Comment: We need to talk about live export, Australia

A rally to ban live animal exports in Melbourne, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. (AAP)

Everyday Australians are questioning the ethics of the live animal export trade. But politicians and industry leaders have no answers, writes Roslyn Wells.

Another week, another live export horror story. The latest incident of terrible animal cruelty to come to the Australian public’s notice was gut-wrenching video footage of cattle being brutalised and slaughtered in the street at the Eid festival of sacrifice in Mauritius in mid-October.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7th November 2013 “the footage shows bulls being roped at the neck and pulled off a small livestock truck without a ramp, then dragged on the ground of a feedlot by more than seven men ... one bull’s horn was broken when it was forced off the truck while another had water thrown over it to make it stand up. The bulls were hog-tied, including one that had its two front legs stamped on before six men held it down while another slaughtered the bull after two attempts to slash its throat.”

The Mauritius video footage also captured the unforgettable image of one young bull, tightly roped and tied to a wall by its head to await slaughter, fully cognisant of what was happening around him, his tear-stained dusty face clearly showing fear and distress. This is nothing short of torture.

In the 21st century is it really acceptable for farmers to send vulnerable animals half way around the world to be sacrificed? By consigning animals to this fate in countries with few or no welfare safeguards the live export industry is complicit in this grotesquely cruel practice. It is hardly credible or satisfactory to claim that they didn’t know, or that the profits involved somehow justify the suffering of these animals.

Once again it was investigators from the charity Animals Australia who identified and exposed the callous mistreatment and suffering of the unfortunate animals caught in a system both the live export industry and successive governments insist is “working”.  Once again the live export industry reacted with its usual shoot the messenger response and downplaying of community concerns and objections.

The new Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, an avowed supporter of the live export trade, urged people not to over-react, though exactly what constitutes an over-reaction in the face of such deplorable animal cruelty is debatable.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott also weighed in, reiterating the government’s support for the live export trade.

“We support the live export industry. I want to make that absolutely crystal clear,” said Mr Abbott. “It is a good industry for our country, it is a good industry for our farmers and it’s a good industry for our partners around the world. The existing system is designed to ensure that animals are not mistreated.”

The cognitive dissonance between Mr Abbott’s last statement and the reality of the live export trade could not be starker. The existing system may well be “designed to ensure that animals are not mistreated” but it’s clearly not working, providing no guarantee that animals will not be brutalised at their destinations – and now we learn that the live export industry wants to return to the days of self-regulation. This bid for self-regulation came just before the government’s disbandment of the Australian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AAWAC), a move condemned by the RSPCA, WSPA and Animals Australia.

The Export Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) is supposed to ensure that Australian animals exported live are followed throughout their journey to slaughter in an approved abattoir overseas but there have been repeated instances of “leakage” where animals are sold on, sometimes several times. The Mauritius footage came a week after the ABC’s Lateline program showed similarly distressing images of Australian sheep subjected to dreadful cruelty while also being sacrificed in the streets during the Eid festival in Jordan.

After the long sea voyage from Australia to the Middle East this was the awful fate that awaited these animals at their destination. As former live export vets have revealed, animals often endure gruelling conditions on board the live export ships as well, packed closely together, fed unfamiliar pellet food many refuse, with the heat, dehydration, high levels of ammonia from waste products and the stress of their unfamiliar situation compounding their suffering.

The government maintains that the live export trade is “a good industry for our country”, so setting aside the animal welfare issues for a moment, it is valid to ask how significant it really is to Australia’s economy. In fact, live animal exports account for just 0.3 per cent of our total exports, and most Australian animal farmers are not engaged in the trade. In 2012, 8 per cent of Australian cattle and 11 per cent of sheep were exported live. The shift away from live export is already occurring, with a 50 per cent increase in “boxed” lamb exports to the Middle East last year, worth $60 million more than live sheep exports to that market.

Contrary to the live export industry’s portrayal of this issue as a city versus country debate, with “extreme” animal activists versus farmers, the opposition to live export comes from right across Australian society. Many farmers involved in animal agriculture here are also strongly opposed to the live export trade, on ethical and cruelty grounds. The so-called animal activists are overwhelmingly ordinary Australians speaking out against the animal cruelty they repeatedly see in the live export trade, and calling for a more humane alternative – a transition to a chilled meat trade.

Regardless of where we live, city or country, we have every right to ask our politicians why we should be expected, unquestioningly, to support the live export trade when many of us find it unethical, arrogant and abhorrent.

Nor is it unpatriotic to criticise and question an industry that for 30 years has consigned countless animals to uncertain, often very cruel, fates in countries with few or no animal welfare regulations and well beyond our jurisdiction. Such an industry does not deserve community support, and in recent years it has seen a backlash from the Australian community demanding vastly better treatment for animals and an end to this cruel trade.

The live export industry clearly doesn’t like the scrutiny that media coverage brings, nor does it react well to being challenged and questioned by members of the community. A frequent response from the live export industry and its supporters is that non-farmers are unqualified to comment. This is simply an attempt to stifle debate, and is unacceptable in a democratic society.

The widespread outpouring of community anger and disgust after Four Corners aired its Walkley award-winning live export exposé, A Bloody Business, in May 2011 saw politicians on all sides bombarded with emails, letters, petitions and phone calls, a testament to the fact that many Australians care deeply about animal welfare and will not tolerate animal cruelty.

New Zealand has already shown us the way, with its government prohibiting the live export of animals for slaughter in 2007 after a lengthy public debate. It’s time to do the same thing here in Australia. Let’s have that debate.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

We still have a way to go.

Roslyn Wells is a public affairs and international relations professional, and a Voice of Influence on WSPA’s live export campaign.

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