Throughout the heated debate around live animal exports over the past week, there has been an implicit assumption that the mistreatment of Australian cattle only ever begins after the animals have left our shores.
It is true that the inhumane slaughtering practices at some Indonesian abattoirs that were revealed in last week’s Four Corners report would never been seen an Australian abattoir.
But we shouldn’t be so certain that the entire the Australian cattle industry achieves a standard that guarantees good animal welfare along the entire production chain.
As Clive Phillips points out in The Conversation, industry-directed funding arrangements for livestock welfare research make it very difficult for the general community to have a clear understanding of the welfare implications of management and husbandry practices conducted in the livestock industry.
This is particularly relevant to the large-scale rangeland cattle production systems in Australia’s north, which were often the source of our cattle exports to Indonesia before this week’s ban.
There is a misguided assumption that rangeland systems are intrinsically good for the welfare of the animals. There is the view that the cattle wander around freely on huge properties and carry out all their normal, natural behaviours, unlike animals in intensive-production systems, which are generally confined in small areas, are frequently crowded and unable to carry out a lot of their normal behaviour.
This is true, but rangeland operations also pose serious welfare challenges.
For example, cattle in the north are subjected to extremes of climate with little or no protection. For example, this year in Queensland there has been extensive flooding, but in other years there are fires and, of course, droughts are an all-too-frequent occurrence.
Do producers have an obligation to protect their stock during these events? I believe that they do, particularly in the case of drought. It is unlawful, as well as immoral to allow stock to starve to death, but it still happens.
If producers cannot afford to feed their animals in times of drought, move them to places where there is pasture, or transport them to sale, then they shouldn’t be farming livestock.
What happens to rangeland livestock that are injured, or become sick? Given the numbers of stock on the properties and the land areas involved, it is highly likely that producers will be unaware of the situation.
The animals either recover, or they don’t. Either way, suffering will be involved.
Stock is checked, but usually only when watering-points and fences are checked. This means stockmen will not see all animals and will see most of them only at a distance.
Even if a sick or injured animal is found, what can be done? It is very rare for there to be appropriate facilities nearby, and to move the animal could make matters worse. The only options are to leave it and hope it will recover, or euthanase it.
Intensively-farmed animals must be frequently checked for sickness and injuries, but there is no onus on rangeland farmers to do this because it is seen to be too difficult and too costly.
More funding should be made available to investigate and further develop technologies that allow producers to know where animals are and alert them to changes in behaviour that may indicate a health problem or injury.
Meat and Livestock Australia has shown little enthusiasm for supporting this kind of work because of the economic pressures that would come from a monitoring requirement for the beef cattle industry.
Currently, the only times that rangeland cattle can be closely inspected are when they are mustered and yarded, either for transportation or for husbandry procedures, such as branding, dehorning and castration.
These musters happen only once or twice a year.
The husbandry procedures conducted at such time, of course, also raise welfare issues because they cause stress and pain. Producers are allowed by law to conduct operations like dehorning, castration and spaying without any form of pain management.
This contrasts with similar painful procedures conducted on dogs and cats, where animals are given anaesthetics and analgesics to eliminate and reduce the pain.
Why are there these different standards when, after all, cattle and sheep are sentient beings?
It comes down to us treating animals in different ways because of their value to us. Most of us have dogs and cats for their companionship and we value them for that.
Cattle and sheep are there to produce food and fibre. Therefore, it is their monetary value that is important.
Would farmers be allowed to carry out these painful procedures on livestock if the general community was aware of what they involved and the adverse impacts they have on the welfare of the animals?
We have seen the result of the wider community being made aware of animal cruelty in Indonesia. What would the response be to an awareness of the painful husbandry practices routinely conducted here in Australia?