Live Animal Export: The animals who returned home to have their stories told

Live Animal Export: The animals who returned home to have their stories told

Courtesy: Splash 247

SYDNEY: A callous, selfish, greedy and unconvincing application to re-export nearly 17,000 animals to the Middle East, without so much as a day’s rest away from the vessel after the first aborted voyage, has been rejected by the Australian government on February 5 – not a minute too soon.

These animals first left Australia on the Israeli-owned Bahijah on January 5. They were returned to Australian waters 24 days later after the company conceded that the risks of taking an Israeli vessel full of animals past the trigger happy, Israeli hating, Houthi militia was dangerous (the Corriedale Express was hit with rocket shells and sprayed with machine gun fire in the 1980s by Iranian gunboats; livestock ships are not immune). Having now applied to re-export the animals it is clear to all that animal welfare did not provide the ethical or moral compulsion which led to the ship being turned around.

After hanging off the Australian coast for the past week the Bahijah is now re-berthing on February 8 in Fremantle for the third time since her return to Australia. This time to finally unload the nearly 17,000 sheep and cattle who have been on board needlessly and exposed to unnecessary stress, harm and suffering for 36 days. Right back to where they started.

Whilst the animals may not get a ticker-tape parade, those who have survived (don’t forget, deaths have occurred, animal bodies have been feeding the fish for a while now and recently requiring disposal in a feedlot after hundreds of cattle were unloaded at the exporter’s request last Friday) the journey so far will get a much deserved reprieve from the crowded, noisy, stressful conditions of living on a ship and hopefully a long overdue rest with the capacity to walk out of farts range from their nearest and now well acquainted companions.

These animals have done something no other consignment has ever achieved; they have returned to Australia to have their stories told.

The crew will no doubt give a sigh of relief to be able to unload the animals after being flung into the global spotlight. Having worked around the clock to look after their charges in difficult conditions, they will be happy to throw the ropes again so they can head to sea and begin the arduous job of soaking, scraping, and scrubbing the ship clean.

Commonly we are exposed to nauseating industry public relations images of clean ships freshly loaded or loading with healthy fresh, albeit flustered animals finding their place in new pens and decks on the ships. Nauseating to me as I know they capture a point in time and conditions that will not be repeated again until the next voyage begins. All live export voyages simply get more filthy and unacceptable to the population in general the longer they proceed.

Now the public have been able to witness animals expressing malaise, fatigue, increased respiratory rates and the ships continuous management requirements to repeatedly return to deep water away from the Australian shore so they can hose out the ever-deepening build-up of faeces and presumably dump dead bodies.

I believe this will have been an eye opener for many of the vets and officials who have had to board and visit the ship. They have probably read and heard about onboard conditions or seen them freshly loaded; however, it is a different thing to walk through a ship that has completed a loaded voyage. The smells, sights, sounds are all there to be absorbed, many literally into the skin, hair and clothing of those boarding.

Vets have reported that they have seen no significant health and welfare issues of concern. Make no mistake, these comments do not represent each individual animal. They are overarching statements that essentially declare that the majority of animals are not at this immediate point in time about to drop dead. They do however fail to acknowledge that there are individuals that are not healthy and well… or possibly even alive. The condition of these unacknowledged individuals is very significant to the individuals affected. Every live export voyage has mortalities, every voyage has morbidities and every voyage has suffering. Animals don’t transition from ‘healthy and well’ to dead, immediately on these ships, there is always a period of illness, distress, pain, fear, and suffering before death.

The vast numbers of animals on these ships makes the reports nothing more than a generalised sweeping statement that covers all areas of grey.

I know, I had to write these reports for a decade. I also know that they were rarely read in full, only the mortality number had attention paid to it. Mortalities equalled money lost.

Hence the morbidities everyone needs to know about. Morbidities cover the animals that are not healthy and well, they have illnesses/injuries. They may die or survive.

The video footage available so far of the animals on the Bahijah, albeit from some distance, doesn’t look too bad, however it shows the trained eye that there are animals with hollowed flanks (empty rumens- on a floating feedlot) and increased respiratory rates. The average sheep breaths about 20 breaths per minute at rest, a bit faster if its hot. I was counting respiratory rates on some of the Bahijah’s sheep the other day and finding that 120 breaths per minute, in resting sheep was visible. Outrageous, I hear some say, open decks, the newest of ventilation standards, this trade has ‘fixed’ all those problems. Rubbish, it is simply not possible to prevent these developments, that’s why the trade is inhumane. This respiratory rate does not tell me this sheep is sick, simply that it is heat stressed- plus or minus respiratory disease such as pneumonia- a common cause of death on these ships. This is almost ‘textbook’ respiratory rates for a live export vessel carrying sheep, except there is no textbook on it, it is simply what I expect to see after all the voyages I have accompanied.

Think of all the ships during covid where people were infected by the simple act of sharing the confines of a luxury cruise. Respiratory pathogens love these environments and thrive. No mass ventilation system can prevent their spread, in fact they accentuate it.

Keep in mind these animals were not even in humid conditions, humidity makes breathing so much harder for a sheep. Sheep (and humans at more extremes) can literally drown on land if the air is hot and humid enough. Heat stressed sheep are gurgling, foamy, panting overheating wrecks, struggling to survive. These particular animals on the Bahijah will have weakened immune systems now after over a month at sea, another month of this heat stress exposure at sea would likely tip many over the edge resulting in their deaths.

Avoiding another trip to the Middle East at sea is the most humane thing to do for these sheep. I commend the government for their decision to reject the exporters latest application.

Only once have I sailed the proposed course of going around Africa to enter the Mediterranean versus the commonly traversed Indian Ocean, Red Sea passage. I was surprised how different the disease presentation was.

Heading directly to the Red Sea from Australia takes an oblique northwest heading, you approach the equator and all associated rises in humidity and heat occur more slowly, giving the animals a better chance of some acclimatisation, and the vet, stock-people and crew a better chance of identifying any individual animals with any respiratory diseases that may need medication to help them survive.

Heading due north when going around Africa the approach is more rapid, acclimatisation is difficult to achieve and respiratory illnesses spike, so do deaths.

There is less time to identify, treat and save effected animals.

I believe that having already endured one voyage to the cusp of the equator, trying to do a due north passage would be the death nell to any animal that is already living with subclinical or clinical respiratory disease on the Bahijah.

And there will be many in each of those categories, even if they haven’t been identified yet.

Individual deaths soon add up to become ‘reportable mortality’ voyages (greater than 1% death for sheep, 0.5% deaths for cattle and the clock should not be reset for a second voyage if it was approved), and more faeces rains down on the whole industry. The accumulated stressors these animals would have experienced had the application not been rejected or if the exporters try to send these animals on another voyage any time soon would be nothing short of unacceptable sanctioned cruelty.

There has been justified global condemnation of the live export trade for decades and this debacle in particular has only heightened the drive to push for a ban to the trade of live sheep. The Australian government is on the cusp of legislating a date for its end. It must come soon; we cannot have another ‘Bahijah’. Australia does not need this trade.

The future for these animals was never going to be rosy. They will be killed for their meat. I believe it should be done in Australia as soon as any withholding period for medications used onboard has passed and the animals have recovered from their voyage. This should enable their ‘products’ not to be wasted and the space to be found with local processors.

This grubby little industry will bitch and complain about costs and losses of course, but they were the ones who chose to gamble with these lives.

Make no mistake, this is an inherently and uniquely risky line of business- they know it.

Besides ships capsizing and sinking recently, there is no shortage of reasons as to why the global fleet is shrinking. When I started in the trade in 1999 there were over 180 registered livestock carriers, now I struggle to find 100.

Many of those 100 have been listed as inactive for years, most are small and really old, and only about 23 can legally operate from Australia.

Any whining about the live trade being prevented from providing food security to the conflicted region in the Middle East is entirely disingenuous and those spruikers (Ed. Note: Aussie slang for someone who toots their own horn) should put on their big person pants, join the twenty first century and embrace the miracle we know, understand and trust called chilled and frozen meat imports.

Investments into the chilled and frozen meat export trades are booming. Live exporters should think about trading in for a reefer.