Are you critiquing those media stories? For example, "live exports" ...

In early September 2020, a ship taking nearly 6,000 cows out of New Zealand, capsized off the coast of Japan. It’s been reported that the ship capsized because the ship's engine failed, then it was hit by a freak wave.

Now look at the headlines, commentary and stakeholders that have waded in to the discussion associated with that event.

  • “Cattle ship capsize: Role of live export trade under intense scrutiny”
  • Political parties weigh in on live exports after the sinking of Gulf Livestock 1”
  • “Capsized Cattle Ship: New Zealand Suspends Cow Exports
  • “Bloated cows floating in a turquoise sea? It's time to end live export

The practice of live exports has been a contentious issue for many years. As with most practices associated with the human-animal relationship, there are a diverse range of frequently polarised views reflecting the interests, worldviews, and responsibilities of the different stakeholders.

So what words do YOU use to describe “live exports”?

  • Cozy or cruel? Comfortable or tortuous? The words you choose likely reflect your feeling about the practice and in turn, that’s affected by the picture that comes to your mind when you think about the term “live export”.
  • For example, when you think about "live exports" do you think about the transportation of small animals like dogs and cats? How about prized horses that are flown in to various countries for breeding purposes, complete with their own groomsmen and attending veterinarian? Alternatively, and understandable, for many people “live exports” means the transport of animals like sheep and cows that are transported for breeding and consumption purposes.
  • Of course, when things go wrong the event can become an opportunity for those wanting to have their say, and potentially a frenzy of media, politicians, producers and animal advocates – as demonstrated when 5867 cows perished on 2 September 2020 when the Gulf Livestock 1 ship capsized and sank west of Amani Oshima in Japan.

How well are you critiquing the media reports? What is fact and what is hearsay? What is the balance between objective and subjective content? And what’s the level of common sense, logic  and rationale demonstrated in the reported commentary? Are you adding context to the reports, reactions and advocated responses?

One starting point is to put the event in context of the total numbers, and total mishaps. Transportation of animals across international borders happens every day. It is estimated, for example, that over two million pets and other live animals are transported by air every year in the United States alone. In 2015 it was estimated that there were approximately 1.49 billion animals transported within the European Union.

It’s been reported that 3 million animals are exported from Australia every year for slaughter overseas. Remembering that critiquing is not simply criticising, but a methodology to understand and assess statements and situations, then it is a useful exercise to examine stakeholder statements using critiquing methodology. For example, according to one animal organisation: “Cattle, sheep and goats are shipped long distances in conditions which result in illness and death for a significant number of individuals”.  Those people objectively critiquing the statement naturally query: 

  • How many animals represent “a significant number”?
  • What is the verifiable, credible empirical evidence?; and 
  • Who is making the judgement call on what is “significant”? Next question: do you expect that the number that represents “significant” would be different between a producer versus a member of the public? or a government representative in contrast to an animal advocate organisation? Put almost any question involving the treatment of animals to those different stakeholders and would you be surprised if you got vastly contrasting answers?

Critiquing requires that in addition to considering the types of animals being transported and the purposes for transporting them (e.g. horses for breeding purposes, cows for consumption, international pets travelling with their international owners) there are also questions to be asked about the conditions that the animals are kept in while travelling, and the validated outcomes of the journey (e.g. mortality percentages).

So, how can practices deplored by some people on the basis that they cause pain, distress, and suffering to animals, continue to be lawful? The answer to that question involves understanding the word "necessary" as it's used in animal law.

  1. The law has the responsibility to appropriately balance and prioritise the vast range of stakeholders opinions.
  2. Animal welfare legislation (or equivalent), as society’s of rulebook, does NOT establish standards on the basis of preventing an animal experiencing any/all pain, distress or suffering.
  3. However, the law DOES prohibit people’s actions, or omissions, which cause an animal UNNECESSARY pain, distress, or suffering.

Of course, the debates, contentions, and legal proceeding frequently revolve around what is considered to be “necessary”. You might find it helpful, for example, to compare what different stakeholders deem "necessary" by having a look at the references attached to this post. 

Now imagine what changes would occur if the rulebook required people to not only prevent an animal's unnecessary pain, but to ALSO provide animals with opportunities for comfort, interest and pleasure. That’s the change advocated for by IAL i.e. implementing a legal reform that puts positive animal welfare law in to practice.

So, maybe take another look at live exports and consider, is it the transportation of animals that’s the problem (i.e. does the practice need to be banned?), OR is it the rulebook that establishes the CONDITIONS under which animals travel, that’s the underlying problem (i.e. is it time to update the RULEBOOK?)