Horror on the High Seas: Animal Welfare & the Live Export Industry

On May 21, the Neameh, a Panamanian ship exporting cattle from Colombia to Egypt, was intercepted by Spanish authorities near the Straits of Gibraltar to be raided for suspected cocaine smuggling.

The search, however, was never completed; called off when agents needed breathing devices and their sniffer dogs were useless due to the overpowering stench of neglected and suffering cows. As reported by Europa Sur, a news organization based in Algeciras where the port of interception was located, “many of the animals lay dead on the ground for several days among urine, faeces and feed, in a state of decomposition.”

Not only does this horrific finding re-emphasize the animal rights violations and malpractices of the live export industry, but it also highlights shortcomings of animal trade regulation when ships pass through the jurisdictions of different countries. Even though the state of the ship when intercepted in Spain clearly violated EU regulations, it was still allowed to continue on to Egypt.

The live export industry has been around for decades, and the growth of the global demand for meat has expanded it to transporting in excess of 5 million animals each day. The consolidation of the slaughterhouse industry has also necessitated animals traveling longer distances or into other countries to be processed.

Countries all over the world participate in the live trade of animals, and Europe dominates many of the lists for export numbers with most of their animals going to countries of the Middle East that are willing to pay a premium for freshly slaughtered meat.

However, it was Australia that initially made headlines after the Farid Fares disaster of 1980, when a transport ship caught fire and sank, drowning 40,605 of the sheep on board. The incident prompted a greater surveillance over the conditions of live export vessels, and precipitated the arrival of a powerful animal advocacy group called Animals Australia, which by 2012 had made live export a mainstream issue now recognized all over the world.

Other animal rights organizations like Animals’ Angels, Eyes on Animals, and the Animal Welfare Foundation have joined Animals Australia in conducting investigations and large-scale campaigns focused on the live export industry. Eyes on Animals has found abuses from cattle trapped in Russia in a snowed-in truck with a frozen water system, to chickens dying of heat stress while their trucks are stalled outside a slaughterhouse in the Netherlands.

They have uncovered legal violations of journey logs that claim the mandatory 24 hour rest at a fake control post, and water devices full of manure and straw that are either not cleaned or too inaccessible to be cleaned. More generally, they have documented the extreme overcrowding and poor ventilation for transported sheep, causing sick, injured, or dead animals to remain hidden within the masses, as well as pregnant sheep that were illegally brought on board and had given birth to lambs that will likely never step off the rancid ship.

Perhaps counterintuitively, animals are not the only victims of live export. According to livestock veterinarian Dr. Lynn Simpson, “what shocked me most was the disregard for humanity and the poor conditions that many seafarers are forced to endure.

Some companies see seafarers as expendable, as confirmed by so many pirate hostages with no ransoms paid.” Lesley Moffat, founder of Eyes on Animals, concurs with the mistreatment of workers, feeling sympathetic towards the drivers who are usually more than compliant during surprise inspections by her organization. “They’re not the bosses,” she says, “They’re forced to drive really long hours, long distances alone, which is illegal, but saves the boss money.”

The activist pushback is not without its successes: New Zealand banned live export in 2003; Austria and Germany followed the Netherlands’ recent example of suspending transports to non-EU countries that are at risk of violating EU regulations; and just this month the European Parliament voted to establish an inquiry committee to investigate live export.

Activism, however, comes with a paradox as well. As animal rights organizations gain more power and public support, many transport companies do not want their reputations stained, and are more likely to decline the shipment of live animals.

All too often, however, this simply puts the animals into the hands of cheaper and less reputable carriers, and they end up in even worse conditions that they would have previously. What’s more, some countries now ban traded animals to pass through their borders, forcing a need to circumvent existing routes and creating an even longer journey for the creatures.

Uncertainty and complication regarding legal responsibility is one of the greatest obstacles to improving or ending live export. Animal rights laws are different in each country, and transporting across borders confuses jurisdiction to the point where there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement at all.

Although there is a World Organization for Animal Health that sets international standards, it has no power of enforcement, and up until fairly recently exporter countries have had no qualms in putting these animals at the mercy of destination countries in order to turn a profit.

This attitude continues even into the time of Covid-19, which becomes especially concerning given that research speculates animal consumption as the spark of the pandemic. According to the Ecologist, 75% of new infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and live animal export significantly increases the likelihood of these diseases arising and spreading.

Asia joins the Middle East in their status as common importers of live animals, and the notorious wet market in Wuhan, China is an example of where these suffering and sick animals often spend their last moments.

Unbeknownst to many consumers, the hamburgers and hot dogs grilled on hot summer days may very well come from a cow whose tongue was lolling and eyes were wide as it barely survived the heat exhaustion that claimed its decomposing neighbors, or a pig that had no choice but to lie in its own excrement for weeks at a time.

These realizations are at least enough for one to lose their appetite and at most enough for people to swear off eating meat for good. However, we do not all need to convert to vegetarianism in order to take a stand for both the welfare of these animals and our own. Something as simple as buying local or spreading awareness on various producers begins to cultivate the global responsibility necessary to impact, improve, or halt altogether the vast, unchecked industry that is live export.

For The Yucatan Times
Raquel Anais Smith

Raquel Anais Smith is a freelance writer specializing in environmental features, published across a variety of international online and print media.



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