In 1986 I was an active member of Animal Liberation. Due to some quirk of regulations, the Government issued us with special passes that allowed us to enter and inspect without notification any place where animals were kept for commercial purposes. At the time, live sheep export was a key animal rights issue in WA. So we made a point to visit the various places involved in this trade: sale-yards, holding facilities, ships, and the abattoir (for those that weren’t exported). We were granted access to all these places except the ship, and we had quite extensive and frank conversations with the workers on site.
What is it like for the sheep?
The entire process is one of great suffering. From their mostly-adequate sheeply existence on a farm, they are herded on the trucks in crowded conditions, driven over noisy and confusing roads to a saleyard, where they are repeatedly moved and shuffled around, prodded by powerful electric prods. Then back on to more trucks, into unfamiliar fields, then on trucks again to the shipyards. More herding and prodding, then weeks on a crowded, unfamiliar ship, with the smells of oil, metal, and sea. Then to port, through the whole procedure a few more times, only to end up in a killing field having their throat cut. It is a barbarous and cruel business.
There are those who will argue that we should not anthropomorphize the sheep. They like being crowded together. We can’t just assume that they would feel as we would feel.
But this is what I saw at the sale-yards on the outskirts of Perth. At the back, out of public eye, behind the sheds, is a pile of dying sheep. Most are not dead yet; they kick, bleat, and quiver from time to time. They are there every day that sales are on. And every day someone from the RSPCA, whose job is to minimize animal suffering, kills them and removes their carcases.
Why are they there? According to the workers we spoke to, these are animals who were too feeble to survive the truck journey. They are old, or weak, or ill. They said that the farmers should really have killed them themselves, but it is cheaper and easier to put them on a truck, so that they are someone else’s problem. And who knows, maybe some will survive and actually fetch a price.
This is, let us remember, just the first stage of the journey. At each stage, there are similar stresses and sufferings for the animals, and at each stage some animals simply cannot stand it and collapse or die. Imagine if, whenever you caught a train, the conditions were so bad that a dozen or more elderly and unwell people died of stress, and this was considered a normal part of train travel. That is comparable to the situation for sheep in the live export trade.
In consequence of this grievous and gratuitous suffering, the live sheep export trade, among the countless atrocities perpetrated on animals by we civilized humans, has consistently been singled out by animal rights activists as particularly heinous.
What has changed?
In the last year or so, as Australian readers will be aware, this has become a hot-button political issue in Australia. A number of high-profile reports on the ABC (the national broadcaster) have depicted the gruesome conditions which the sheep are subjected to in Indonesia and the Middle East. This has sparked an astonishing public response, temporary bans, and new conditions imposed on our trading partners.
To an old animal rights activist like myself, this is all very curious. We have been saying these things for decades, and no-one was interested. Why now? What has changed?
I can only think of one thing that has changed, and that must be at the root of the public’s emotional response: Islamophobia. The ostensible purpose of the trade is, of course, so that the sheep can be slaughtered halal. It is a religious thing, and if one thing has changed in Australian, and more generally Western society, in recent years, it is a growing distrust and dislike of all things Islam. This is why the scenes of mistreatment of sheep in foreign, dusty countries of dark-skinned people cause such outrage, while no-one knows or cares about the dying sheep that are daily tossed on to the pile at the back of a shed in Perth.
This makes the whole issue much more ambiguous. If the trade is such a source of suffering, then is it not justified to leverage the public’s Islamophobia to create a better outcome for the animals? Dubious at best; hypocritical, manipulative, and dangerous at worst.
The best of bad choices
For me the renewed interest in the issue has had one benefit, though. I have thought more carefully about the ethical issues, and I am no longer convinced that we should ban the live sheep export. In fact, strange as it may seem, I think it may well be ethically the best practical outcome for the sheep’s welfare.
I arrived at this counter-intuitive conclusion by simply applying the Golden Rule: do unto others. Consider the options, and ask yourself which you would prefer.
On the one hand, you have the option of being sold for the live export trade, with all its inherent suffering.
On the other hand, you could be slaughtered locally. Doing so you miss out on all the weeks of suffering. But, and here is the crux of the matter, your life would be cut short by several weeks. Sure, several weeks of cruel, suffering, undignified, pointless life; but life nonetheless.
And at the core of all our ethical intuitions is one simple fact: beings love life. They will cling to it even in the most adverse of circumstances. We can all imagine cases where we would prefer death to life. But they are extreme circumstances indeed, and I pray that none of you have to make such a choice.
What would you do if faced with such a choice? Several weeks of uncomfortable, cruel travel towards an inevitable death, or an immediate death? I suspect most of us would choose the longer, more painful journey. Perhaps some would choose to end life quickly. But in either case, there is no clear-cut case that one alternative or the other is really better.
If we are so unsure about our ethical choices for ourselves, how much more uncertain we are in evaluating the sheep’s welfare. We can say, with high confidence, that the sheep suffer on their journey. But can we say that they are worse off than if they had been killed here in Australia? I don’t think so. Perhaps, in truth, we prefer the idea of a quicker kill so that we don’t have to witness their suffering.
Neither option is good. Neither would obtain if we lived in a world that truly valued the happiness and welfare of all sentient beings. But of the two, it seems to me that the extra weeks of life are likely to be of more value for the sheep than the avoidance of the suffering encountered in these weeks.
What, then, are we to do?
Regardless of what one might think of this, however, the main point is this: there is no clear case that one alternative or the other is significantly better for the sheep.
For this reason, I think that we should not waste our efforts trying to have the trade banned. There are plenty of clear, unambiguous ethical issues where our energies are better directed.
None of this is in any way a justification for the trade. I am not saying it is right or good. On the contrary, I believe, as I have for all my adult years, that all commercial use of animals is wrong. In an ideal world, it would be illegal to use another sentient being as a commercial product, full stop. Animals are, like people, ends in themselves, and should not be reduced to merely a means for profit or pleasure.
But this ideal world is a long way from our world. Ethics must, if they are to be anything, be practical. And the practical options in this case are to ban the export, or regulate it to minimize suffering. The latter seems to be the approach taken by the Australian Government so far, and on balance, I think it’s the right thing to do.