Last night, the ABC’s Four Corners brought the horror of the Indonesian slaughterhouse into Australian living rooms.
The government’s response to images of cattle being hacked to death, having their tails broken and bashing their heads on concrete floors in terror has been merciful and swift. The export of cattle to those slaughterhouses has been suspended.
But why were we subjecting our cattle to these conditions in the first place?
Australian farmers can often make more money selling their cattle and sheep to the live animal export industry than they can by selling the animals for slaughter in Australia. The lure of the dollar is obviously very strong.
Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of livestock. Livestock exports were worth more than $900 million to the Australian economy in 2008.
For some farmers that money may be a godsend. For others it may be a case of profit maximisation.
But as Animals Australia has demonstrated over and over again, for the animals it is a worst case scenario. For them, death will be a blessed relief but it will rarely come quickly enough.
In Australia, the trip from farm to port can be a long journey. Live export ships leave from a small number of ports, including Fremantle in Western Australia and Portland in Victoria.
Once at port, the animals must become accustomed to eating pelleted food. Sheep who are typically used to grazing can have difficulty with the adjustment.
Those that do not adjust are referred to as “shy eaters”. They will die at sea from starvation. But starvation is only one of a multitude of different types of suffering animals must endure onboard live export ships.
Others include pinkeye, cramped conditions, living in their own feces and urine, and living among the dead, because those that die at sea will be left to rot where they fall until the ship docks and those still alive are unloaded.
After weeks at sea the ships arrive at their destination. This is where the different animal welfare standards in Australia and the countries we export to quickly becomes apparent.
Footage obtained by Animals Australia shows that many animals are likely to suffer at the hands of poorly trained or untrained handlers and may be unloaded without the aid of simple equipment, widely available in Australia, such as suitable ramps so the animals can walk from the ship to the dock.
From there it is off to market or slaughter. Which would be better for the animal is hard to know.
At market they may be tethered for long periods of time, possibly without food or water.
Animals Australia has obtained footage showing purchased animals being stuffed into car boots or tied to roof racks by local buyers.
I don’t know how animals purchased by a family for home slaughter is finally killed, and I don’t want to know. The sight would probably be too much to bear. My hope is that it’s quick.
For those not sold at markets, their destination is typically a slaughterhouse where they will be killed, processed and then distributed.
As the RSPCA and Animals Australia so graphically showed on Four Corners last night, the prospect of death at an Indonesian slaughterhouse is so terrible that the animal suffering is almost beyond comprehension.
So what are the moral issues here?
Let us put aside for the moment the issue of whether killing animals for meat is morally acceptable or not. Let us agree that most people eat meat, most people who eat meat appreciate that their meat comes from animals, and they are also aware that the animals they eat are killed for that purpose.
But, does the manner in which the animal is killed matter?
Does the extent of the animal’s suffering prior to, or during their death matter? And do we have a particular moral duty towards animals bred in Australia, animals we chose to bring into this world?
A comparison to the refugee debate here is edifying.
In response to Australia’s proposal to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, some people have argued that the Government’s approach to asylum seekers is morally problematic because the human rights standards in Malaysia are lower than those in Australia.
Malaysia has not signed key international refugee conventions to which Australia is a signatory.
I think those questioning the morality of Australia outsourcing its refugee “problem” to another country with lower standards raise a valid concern.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all side-step our moral duties by getting someone else to do our dirty work for us?
Unfortunately our moral duty doesn’t end simply because we aren’t the ones getting our hands dirty (or bloody), and thank goodness for that.
The problems critics have identified in relation to Australia’s Malaysian asylum seeker plans apply equally in the case of live animal exports.
Australia has laws governing how animals can and cannot be treated. Those laws regulate transportation, provision of food, water and shelter, access to veterinary care and the method of the animal’s death.
They require such things as a lethal blow with a stun gun and the availability of a second stun gun to be used immediately in cases where the first one fails.
These laws also apply to halal slaughter which is regularly carried out in Australia.
The state penalises those who transgress our laws and unions work hard to ensure that working conditions within Australian slaughterhouse are the best they can be.
I do not wish to glorify Australian animal welfare standards, nor our slaughterhouses.
I believe Australia has a very long way to go before animals in this country will be free from pain and suffering.
But compared to the situation in the Indonesia, Australia is an animal nirvana and LiveCorp, the company that exports animals out of Australia, knows it.
So where to from here?
Thanks to the brave work of animal activists, the reality of death for Australian cattle in Indonesia is now widely known throughout Australia and MPs of all stripes are responding with compassion.
It seems clear to me that we do have a a particular moral duty towards animals bred in Australia and that sending those animals on a long, difficult journey, to be followed by a gruesome death, transgresses that duty.
It also seems I am not the only one in Australia to hold that view, and for that I am truly thankful.