Live sheep exports: I'm grumpy

Make no mistake - the live export of 53,000 animals from Timaru to Mexico is worth getting grumpy about

Radio New Zealand National’s Morning Report made me more than a little grumpy this morning. And no, it wasn’t because presenter Susie Ferguson was corralled into another live-on-air taste test of a vile consumer product, but instead because she said this:

“because ultimately it’s an awful lot of intellectual property that’s going to be sailing away from Timaru” (audio here) 

And the person she was interviewing, Federated Farmers' meat and fibre chairman Rick Powdrell, said this:

“we’ve got to be really careful about, y’know, getting emotive, about the ah, welfare of these animals” (audio here)

And earlier, the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, said this:

“These are for breeding. This is potentially going to offer premiums for South Island sheep farmers, a higher price than what they can currently get, so as I see it, this is a win-win.”

And our Prime Minister, said this:

“The Mexicans had a huge drought, so a lot of their breeding stock were wiped out, so they've asked us to send these sheep. It's kind of a win-win because they've come from parts of the South Island where there have been droughts, so the farmers have been keen to sell those sheep.”

Yes, I’m referring to the fact that the Ministry for Primary Industries has has approved the export of 50,000 sheep and 3,000 cattle from Timaru to Mexico. And I’m grumpy, firstly, because it’s clear Ministers of the Crown don’t read the Oxford English Dictionary during all that downtime they have:

win–win, adj.: Designating circumstances in which each party involved can benefit, or in which all possible outcomes are favourable.  

Had the Prime Minister and Minister Guy been just a little more diligent, they would have been able to be more accurate in their description, for it’s hopefully clear this isn’t really isn’t a win-win situation at all. Certainly, 53,000 parties to this transaction do not stand to benefit. For all of the animals that board the MV Nada – “the largest single-tier-livestock-deck configured carrier in the world– this will be a traumatic two-week journey. For some – with certainty – it will be a deadly one.

Moreover, New Zealand’s image does not stand to benefit: Chinese news agencies are already using the headline “Massive live sheep shipment threatens New Zealand reputation: animal rights group”. So, yes, while the “Mexicans” and some South Island farmers will financially benefit from this transaction, it isn’t really the classical win-win situation at all. News items that lead Morning Report don’t tend to fall into that category very often. 

But forgetting pedantry for the moment, I’m also just a little grumpy that Federated Farmers has the sheer audacity to say we need to be “careful” about being “emotive” about the “welfare” of these animals. It’s as if to do so would be unreasonable; that there is no precedent for live exports from Australasia being an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps Federated Farmers is simply ignoring that 4000 sheep died in a live export from Australia to Qatar just this January. Or ignoring the Almukairish case in New Zealand, when the SPCA was unable to prosecute the owners of the Corno Express in 1990 –  when nearly 10,000 sheep died from exhaustion due to the length of their fleeces – because the owners could rely on the permit they had obtained. Or ignoring that the very reason that the Customs Export Prohibition Order 2013 that bans live exports of animals from New Zealand for slaughter exists is the public outcry that followed the Corno Express disaster, (yes - the same ship) where over 5,000 sheep died from heat and exhaustion after the ship from Australia was prevented from docking in Saudi Arabia. Sure. Nothing to get “emotive” about here.

That Prohibition Order has been rolled over every three years since 2004, and the Ministry for Primary Industries proudly refers to it as a “protecting New Zealand’s trade reputation”. And yet, live exports continue, with 30,000 dairy cattle and 3,000 racehorses exported in 2013. So long as the animals exported aren’t intended for slaughter, the prohibition doesn’t apply, and it is subject to the normal export regime under Part 3 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

The problem with this is that the latest shipment of 53,000 animals is one of the largest in New Zealand’s history. Even if we can be certain that the animals aren’t eventually going to be on-sold for slaughter or face difficult environmental conditions in still-drought-ridden Mexico –  a fact Hans Kriek of SAFE accurately points out New Zealand simply can’t be sure of and has no control over – the focus on ‘live export for breeding purposes’ misses the point. As described above, the most acute welfare concerns with live exports are not necessarily what happens to the animals when they disembark, but what happens to them on the ship – the public outcry in New Zealand regarding live exports was in relation to the export itself. The Prohibition Order is simply a legislative fig-leaf; something that can be used to show that the Government is at least doing something.

But most of all, I’m grumpy that the points I’ve made above, and this narrative, are labelled as emotive at best, extreme –  ‘activist’ – at worst. I’m grumpy that Susie Ferguson was forced to talk about the loss of intellectual property when regarding the live export of 53,000 animals to Mexico, presumably because this is a legitimate economic concern and not another bleeding-heart animal welfare issue. I’m grumpy that the Government pats itself on the back for continuing to banning live exports for slaughter whilst still allowing live exports for any other purpose. We put a lot of animals in awful situations in this country, trucking them around the country for hours on end, but in those situations there is a rationale of necessity: the farmer has to get them to the abattoir somehow. Here, there is no defence. Some South Island farmers will make a little extra cash. Some “Mexicans” will have some extra sheep. But this transaction is in no way 'necessary'. And the fact that I can’t get grumpy about this without being labelled as a busybody is worth getting grumpy about.