IMMEDIATE action, not more investigations, must be taken to protect sheep, the reputations of Australian farmers and the nation’s exports from the risky live sheep trade, argues the Animal Law Institute’s principal solicitor Dr Malcolm Caulfield.
In the wake of the 60 Minutes expose on live sheep exports, Dr Caulfield today called for cessation of Australian sheep exports in the northern summer months, independent vet reports on shipments and penalties for offending exporters.
Malcolm Caulfield PhD is the principal lawyer at the Animal Welfare Community Legal Centre. He has worked in the area of animal law and science since 2003, including two years as Legal Counsel for Animals Australia and setting up the Animal Welfare Community Legal Centre in early 2009. He is the author of the first book on Australian animal cruelty law and he recently authored a section on the use of animals in primary industry for the major Australian law source Halsbury’s Laws of Australia.
Dr Caulfield’s major interest is the critical review of science relevant to intensive animal farming and in the following opinion piece he argues that despite Australia’s world-best live export standards, the nation’s current “powerless” live export laws and ignorance of cruelty by the government and industry have contributed to extreme sheep suffering and high death levels on live export vessels.
Live export means inevitable animal cruelty
Channel 9’s 60 Minutes on Sunday evening showed, for the first time, real footage of what happens to sheep on a live export voyage to the Middle East in a northern summer. Sheep were shown gasping for breath, climbing over one another to get to food, and dying like flies in a sea of liquid manure. Carcases of lambs born during the voyage lie all over the place.
For years those concerned about this trade have maintained that cruelty is inevitable. Now there is proof that this is the case. The records show that heat stress in the Middle East summer is entirely predictable.
The responsible Minister, David Littleproud, says he will penalise the wrongdoers. My advice to him is he will be wasting his time. What happened on this voyage is the natural result of conditions in that part of the world at this time of year. The defence the exporters will raise is that they have done everything they can and the events are beyond their control. In one sense this is true. The animals were loaded according to the law, and given the legal space requirement of about one third of a square metre per sheep. The sheep decks will have been ventilated at a level required by the regulations. The problem is these laws expressly allow these conditions and expressly contemplate high death levels and extreme suffering.
When the industry mouthpiece, Simon Westaway, says our live export standards are the best, he is telling the truth. That is because even though our standards are dreadfully bad, others are probably even worse.
What this footage shows is that our live export trade has been run by exporters, regulators and Ministers who have chosen to ignore this disgusting cruelty.
The federal live export law in my view is, as it stands, powerless to do anything. The anti-cruelty law of Western Australia, on the other hand, has in my opinion been broken. There, it is an offence to transport an animal in a way which is likely to cause it unreasonable harm. But the federal law may possibly trump the state law, because of a provision in the Australian Constitution. This will have to be tested in the court.
There are several obvious steps which must be taken. First, stop the export of sheep during the dangerous northern summer months. Second, there should be an independent vet on every voyage who reports back to the government. Those reports should be made available to the public. And third there should be set penalties in the law, imposed on the exporters, which kick in for every breach.
The risky nature of this trade, and the damage to the reputation of Australia’s farmers and exports when the truth comes out, means immediate action is necessary. We do not need more investigations. The history of this cruel trade is strewn with whistleblowers who have said the same thing as this brave Pakistani officer, and been ignored, and departmental regulators who, to quote Liam Bartlett, have sat on their shiny arses and done nothing.
Dr Malcolm Caulfield
Principal Solicitor, Animal Law Institute
Honorary Research Associate, Faculty of Science, University of Technology Sydney
Editor’s note – Malcolm Caulfield has advised Sheep Central he receives no payment for his work as the principal lawyer of the Animal Law Institute and has no other formal involvement with RSPCA Australia or any other animal welfare organisation.