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OPINION: Court case to stop 80 000 sheep being exported: 7 questions for Humane Society International

OPINION: Court case to stop 80 000 sheep being exported: 7 questions for Humane Society International

2 August 2020


The National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) has turned to the court to stop a shipment of over 80 000 sheep from the Eastern Cape to Kuwait this month, citing animal abuse concerns.

If, on 6 August, the courts rule in the NSPCA’s favour, it would mark the first known instance where necessary animal suffering for human consumption has been tested in courts.

It may also have a lasting impact on the export of all live animals out of South Africa.


What is the concern at the moment?

This is a trade of sheep from the Eastern Cape to Kuwait and sometimes to Oman. So part of the technical issues about the animals’ welfare are species-specific.

So it’s important that you know that we get that right because the court case with the NSPCA fighting is specifically about this journey. It’s not, at this stage, a ban on all live transport. What happens generally in this trade is that there are a number of companies who have converted a car carrier or container ships to move livestock around the world.

There was this company that sourced a lot of sheep from Australia, since about 2011, and they’ve got some regulatory headwinds that were starting to build in Australia: people were very concerned about the welfare of the animals on board this vessel and there were some whistleblowers by both vets onboard and crew on board. And as a result, there’s a summer embargo and other types of oversight and regulatory interference in the trade from Australia.

These companies have now established a base in South Africa and are seeking to export up to 600 000 sheep a year from the Eastern Cape, exported live for slaughter in either Oman or predominantly in Kuwait. So the problem with this is, even in normal circumstances, not a good welfare circumstance for the animals to be in at all.

So the reason why the company cannot operate out of Australia is because they did studies on heat stress mortality, and they’ve set an embargo period from July to October. So they’ve come to South Africa to seek to fill the gap during that period. South Africa, unfortunately, has no specific regulations about long-distance transport of farmed animals by sea.


Some people may argue the sheep are going to be slaughtered for human consumption anyway, so does the conditions under which they are transported to Kuwait, matter anyway?

Yes, I think that’s a fair question. People will ask that. And I think, of course, it matters.

Just because the animal is ultimately going to die doesn’t mean it should be committed to a life of misery – we’re ultimately going to die. You know, the same standards apply to us.

The law, in fact, is quite clear about how farmed animals should be treated in South Africa. As a general rule, they need to be stunned before they slaughter. There is a SABS (South African Bureau of Standards) standard that prescribes certain guidelines for how animals can be transported by road. And that’s designed to reduce injury and suffering, when they’re being transported by trucks, but there’s nothing like that for transport by sea.

So, I think there’s a moral question and a legal question here. And, from a moral point of view, if we are going to use these animals in our food chain, which for now, it seems that that’s generally the case, then I think we have a moral duty to treat them with the requisite care during this process, and the Constitutional Court has confirmed that animals are important legally in their own right and individual capacities. And there’s a long history of jurisprudence around animal cruelty as well, that it’s both belittling to us as humans, and it is obviously unacceptable to animals to treat them with unnecessary cruelty.

And we’re saying this trade in live animals must fall within the existing legal framework and those animals suffering must be reduced to the point that there is no unnecessary suffering in this process.

Putting them on a vessel for 21 days where they live in all sorts of compromised welfare states – that’s unnecessary suffering and it shouldn’t be allowed.



What are some of the other unnecessary pain that these animals would go through on the journey to Kuwait?

We don’t know what the exact number is, but the ship can carry 85 000 – but previous journeys were in the region of 60 000 or 65 000. But large numbers of animals are going to be transported all in one go down to the harbour and loaded onto the ship. And it’s just practically not possible to do that in a humane way without incidences of mishandling and injury to the animals.

It’s also not possible to inspect that many animals for disease. In the past, pregnant animals have been loaded on the voyages which have gone unnoticed during the loading process.

And so, on the previous journey, the NSPCA reported extensive contraventions of the law in terms of the way the animals were handled and have, in fact, laid criminal charges against certain persons who were involved in that.

And if you can imagine the ship, it’s an all container vessel, but it’s a box structure on top, so it has eight decks, and all enclosed in steel. So they’re loaded in on those eight decks in pens. And those pens have steel floors, and that ship moves and these animals are packed in very high stocking densities. They can’t all, for example, lay down at the same time.

There’s often an accumulation of gas in the lower decks on the vessel, specifically ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. And the animals suffer respiratory distress from that – some of the weaker animals can’t get to the front of the pens to access the water and the food which is delivered automatically. So they end up getting dehydrated and dying of thirst or starving to death. Sometimes they just collapse in the slurry of the effluent of the pen that they’re in and they get trampled and they get suffocated. Sometimes the animals get their appendages caught in the railings of the pens and they suffer broken limbs.


How often do these sheep exports take place in South Africa?

This is the third vessel of sheep. I think the first one was in on 4 October; then there was one in February now this one – the plan that has apparently been communicated by these companies is up to 600 000 animals a year, so maybe 10 or 11 voyages.

And so it’s going to be fairly routine, if they’re bringing three million animals a year out of Australia, and they’re looking to replace those animals from the summer embargo for four months out of South Africa, these are big numbers. And so there are economic questions about this.

You know, the farmers are unhappy with the welfare organisations, with the NSPCA in particular, saying that we’re anti-business and so there’s a lot of money involved in this trade certainly. But we think the whole thing is predicated on unlawfulness and should never have been allowed in the first place.


What are the concerns around the spread of disease with these animals on the ships?

Obviously they’re prone in that environment to pass the disease to each other, right? Anytime you have a lot of animals living close to each other, whether it is a pig farm where the pigs are in gestation crates, or whether it’s a feedlot, or whether it’s a ship, you have this problem of disease transmission between animals. I mean, the conditions are really ripe for that if it’s humid, if it’s moist, they’re living in their own waste, and the animals are right on top of each other, and they have no veterinary care.

There’s an additional area that we haven’t spoken about much during this campaign because we want to stay focused on the cruelty issues because that’s the basis of the NSPCA’s litigation, but livestock is also an identified source of zoonotic disease. So we’re all suffering under this Covid crisis and at the moment, the understanding is that the Covid virus emerged originally from a bat. But it’s not exclusive to wildlife.

Other zoonotic diseases that have had pandemic potential, or bird flu-like H1NI1 and Sars, have also come from factory farming context; MERS, which is another disease that came from livestock. Ebola, HIV, these are all diseases that have jumped the species barrier from animals to humans.

So the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have flagged factory farming; also high-density animal production and international transport of live farmed animals as risk factors into transmitting disease.

And you couldn’t really think of a better incubator for these types of viral and bacterial infections than a ship with 80 000 animals on, living in their own waste.


Why would this ruling be important for animal rights in South Africa?

The South African regime is pretty progressive. It’s surprisingly progressive compared to the US. You know, the Animals Protection Act, even though it’s so old, is quite extensive. It includes farm animals, which doesn’t happen in America. And we don’t have this active campaign by the legislature to try to shut down advocacy for better standards for animals. We’ll see now how they respond.

So there’s an assumption that it’s okay to keep pigs in cages while they’re breeding and laying hens in cages, because that is necessary suffering. But that’s never been tested in the courts before. So this is quite the issue from a legal point of view and is bigger than just the sheep. So we’re hoping for a positive outcome there.



What is your personal motivation to be involved in this issue?

I think the way we teach and also the reflection of the values that we have in our society. There’s a strong correlation between communities that abused animals and where other vulnerable groups – children, women, elderly people and minorities – were also abused, in particularly, in the case of violence.

So in the US, some states like Colorado, they link social work and animal cruelty work together. So if they find an instance where there is abuse in one context, they have to notify the other agency to also go and have a look there because very often where they find animal abuse, they’re also going to find an abused child or something.

So, the Constitutional Court in South Africa said cruelty to animals and eliminating that fits in with our constitutional values. The country we are trying to build is one where everyone can express their constitutional rights to dignity and their rights to freedom from violence and so on. This entire industry is predicated on exploiting these animals ruthlessly and very often manipulating them by force. And I don’t think that’s acceptable.

I think people are not going to generally accept the arguments for veganism – we’ve got a long way to go before that, even though, you know, public health issues and so on are starting to change minds. But coming back to where we started – if you’re going to raise animals for food, you need to afford them some basic minimum care, and the law requires that our morals require that and this long-distance transport doesn’t meet those standards.



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