The heat dome that burned down British Columbia, killing at least 569 people and countless wildlife, has been linked to hundreds of thousands of farm animal deaths.
At least 651,000 farm animals were killed between June 24 and June 30, according to several industry groups that disclosed animal mortality data in access to information requests.
Camille Labchuk, lawyer and executive director of the Animal Justice advocacy group, obtained data on excessive deaths of chicks, laying hens, broilers and turkeys. Industry groups representing dairy cows and pigs said they did not keep such records.
“Farmers lose birds to injury, disease or predation on a normal basis,” said Amanda Brittain, spokesperson for the BC Egg Marketing Board. “But that would be a drop in the bucket compared to what was lost during the heated dome.”
Egg farmers in British Columbia, for example, lost 145,000 hens, or four percent of all laying hens in production that week, Brittain said.
There is a reason poultry have been hit hard. Birds cannot sweat, which makes them particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. When temperatures reach 41 ° C, no amount of feathers can regulate their temperature, so they are forced to cool down with water, shade or the occasional breeze. In the Fraser Valley, Brittain said, temperatures have exceeded 43 ° C for two consecutive days.
Wild birds have also suffered. Wildlife rehabilitation centers – from Oregon to British Columbia – have reported hungry and dehydrated raptor babies diving out of their nests to escape the heat in late June. Often confined to large barns, domesticated poultry faced high indoor temperatures.
Stefanie Nelson, executive director of the BC Broiler Hatching Egg Commission, said she worked up to 20 hours a day during the last week of June. Moving from one Fraser Valley farm to another, she shared tips on how to keep animals alive.
She said farmers were installing sprinklers on rooftops and spraying barn walls with hoses and pressure washers, all to keep heat out of the structure. Indoors, farmers with tunnel fans could draw in air from the outside. The cooling pads, on the other hand, provided a kind of “air conditioning for the chickens.” But in many cases, this was not enough.
For Labchuk, the death toll lays bare an agricultural sector without the surveillance necessary to ensure animal welfare.
She pointed to British Columbia’s Animal Cruelty Prevention Act, which states that farmers – or anyone for that matter – are responsible for “protecting the animal from circumstances that may put it in distress.”
“I think these producers have clearly breached this obligation,” Labchuk said.
The BC government, she said, currently relies on the SPCA to investigate complaints of cruelty or animal abuse. But with limited resources, Labchuck said the organization is often pushed to focus on pets such as cats or dogs.
BC SPCA Prevention and Enforcement Officer Marcie Moriarty said she had not received any complaints of farm animal cruelty related to the heat wave.
Even if something were to come forward, she said, the evidence has now disappeared and it would be highly unlikely that a case will pursue charges.
The BC SPCA has 34 special provincial officers to respond to 8,000 animal cruelty investigations per year. The organization wants the government of British Columbia to put in place a third-party verification process to proactively verify the thousands of farms in the province.
“Going forward, producers should take steps to respond,” Moriarty said. “This should not be seen as an unforeseen event, given climate change.”
With more heat waves, flooding and drought on the horizon, Labchuk said, it’s time to find a way to ensure the province has a sustainable and secure source of food.
“The elephant in the room is transitioning to a new food system,” Labchuck said. “It’s going to be more and more difficult to protect these animals.
Instead of pressuring farmers to prioritize the production of cheaper meat and eggs, the province should help the industry move to more regional food systems, said Kent Mullinix, director from the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
The COVID-19 outbreaks in poultry and meat factories have shown just how unstable a food system can be and prioritize “mega-operations,” Mullinix said.
Advocates of a regional food system say more small producers producing a greater variety of foods can withstand the shocks of a pandemic, drought and flood. If a farmer fails, the system holds up. The food is then sold directly to locals at farmers’ markets or as part of weekly vegetable box programs without an intermediary.
“I’m seeing a significant change, a palpable understanding that putting all of our eggs in the global industrial basket is probably not too smart,” said Mullinix, highlighting a 20-year drought that has plagued much of the American West. .
“We have been so negligent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is inevitable that many of these major food-producing areas around the world, including California, face a major collapse.”
Mullinix said he doesn’t know a single farmer who doesn’t want to do a good job or who wants the animals to suffer. At the same time, he said, with such deadly weather events set to return more often in the decades to come, subjecting animals to extreme heat on a regular basis “should give us pause.”
For representatives of industrial groups such as Brittain, looking south is not just a question of bad luck.
She said it was time to learn from farmers in parts of the United States who already experience regularly warm temperatures.
“With climate change, I think all of agriculture recognizes that heat waves like this are going to be normal,” Brittain said. “We need to have these broader conversations. “