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Cattle recently arrived from Australia are unloaded at Tanjung Priok Port on July 30, 2013 in Java, Indonesia. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images)

PoliticsApril 15, 2021

Live animal exports have always been a problem

Cattle Imports Arrive in Indonesia from Australia
Cattle recently arrived from Australia are unloaded at Tanjung Priok Port on July 30, 2013 in Java, Indonesia. (Photo by Dimas Ardian/Getty Images)

New Zealand is set to become the first country in the world to introduce a comprehensive ban on live animal exports by sea. There are good reasons behind the decision, writes Mirjam Guesgen.

It’s hot and sticky. Temperatures reach those of summer highs and humidity levels hang in the 80s. Animals pile on top of each other, clambering for space. Excrement is scrubbed away, but only every couple of days, leaving it build up on the unslatted floors and on animals’ legs. Some animals have been blinded by disease. Among all this, a lamb is born and goes unnoticed.

It’s hard to get a clear picture of what live animal export really looks like. The reports about the conditions are scarce, with many animal care professionals afraid of losing their jobs if they were to speak out, or lacking detail, reporting only measures like how skinny or fat the animals are.

In all likelihood though, the lives of animals being exported are bleak.

But yesterday marked the beginning of the end of New Zealand’s livestock exporting. The practice will be phased out over the next two years according to agriculture minister Damien O’Connor.

The shift shows a recognition that it’s not just about how many animals might die on the way (which is reported to be only around 0.1%) or if a vessel like Gulf Livestock 1 capsizes. It’s a recognition that we care about what the animals lives are like and a semi-admission that we don’t have adequate control over that.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has measures in place to control how animals are exported, which seem comprehensive. Animals get health checks prior to being loaded onto a ship, transporters have to take care when loading and unloading animals and the ships themselves have to meet space, food and ventilation requirements.

After the sinking of Gulf Livestock 1, MPI also required exporters to submit a voyage report within 20 working days of the vessel arriving at the destination. The reports should include information on number of animals, how much feed and water was available, what kind of bedding the animals had and if any animals had health issues like fractures or breathing problems.

However, independent reports made by Australian vets on their export ships have shown that vital details, like animals being born or showing signs of heat stress, are often misreported or not reported at all.

“The fact is, that once animals leave New Zealand by sea, we have very limited ability to ensure their wellbeing before they reach their destination,” minister O’Connor said yesterday.

That’s a huge admission. It essentially means there aren’t enough, or good enough, checks that can be put in place to make sure the animals are OK.

Protest groups both for and against live animal export gather in Perth, Australia, prior to the arrival of Prime Minister Julia Gillard on March 27, 2013. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Even if pain, suffering or distress could all be prevented along the journey and across the animal’s life through to slaughter, it’s still not keeping up with what science says animals are capable of experiencing.

Studies have shown that animals, including cattle, can experience feelings of nausea, dizziness, weakness, breathlessness, helplessness, loneliness, boredom, depression, anxiety, fear, panic and hypervigilance. That’s not an exhaustive list.

Simply providing animals with enough space, a clean environment, food and water doesn’t cut it anymore based on current scientific understanding. Giving them extra feed in case of delays, or decreasing the number of animals sent overseas in one shipment (both measures put in place by MPI last year) doesn’t guarantee that they won’t experience the mental states listed above.

And getting rid of an animal’s negative experiences only gets you halfway to good welfare. There’s also increasing scientific evidence that animals can like, want and enjoy particular activities. They have goals and they act in ways to fulfill them.

This isn’t tree-hugging, fluffy opinion. It’s tested, peer-reviewed science.

New Zealand’s animal welfare laws are written to acknowledge that science by stating that animals are sentient, meaning they have the awareness and brainpower to experience a range of feelings. Law makers, advisors and animal welfare experts work to create rules and guidelines that reflect that.

It’s not just the journey but where the animals end up that’s problematic. The majority get sent to China, whose Animal Protection Index rating (think of it like a country’s report card for animal welfare standards) is E. The lowest possible is G.

The main bit of law designed to protect animals in China does focus on livestock but it’s more about protecting their genetic resources ie, keeping them alive and disease-free enough so they can be bred.

There’s nothing specific in there about how to rear cattle, sheep, goats or deer – the animals New Zealand exports. There are some articles though about providing them enough space, food and water during transport.

China also has no way to enforce those laws so it’s doubtful whether they have any teeth to them.

New Zealand is the first country to announce a full ban on livestock exports by sea. England and Wales will have a ban on live exports for slaughter in force by the end of 2021. New Zealand already had a ban on exports for slaughter in place and currently only exports live animals for breeding or to bolster stocks. The UK’s move comes off the back of splitting from the European Union, which allows exports. It makes them the first country in Europe to do so.

From an economic perspective, there is concern that New Zealand will lose out on the money from exports. The main reason for exporting is to bolster stocks or to send animals for breeding. It may be possible to send semen instead, but that currently only adds $7 million to the economy in contrast to the $54 million live export market.

However, there’s been talk in New Zealand for decades about “value added” products. Instead of trying to boost the country’s economy by selling more, we should be selling better, the argument goes. Maintaining high standards of welfare for animals across their lives through to slaughter is a selling point and it’s potentially undermined by practices such as live export.

In the latest episode of Gone By Lunchtime, Toby Manhire, Annabelle Lee-Mather and Ben Thomas discuss the latest stories in New Zealand politics, including the temporary ban on arrivals from India, the Māori Party’s donations strife and more. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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