If you were to read about the new Labor government's plan to deal with the live export issue - which at least includes phasing out the shipping of live sheep at some point - you could be forgiven for thinking that live export isn't something we need to address urgently, for the sake of all animals - including humans.
Imagine your surprise, then, if you were to board one of the floating factory farms we call live export boats, and found yourself knee-deep in excrement, with ammonia stinging your nose, animals collapsing around you, and seeing humans infected with pinkeye and ringworm.
Decades of inaction with regard to this vile industry by various governments has obscured the importance of stopping these boats now - not just for over 1 million sheep, but also for more than 1 million other animals annually, a considerable number of humans on board, and - with regards to public health and infectious disease - the whole world.
Live export from Australia has existed since 1884, but it was in the 1980s that the industry really began to "boom". Ever since then, animals have been dying by the tens of thousands at sea, and been treated violently upon arrival at port. Eyewitness and video investigations over the decades have revealed animals baking to death, being trampled, standing amidst thousands of litres of urine and faeces, dying of starvation and thirst, and suffering from illness, inaccessible to vets because of the extreme crowding on the ships.
Exposés at destination ports have repeatedly revealed workers kicking animals, breaking their tails, and bludgeoning them with hammers. A 2021 PETA Asia investigation into slaughterhouses in Indonesia showed workers repeatedly failing to stun cows properly. One steer, clearly still conscious after being shot, was jabbed 64 times with a steel rod. For others, stunning wasn't even attempted.
And as horrific as it is for animals, live export is no picnic for the humans involved, either. Crew members are exposed to dangerous levels of ammonia, carbon dioxide, and highly flammable methane from the animals themselves and their waste. One veterinarian recounted that in the absence of onboard doctors, she was called upon to tend to dislocated limbs, stitch crew members up, and even help save one officer's leg from gangrene.
And then, of course, there is the pathogen risk. While cruise ships spent the pandemic on pause, branded as "floating petri dishes", live export ships - which combine the biosecurity threat of factory farming with the risk of international travel - continued to set sail, despite warnings by epidemiologists and veterinarians that live animals are the largest source of infection, a risk exacerbated by moving them around.
Those of us who have rallied for years to end this abomination are rightly disappointed by the new government's tepid commitment to its review. But must we really just wait, hoping that one day we'll have a government with the courage and compassion to say "enough is enough"?
MORE EMILY RICE:
Not entirely. Just as we can fit our roofs with solar panels to snub coal, or avoid buying Russian vodka in support of Ukraine, we can each remove our monetary support for the live export industry, starting by saying no to leather, much of which is the skin of Aussie cows shipped to their deaths in Indonesia, and sold back to us in the form of shoes and belts.
Wool, too, should be banished from our wardrobes, since sheep who no longer produce enough of it often find themselves on slow boats to slaughter.
In the absence of action on the part of our government, let us at least make sure we ourselves are doing all we can. Permanently clearing our closets of animal-derived clothing and encouraging our families and friends to do likewise is a powerful move each of us can make immediately to strike at the foundation of the live export industry.
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