Politics, Community & Society > Live Exportation - Australia's Sheep Ship Hell

Live Exportation -
Australia's Sheep Ship Hell

Published: September 6, 2009

Imagine being told you are going on a free mystery tour overseas. You are travelling economy and you don't know where you will end up. You cannot decline this invitation. What you will not be told is that you may not survive the trip. You will hate the food and you have to sleep standing up. You won't be flying, instead you will spend up to a month on a ship and you will be sailing to your death.

This is what Australia does to millions of sheep every year as the world's largest live exporter. There are two sides to the argument about whether live exports should cease. The exporters say that there is a demand for live sheep and cattle and that Australia is meeting a demand. The animal rights activists say it is simply cruel and unessesary.

A group of animal protection agencies have formed a coalition called Handle With Care (HWC) which is fighting to stop live exports and improve conditions for animals on ships. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is a member of the coalition. Emily Reeves from the WSPA explains the condition on board the ships. "Livestock carriers can carry up to 100,000 sheep at a time. The sheep are housed on decks in pens with an average of three sheep per square metre. They are fed pellets and given water in troughs in each pen. Regulations state that a vet must travel on board to every voyage to the Middle East, and there are stock men present also. Despite these regulations however, tens of thousands of sheep still die during the sea voyage every year. The sheer number of animals on each voyage and the conditions sheep endure such as high temperatures, high humidity and rough seas mean that deaths are unavoidable". The HWC state that many sheep who are used to grazing in pastures, sunlight and fresh air go into shock after being confined in tight spaces with no ventilation. They have trouble eating the pellets they are fed. Some may stop eating altogether and die from a condition called inanition. The HWC claim that this is the cause of up to 47% of deaths. 27% of deaths are also caused by Salmonellosis which is brought on by poor the conditions. A sea voyage to the middle East may take up to 35 days, so the mental stress and trauma kills another 12% of sheep.

Australia has a good reputation in regard to animal welfare. Export animals are protected by government guidelines, but this protection ceases once they arrive in the foreign country. The suffering continues while the ship is in dock. One ship may make multiple stops and which makes the trip even longer. There is no air circulation and the humidity is intense. This makes the sheep even weaker. The animals face even more cruelty by the humans taking them off the ship. The animals are treated like a commodity without any regard for their well being. The HWC has video footage of sheep being picked up by limbs and thrown into the boot of cars or tied to car roofs like luggage. It has also been reported that some countries slash the tendons in legs and stab out their eyes to control their fearful lashing about.

Many sheep are ritually slaughtered at homes but the tools they use are barbaric. A practice called Halal is used by some Muslims, this process includes the slashing of blood vessels in the throat and being left to bleed to death. Pre-stunning is one way to minimise the cruelty felt. This is usually carried out in abbatoirs. Islamic leaders in Australia have approved the use of stunning animals. The problems is that stunning is not carried out in private homes.

The live exporters claim that they are working hard to improve the conditions for animals being exported both on the ship and at their destination. Australia has field workers to educate importers on the best way to humanely treat animals. They also claim to be improving infrastructure at the docks to increase the efficiency of removing animals from ships. While the exporters say they are trying, Emily says that the evidence so far shows that even this is failing. "Yes it is correct that the live export industry has provided training for animal handlers in the Middle East. But the continuing supply of video footage taken in places where training has already been conducted proves that these efforts are dismally inadequate".

There are systems in place where animals can be humanely slaughtered in and processed in Australia and the meat chilled and exported. Handle With Care is fighting to expand chilled meat exports and claim this will increase jobs in Australia. It encourages increasing the supply to domestic abbatoirs and thereby reducing the costs, which makes Australia more competetive. Emily says, "The only way to protect animals from unnecessary cruelty is to slaughter them humanely in Australia. This not only protects our animals but creates more much-needed jobs in meat processing in Australia."

The live exporters' response is that there is a strong demand for live animals overseas and they must meet the demands of the importing nations. The exporters say that if Australia completely pulled out of live exports then other less-equipped and less-regulated countries would fill in the gap. A spokesperson for live exporters says that these other countries do not share Australia's commitment to animal welfare or do not have the resources for improving the conditions.

This is a very controversial issue with both sides claiming they are trying to meet in the middle. Handle with Care wants live exporting to stop, but are also striving to improve the conditions for the exported animals. The HWC is not giving up but instead are trying to minimise the trauma experienced by the animals. The live exporters say they are improving conditions and meeting the demands of animal rights groups. This is a long fight and both sides are motivated by emotions. One side fights for the prevention of cruelty, while the other strives for the survival of an industry ay any cost.

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