The Live Animal Exports System Is Broken And Can’t Be Fixed


Live animal exports are cruel and deadly can never be made humane, writes Geoff Russell.

It’s on again. The recent footage on 60 Minutes of sheep being tortured on ships has re-ignited decades of always simmering passion about the lengths that some Australian farmers will go to make a buck. Is tortured too strong a word? We need more information to decide on that.

John Hewson is a recent addition to the voices against this industry. His article in the SMH calling for a phase out and dismissing any likelihood of reforming the industry is uncompromising, if totally ill-informed. Perhaps he’s always opposed this industry. I don’t know. It’s always interesting when leaders of the Liberal Party turn out to be much nicer people once they step down and no longer have to seem to be total arseholes to maintain their leadership position and coalition partnership.

I expect Malcolm Turnbull will join Hewson and Malcolm Fraser in the future.

But while Hewson’s heart is in the right place, he still doesn’t get it. Of course this industry is plagued by what Hewson calls “systemic failure, negligence, abuse, neglect, and cover-up …”. And that should be enough to get it shutdown. But there’s a much stronger reason to shut it down.

The science.

The science says you can’t ship sheep to the Middle East in summer; even if you have them individually penned with their own vet. Sheep start to suffer and die when a wet-bulb thermometer hits about 26-30 degrees; which it does routinely during summer shipments. A wet-bulb thermometer is a tricky way of measuring the combined impact of heat and humidity.

A screengrab from the recent 60 Minutes report, which revealed widespread abuse of animals during live exports.

You can’t change sheep physiology by either good will or legislation. I guess you could provide full climate control to the ships. But there’s nothing short of that which will stop animals dying of heat stress.

So is this torture? When people are tortured in a misguided attempt to obtain a confession, the act doesn’t have to be sadistic, it can be cold and calculating. It’s just the deliberate infliction of suffering to achieve a goal. The loading of sheep during summer is certainly deliberate and everybody in the industry knows exactly what will happen to those sheep. They know about wet-bulb temperatures and sheep. So the infliction of suffering is deliberate. That’s probably near enough to justify a tag of torture.

But heat stress isn’t the only well understood problem with shipping sheep on ships. The rivers of sheep shit shown on 60 mins aren’t the result of cutting corners, they are entirely normal on any sheep ship travelling to the Middle East. They are never cleaned out during the voyage. The cost and logistics of this would be diabolical so it’s never happened and isn’t going to. But since when did standing around in shit for weeks kill anybody?

Sheep on ships die at around 14 times the normal on-farm rate. The cause of most deaths at sea is formally called inanition/salmonellosis. The word “inanition” means to stop eating. This is subtly different from simply starving. It takes a long time to starve, but inanition and salmonella poisoning kill more rapidly.

Salmonellosis is an infectious bacterial disease and it typically kills sheep when they are stressed, crowded and filthy. Gosh, where are you likely to find that combination? So yes, standing around in shit really can kill you.

A screengrab from the recent 60 Minutes report, which revealed widespread abuse of animals during live exports.

All animals have a very strong survival instinct. What kind of stress do you need to make an animal stop eating and die? Not slowly starve, but stop eating and die? It sends a shudder through any person with the standard issue of mirror neurons just thinking about it.

The idea that any farmer selling into the live export industry doesn’t know that their animals are standing around in shit and dying is simply ridiculous. Farmers are practical people, they know the ships aren’t cleaned out. They know their animals die at extraordinary rates; even on a good voyage; even on one with an “acceptable” level of mortality.

Hewson didn’t say this but he seems to have understood it. He understood that anybody associated with this industry will be predisposed to turn a blind eye to “systemic failure, negligence, abuse, neglect, and cover-up …”. But the deeper issue is also important and that is that nothing can be done to fix this industry, it is simply broken and must be stopped.

The farmers involved need to get a job; a proper job. One that doesn’t depend on them riding on the sheep’s back; and exporting red meat and bowel cancer to developing countries.

I’d be more than happy for my tax dollars to be spent training them to grow a wider variety of crops. The coming decades will, of environmental necessity, see a dietary transformation to plant foods and they can either be ahead of the curve or behind it.

Geoff Russell is a regular contributor to New Matilda. He has qualifications in mathematics and has written software all of his working life, but in the past decade has devoted increasing time to writing non-fiction with a simple goal... make the world a better place. A three-decade vegan and member of the Animal Justice Party, his first book in 2009 was 'CSIRO Perfidy', a critique of the high-red-meat CSIRO 'Total Wellbeing diet'; the most environmentally destructive diet on the planet. His concerns about climate change and the ineffectiveness of renewables led to a re-examination of his lifelong opposition to nuclear power. After considerable research he realised that the reasons people fear nuclear are built on obsolete knowledge about DNA and cancer. Geoff's second book 'GreenJacked! Derailing environmental action on climate change' is an e-book available on Amazon. He has been a regular contributor to since 2008 and has had pieces published in The Monthly, Australasian Science and a number of Australian newspapers.