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The live export of animals will always be a bloody business

Although many Australians may feel like they heard the expression “live export” or “live animal exports” for the first time recently, the selling of sheep and cows to be slaughtered overseas has a long…

Protests against live exports of Australian animals. AAP/Tim Watters

Although many Australians may feel like they heard the expression “live export” or “live animal exports” for the first time recently, the selling of sheep and cows to be slaughtered overseas has a long history in this country.

Christine Townend, who founded Animal Liberation NSW, and Patty Mark who founded Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) both tell stories of anti-live export protests dating back 30 years.

In 1985, an Australian Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare conducted an inquiry into the live animal export industry. Its report was not complimentary. It included the observation that “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.”

A ban is a real possibility. New Zealand took the step in 2007, and the live cattle trade with Indonesia was temporarily suspended following the first Four Corners expose in 2011.

Sarah Ferguson’s original report, A Bloody Business, was something of a journalistic triumph. It won her a Logie and a Gold Walkley. The story, aided by the popularity of Lyn White and the pulling power of Animals Australia, resulted in rallies around the country; the signing of petitions; letters to MPs; the temporary suspension of trade, followed by the lifting of the ban.

My institution asked me to address concerned staff and students and for the first time the Quarterly Essay considered animals via Anna Krien’s Us & Them: On the Importance of Animals.

Much of the controversy generated by A Bloody Business seemed to relate to the Indonesians’ use of traditional rope slaughter; apparently a terrible way to kill large, flighty Australian cattle; and Meat & Livestock Australia’s attempts to aid that slaughter with the installation of specially designed restraint boxes. While the boxes may have made the Indonesian slaughters’ job safer it seemed to make the dying minutes much worse for Australian cattle.

Of those who were able to watch the broadcast, shock seemed to be the common response. Apparently when Australians saw Australian animals being slaughtered without pre-stunning they saw something very different to what Meat & Livestock Australia and LiveCorp had seen while they self-regulated the process in the preceding years.

So with the broadcast of a second Four Corners expose of Australian live exports last night, the question is: have Australian exporters learnt to see the world more like the rest of us? And, can they convince us that what appears to be mass cruelty is actually little more than a glitch in an otherwise good system?

I watched A Bloody Business and Another Bloody Business back to back. The most obvious difference I detected between May 2011 and November 2012 was that Minister Joe Ludwig would not face the cameras in 2011, but was prepared to do so a year later. He had answers ready to go, as did industry. Indeed, in the lead up to the ABC’s broadcast a coalition of live exporters wrote to every member of Parliament assuring them of the outstanding quality of Australia’s live animal export industry.

So what are the industry’s key defences? As far as I can tell there are two: live exports generate wealth and Australia’s involvement is improving animal welfare standards in receiving countries.

The money defence appears to have largely fallen into disuse. It would seem that Australia’s level of disgust at the brutal treatment of Australian animals overseas is such that the promise of wealth for some is an inadequate justification.

That leaves us with the claim that Australia’s involvement in live animal exports is improving animal welfare around the world. While it might be true that as a result of the latest Four Corners program Australia will play a role in teaching Pakistani workers how to carry out large-scale animal slaughter more humanely (although no such agreement has been reached); and while it may also be true that as a result of Australian live exports to Indonesia Australia has been able to improve slaughter methods for Australian cattle in that country, isn’t it also true that at best the only thing Australian exporters are doing is attempting to resolve problems that they generate in the first place?

Aren’t all these welfare problems a result of the very fact that Australian animals are being exported live, half way around the world? If that observation is correct then the “improving welfare in receiving countries” defence is a Catch 22. Live exports generate the welfare problems that exporters are solving via the live export trade.

It is a bloody business and I can’t see it becoming less bloody any time soon.

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Monika Merkes

    Honorary Associate, Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University

    Thank you Siobhan for the article.
    As you wrote, Minister Ludwig last night might have had answers ready to go, but his answers were totally unconvincing. It is a cruel and bloody business and this won’t change, because as soon as the animals leave Australia we have no control over their fate. ESCAS is flawed and can’t ensure acceptable animal welfare standards overseas. Live export has to stop.

    1. trevor prowse

      retired farmer

      In reply to Monika Merkes

      The author in a previous article stated that she was a member of Animals Australia( Lyn White) but this article states in her diclosure that she now has ,"no relevant affiliations". Could you clear this up?
      It would be fair if you asked" Wellards "to put their side of this incident , especially in the light of the authors previous affiliations

  2. Tim Scanlon


    You are giving the minister far too much credit. The difference between 2011 and 2012 is that he was actually briefed on the topic. He has no agricultural background and very little knowledge or understanding of the industry, so he wouldn't have been able to comment initially.

  3. Ewen Peel


    A good article Siobhan.
    The comments above certainly echo my thoughts on the Ministers performance, it is a worry and does not instil a lot of confidence in the governance of this industry.

    One of the main differences between the two situations that you might have overlooked is that the Indonesians were using very poor methods of slaughter and that is totally unacceptable.
    The Pakistani incident was conducted under government orders, and any control the export operator had, was lost. When ordered at gunpoint to leave the sheep then there is little that can be done. I was heartened to see that some of the local abattoir workers were also distressed about the treatment of the sheep. Clearly this type of treatment is not how they normally be processed.
    It seems as though the sheep were victims of a broader dispute but unfortunately they paid the ultimate price in a very brutal and unnecessary way.

    1. Giles Pickford
      Giles Pickford is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired, Wollongong

      In reply to Ewen Peel

      Why is it that the Imams and the Mullahs are always so silent when the directives of the Qu'ran are being flouted.

      The Qu'ran insists on humane treatment of animals being prepared for death, and directs that the death should be quick and as painless as possible.

      Islam to me seems to lack leadership of any kind. Schools girls are shot and animals are tortured to death without the religious leadership uttering a word.

      What a weird set up it is.

  4. Carol Chenco
    Carol Chenco is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Research Officer

    I agree Giles, what a weird set up indeed. Time and time again we see that countries with horrific human rights records show little concern regarding the humane treatment of animals. Indeed, why would we expect to see anything come out of the Pakistani government looking into the slaughter of 21,000 sheep at the request of Julia Gillard. This is a country where people are killed because of blasphemy and girls are killed by their parents because they dare to look at boys!

  5. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    Without creating or relying on conspiracy theories', I would like to see a detailed account of the whole issue of just how that consignment of stock ended up being killed in such a disastrous and wasteful fashion. There are certainly some interesting speculations in sheep producer land.

    Gossip about the industry for years has suggested that we as a supplier of animals have been subject to long term casual interference by importers in the industry and suffered from their politics and competitive…

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    1. John Holmes

      Agronomist - semi retired consultant

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Indian sub continent can be quite a difficult place to do business if you are over a barrel, ie a plane is waiting for your shipment. State was out of insecticides to repulse your clients bud worms on lupins doing damage at $'s/day/ha, and your agent forgot to bribe the last senior custom officer appropriately. Turn the trucks about, send them back to the factory (200 k) and then start again. Meanwhile get another slot on an aircraft and have your crew at the formulator doing nothing for a few more days.

  6. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    The fact that the live- export industry has developed, over 30 years, on foundations of insensitivity to animal suffering and the large amounts of money made, reflects the immorality of all those involved in this disgusting trade. Those responsible include the Federal and State Ministers for Primary Industries[ from both sides of politics over the decades], the graziers who produce the sheep and cattle and the various meat industry bodies such as Meat and Livestock Australia, LiveCorp and Wellards…

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  7. wilma western

    logged in via email

    The live trade is not a bloody business. There is veterinary supervision of the animals on board ship, and if the consignment goes straight to a properly -run abattoir it is no more bloody than Australian abattoirs .

    Exports to Pakistan have been stopped due to the hi-jacking of one consignment by people who had no idea about ovine health or humane slaughtering . There seem to have been either rival suppliers' market protection motives or extremist Islamic influences or both involved in both…

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    1. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to wilma western

      I agree all abattoirs are bloody. The difference between our abattoirs and those in the destination countries, is that we stun animals before their throats are cut. This eliminates all pain if not all stress and terror.
      The live-export trade has been operating for 30 years. Over that time little has been done to improve animal welfare. It was only after the total ban on cattle exports to Indonesia last year that the stock producers, MLA, Livecorp and our negligent federal and state governments have…

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    2. trevor prowse

      retired farmer

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      Peter-----The TV programme showed a new processing works quite close to where the Pakistani sheep were being culled. It was more modern than most processing works in Australia. How do you controll sheep when the government orders police with guns to dictate to you what to do? . If you think that all your problems will be solved by selling boxed meat , then how do you stop the meat from being held for weeks on the warf . I understand that 90% of our exports are already either fresh or frozen…

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  8. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    Livecorp's website states that the live-export industry is worth $730 million a year. On the recent Four Corners program a spokesman for one of the exporting companies mentioned a figure of one billion dollars.
    This same man, during the interview, also bemoaned the fact that the Pakistanis, as a result of the brutal slaughter of 21,000 sheep[ some buried alive], had foregone the benefit of using thousands of tonnes of protein [ He mentioned a specific figure which I've forgotten]. Those…

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    1. trevor prowse

      retired farmer

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      You said",State of the art abattoirs don't alleviate animal suffering unless stunning prior to slaughter is performed." The problem in Pakistan was armed police refused access to the care of the sheep and then allowed the slaughter of the sheep. There was a near -by abattoir which had stunning equipment and the works were only 4 months old and were equal or better than Australian abattoirs.
      I too was a sheep farmer for 38 years , selling about 4,000 sheep per year . One year I sold 1600 ewes for…

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  9. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    My situation is different from yours. I have a small property that carries a DSE of 1200 sheep. None of the stock, including some cattle, go to the live-export market. Also I have an off-farm income and therefore I am not exposed to the financial pressures you and your sons are. I can thus sympathize with your position but it does not alter the basic ethical or moral problem with the life-export trade.
    The trade has developed, as we know, over about 30 years allowing people like yourselves…

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  10. Ben Ormond

    logged in via Facebook

    The author provides an interesting, welcome analysis of the live exports issue, including the role of media and political and industry responses in the context of public awareness and outrage. The fact that New Zealand has banned live animal exports should help shame our politicians. The industry argues if Australia stops its live trade, other countries that fill the gap will be less concerned about the treatment of their animals. However, the evidence shows that Australia cannot prevent animal cruelty in other countries (let alone in Australia). There is growing concern about animal welfare in Australia and no reason why we can’t process meats for export without unnecessary, high levels of cruelty.