21st may 2018

A new poll of the Australian public has found that twice as many people think the live export trade should be ended  as those who believe it should be maintained. Expressions of sadness, empathy for the animals and anger were the most common responses to footage shown on a recent 60 Minutes media exposé of cruelty to sheep on live export shipments. 13 percent of people said they found the footage sickening.

Throughout the program footage from five separate voyages was aired depicting thousands of sheep suffering severe heat stress; sheep caked in melted feces and urine; injured and sick animals left to die slowly; decomposed bodies left in pens with living sheep and pregnant ewes giving birth and their lambs dying. At least one sheep that’s clearly alive is shown being thrown overboard.

The survey was conducted by researchers Michelle Sinclair, Tessa Derkley, Claire Fryer and Dr. Clive Phillips from the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Queensland. 522 members of the public in Brisbane were surveyed just before and after the exposé – half before and half after.

Those surveyed were 59 percent female, 51 percent lived in suburbs, 32 percent had a degree or were studying towards one and three percent worked in the livestock sector. Almost half of respondents had seen the media exposé; 60 percent of respondents felt negative about the trade, 14 percent positive and 26 percent had no feelings, proportions that were not associated with timing of the survey before or after the exposé.

Around 40 percent believed the trade should be ended, 20 percent that it should not, with 40 percent saying that it depends on something. Those that thought the trade should not be ended mainly did so to support farmers and the country’s economy. Of those that said the trade should be ended or that ending it was dependent on some factor, half said it should be ended instantly.

The large portion of people who responded to the question of ending live export with “depends” indicate a deeper understanding that the issue may not be a simple one, say the researchers. The opinion was mostly given for animal based reasons, with researchers reporting accompanying verbal responses such as, “depends if the animals can be provided for so that they don’t suffer at all.”

However, the researchers say that studies of the industry indicate that long ship journeys are stressful for cattle and sheep. This suffering can occur to some degree for the entire sea voyage and is attributable to conditions on board such as ammonia build up from urination in highly stocked closed spaces (this causes mucosal irritation and pulmonary inflammation), high stocking density predisposing animals to heat stress, inability to access food and water as required and an inability to lay down and rest. 

“In the unlikely case that all of these conditions were able to be mitigated for improved welfare, the more recently discovered issue of serious seasickness provides grounds for further concern over poor welfare,” say the researchers. Other conditions attributable to poor stockman ship may potentially occur at any stage of the animal’s journey and carry serious concerns regarding poor animal welfare, such as a failure to identify pregnant females before embarkation, who subsequently give birth to lambs on the ships, which may then be thrown overboard.

Animal welfare concerns also arise when the animals reach their destination where they may be subject to methods of handling, transportation and slaughter that are not consistent with Australian standards and which cause high levels of stress, pain and suffering.

Over 2.6 million animals are shipped live from Australia to over 60 countries, such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Middle East each year. The industry has been the focus of public scrutiny and government reviews about animal welfare. A government review in the 1980s stated “… if a decision were to be made on the future of the trade purely on animal welfare grounds, there is enough evidence to stop the trade.”

In 2003, the trade to Saudi Arabia was stopped for two years in response to a disease outbreak, and again in 2006, in response to footage showing cruel treatment of Australian animals in an Egyptian slaughterhouse. In 2011, a televised Four Cornersexposé of cruel treatment of Australian animals in Indonesian slaughterhouses resulted in a six week suspension to the trade. In 2018, the Australian Agriculture Minister responded to the televised 60 Minutes exposé saying: “Even if the circumstances can be explained, these deaths are plainly unacceptable.” 

In South Australia, which is Australia’s second biggest live sheep exporting state, the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union recently claimed that if all sheep were slaughtered in the state’s abattoirs, the chilled meat trade would be worth about $500 million, with their representative recently stating: “We have the capacity, we just need leadership from the government to make it happen.” However, this is contested, and if the live trade were to cease instantaneously, it could be temporarily detrimental to farmers who have focused their business on raising animals specifically for live export.

The University of Queensland poll findings echo an RSPCA poll conducted last month which found that nearly 75 percent of Australians want the trade to end. Another news poll in The Western Star resulted in 82 percent supporting a ban on live export. As the Western Star is a rural publication, this suggests that rural dwellers are just as concerned over these revelations as city dwellers, say the researchers – a view that was reflected in their survey, with no significant difference between suburban and rural opinions.

While Australians care about animals, they also care about the farmers involved in the trade,” say the researchers.

A Private Member’s Bill to end the long-haul live export of sheep was tabled on Monday by Liberal Government representatives including Sussan Ley, Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood. Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has indicated that the opposition Labor Party is likely to support the Live Sheep Long Haul Export Prohibition Bill.


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