Most livestock vessels are old, converted to carry animals at the end of their run, said Vlag. That also puts the cargo at risk. “Fifty-year-old ships are hard to maintain, let alone find the spare parts that no one manufactures anymore.”
Of the 78 vessels approved by the EU for livestock transport, 53 have been detained three or more times for serious violations of the Paris MoU, according to a report released in June by the Animal Welfare Foundation.
The Elbeik, for example, is 54-years-old and was previously found lacking. In an inspection in January 2020, it was cited for cracked beams, floors and windows as well as other safety violations. Six months later, inspectors found eight new deficiencies, including problems with the engine, steering and weathertightness.
Before the mass euthanasia on the Elbeik, the official veterinary report found that iron pipes in the pens of the ship were broken or had rusted areas with sharp elements that may have scratched or hurt the cattle. The pipes that supplied drinking water to the animals leaked.
The report also concluded that the animals on board had suffered. It cited eye, skin and motor issues in the bulls, as well as weight loss leading in extreme cases to cachexia, a disorder that causes muscles wasting. “Some of these cachectic animals were in a state of stupor, unable to open their eyes or respond to stimuli,” the vet wrote.
As it is, more than half of the livestock vessels operating in the EU “pose a threat to animal welfare, health and safety,” according to a 2020 report on live animal transport. And although there are veterinarians that approve ships to load animals, they’re primarily concerned with the health of the livestock. They may not even have access to ship inspection records.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has said live animal transport is “ideally suited for spreading disease.” Animals from different herds are confined in stressful environments, often with poor ventilation. Eventually, that’s bad for humans, too. While the origins of Covid-19 remain murky, it’s indisputable that animals have diseases that can transfer to people, and epidemiologists have been among the loudest critics of live animal export.
Still, industry trade groups including the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council said current regulations are adequate and the threat to public health isn’t any greater than conditions found on farms. Australia exported more than 2.3 million livestock in 2019-20; after picking up the trade that New Zealand is set to ban, the nation’s industry will be worth an estimated $1.9 billion.
“No other country has the rigorous assurance system that we have in place for animal welfare,” said Mark Harvey-Sutton, chief executive officer of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council, an advocacy group for exporters. “Our desire is that more governments meet the Australian standards. That’s the best thing for the animals being transported.”
Australia also requires exporters to record daily mortality rates and notify agriculture authorities if animals die at a rate higher than 0.5% per voyage, or at least three animals. In 2020, Australia exported more than 1 million live cattle by sea and ships reported a total mortality rate of 0.11%, or about 1,224 animals, according to government data.
Mortality statistics are only the most extreme evidence of animal suffering, said Foster of Vets Against Live Exports. “Animals are huffing and puffing for days because of heat stress, they haven’t eaten or they’re covered in sores. That’s suffering and animal cruelty, but they’re not dead,” she said. “It’s difficult to know when boats are going, where they’re going to and what’s on board. It’s an industry that’s shrouded in secrecy and a lack of transparency.”
Waitz, the European parliament member, agrees. He recently was in Cartagena, Spain, where he observed cattle being beaten and kicked as they were being loaded onto a ship. On visits to other European ports, Waitz has been barred from the vessels entirely. “They’re probably afraid of what we might see,” he said.
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