows monitoring needs to be improved. Sigríður Björnsdóttir says the video was sent to MAST before the weekend and work is underway to identify which farms in was taken on. 

Ban the industry 

Inga Sæland, leader of Flokkur fólksins (the People’s Party) says it will be one of her top priorities after Alþingi opens today to again propose a total nationwide ban on the blood mare industry. Inga and three other MPs already proposed banning the industry in March this year. “This blood mare industry is, to us, a gruesome form of agriculture to say the least. We would much rather help farmers who want to carry on in the countryside to move into something completely different. The methods we see in this video, for example, say all that needs to be said.” 

Sigríur Inga Sigurjónsdóttir, Westfjords region vet, says it was hard to watch the video: 

“I find it disturbing. I don’t have the words. I really find it hard to watch such horror, but I did so in order to be informed about the matter. But this is horrible. First of all, the horses need to be relatively tamed. There needs to be better monitoring. As can be seen in this video, there are many accident traps in these boxes. They are tied up in a horrible way and the most-determined mares try hard to get out of this situation. I would suggest that this be banned[...]This is animal abuse of the clearest kind." 

The Icelandic Horse Trainers’ Association writes in a statement online: 

“The main goal of the trainers’ association is to support correct and good training and treatment of the Icelandic horse. The board of the association concludes that for these doubtful operations, the minimum requirement should be that the horse is tame and calm. If she has not received the necessary preparation, or does not have the temperament for it, vets should be obliged to refuse to carry out the procedure. To use sedatives in this procedure should not be an alternative to training. The association board views this as an exposé on systematic animal abuse that is no better than the horror videos that have been shown from slaughterhouses in various places overseas—quite the opposite, indeed, as these horses are repeatedly subjected to the same situation.” 

Inga Sæland, MP and leader of Flokkur fólksins, says Iceland is marketed around the world for its natural beauty, and that many images of the country include its famous horse breed.

“This video is going to be shown all over the place this evening. I mean, Germany, France, and other places. It has come before the European Parliament as well, this blood mare farming, and I think for our image globally, it will be advantageous if Alþingi tackles this head-on and shows that we won’t tolerate this sort of treatment of animals.” 

Animal rights lawyer Árni Stefán Árnason says: 

“These are semi-wild animals and it is unavoidable, unfortunately, to treat them like they do there by beating them with blunt force and the like. That's what's in this video. Just as we suspected. These overseas agents were banned from seeing [the operations] one-and-a-half years ago. They then came back with hidden cameras and this is the material that was obtained.” 

Árni concludes that at least six animal welfare laws are broken in the video, that MAST has been warned about the industry regularly since 2003, and that he personally has lost faith in the Authority. He wants Iceland to ban the blood mare industry, just as the European Parliament has recommended. 

"We see a man walking around with a blunt instrument and beating the mares to get them into the blood collection booths,” Árni says. “This was filmed this autumn with hidden cameras. Dogs are seen chasing the animals and biting them. We see a mare who feels so bad that she finally falls down and is left hanging just by the head. She is pregnant, or has recently given birth, and you can see an employee beating her." 

The AFW/TSB footage, in the form of a 20-minute documentary, can be seen on YouTube, here. Viewers are likely to find the film disturbing.

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23.11.2021 - 11:36