Environment – Animal transport is a moral issue

The world’s biggest livestock carrier, the Ocean Drover, has been in New Zealand waters to collect 6600 dairy cows to ship to China. The Ocean Drover can accommodate 75,000 sheep or 18,000 cattle. Although the usual shipment size from New Zealand to China is about 6000 to 8000 animals, in 2015, 50,000 sheep and 3000 cows were sent to Mexico. Besides the issue of directly selling our golden geese offshore, there are animal welfare considerations that spring to mind when this many animals are transported by ship halfway around the world.

Travelling by sea is a pretty unnatural way for sheep and cattle to get around, and must cause considerable stress for the animals. New Zealand banned the export of live animals for slaughter in 2003, but the export of live animals for breeding is still permitted, though often they don’t fare well and can struggle to adapt to new conditions. The Ministry of Primary Industries says there are strict rules around water, food, space and housing, as well as qualified stock stewardship en route, but there is no independent auditing or observers on board.

The scale of these shipments and the length of their hostile journeys gains public attention. But large, long stock truck movements are such a common sight of the New Zealand landscape we sometimes overlook the similar issues that apply. Big truck and trailer stock units on New Zealand roads can hold 440 adult sheep, 700 lambs, 45 prime beef cattle or 100 weaners. Animal transport can traverse the length of the country and often the animals are subject to unnecessarily long journeys. Other times, stock trucks are parked up in laybys, sometimes full of animals, captive living cargo, for hours on end, regardless of summer heat or winter cold.

There are rules under the Animal Welfare Act that govern the conditions of animals for and in transport. Animals must be fit and healthy, freely standing on all four limbs, fit enough to withstand the journey without ‘unreasonable’ or ‘unnecessary’ pain or distress, and not likely to give birth during transport. These rules are reinforced by DairyNZ, which also suggests cows should go directly to the nearest rendering plant. But “if traveling more than four hours, they should have regular stops, rest, food and water, with a comfortable, safe journey so they arrive robust, fit and healthy”.

It is in the best interest of farmers, stock handlers and stock cartage companies that animals are kept in good condition, before and during transit. Dead or anxious stock is no good for anybody handling or receiving the animals. Even if, ultimately, many of them will be killed for meat anyway. There’s apparently nothing illegal about global shipments of thousands of living, feeling animals, as if they’re just commodities, nor in the national transportation of animals across New Zealand in vast numbers by road. But, all the same, it feels unsustainable and immoral.

Christine Rose christine.rose25@gmail.com