OPINION: Live animal export: a moral violation?

OPINION: On NOV 12, 2012 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

It's a debate guaranteed to arouse strong emotions and the ire of animal welfare groups. But is it morally and ethically wrong, or an economic and social necessity? Dr Simon Coghlan looks at the polarising issue of live animal export.

Live animal export is again in the public spotlight. Following the rejection by Bahrain of 22,000 sheep on the MV Ocean Drover, the animals were finally offloaded in Karachi. Pakistani media subsequently reported that up to 10,000 sheep were clubbed, stabbed, and buried alive.

The polarised nature of the live export debate is revealing of how more traditional moral perceptions can come into conflict with evolving ethical ideas. Justice Michael Kirby recently said that animal welfare may be one of the big moral issues in the years ahead, and called for us to stop regarding animals as mere "things''. In contrast, Tony Abbott claimed that the 2011 suspension of live cattle exports was a terrible mistake.

It was the Four Corners program, 'A Bloody Business', which cemented this issue in the public mind. Undercover filming in Indonesia by Lyn White of Animals Australia revealed that many of our exported cattle were subject to some of the most extreme cruelty Australians had ever seen. They were variously eye-gouged, slashed multiple times in the throat, and cast roughly onto the floor, their heads slapping up and down on the concrete.

Significant public and political debate ensued. Activist group GetUp! received huge support for a petition to end the trade. Bills were introduced into the parliament to phase out live export. The government set up the Farmer review.

After a suspension, trade was resumed. A year or so later it was apparent the government's new regulations had failed.

The trade has a troubled history. As far back as 1980, over 40,000 sheep were killed in a fire aboard the Farid Fares. After Saudi Arabia refused to take a shipment of some 57,000 sheep in 2003, the Cormo Express was forced to remain at sea for months, and extreme temperatures killed 6,000 sheep. Not long after, it was reported that Australian cattle in an Egyptian abattoir had had their eyeballs and genitalia stabbed with knives and their leg tendons slashed in attempts to subdue them for slaughter.

Millions of Australian animals in this trade have died en route. Animals crowded onto ships are more likely to suffer stress, poor appetite, and salmonellosis.

So how have these problems been handled? Organisations like MLA and LiveCorp tend routinely to downplay any adverse incidents, claiming they are anomalies and that their activities improve animal welfare in destination countries.

Minister Joe Ludwig conceded recently that self-regulation in the industry had failed, yet also boldly claimed that animal welfare is at the heart of the export trade.

On the other side, Andrew Wilkie asked whether the government really "gives a toss about animal welfare". The RSPCA has long been a critic, and Vets against Live Export a more recent one.

However, some others have argued that Australia's involvement in the trade is morally required on animal welfare grounds. First, Australia's relatively high animal welfare standards help to gradually improve animal treatment in other nations. Second, our retreat would encourage the sourcing of animals from countries further afield, with far worse animal welfare records.

This argument is a utilitarian one, which requires that the empirical evidence be carefully weighed and at least rough probability factors assigned. In this case, we must weigh the certainty of Australian animals suffering against the prospects of significant welfare gains in destination countries and animal harms arising from the involvement of alternative exporting countries. It is not clear that the argument can be won on the utilitarian grounds of overall improved animal welfare.

A non-utilitarian argument is that we have a special obligation " a duty of care " to the animals in Australia which we have deliberately created, and which we use for our own benefit. We may not, this argument goes, gravely sacrifice the wellbeing of large numbers of our own animals in order to improve the wellbeing of other animals from foreign countries. This argument may be strengthened by recalling the utilitarian point that it is anyhow very unclear that more animals overall will be much better off should live export prevail.

Another justification for the live trade is that it is economically and socially important. While the trade generates export dollars, the economy would survive without it. However the livelihoods of many people would certainly be affected should the industry be shut down.

And now we reach the controversial but central moral question in this story - namely, what we owe to animals. If the facts related above are accurate, those who clear-headedly approve of the trade must think it permissible under certain conditions to expose our cattle, sheep, and goats to certain risks - even the risks of severe suffering, abuse, and gruesome death - for the sake of economics and employment.

Yet the public's response to the Four Corners episode afforded a glimpse of a different and developing moral consciousness. For many people, one of the haunting and lingering images of the footage was of a black steer standing by as his fellows were brutally killed. As the steer watched what was happening, and just before he too met the same treatment, he trembled in fear. The eyes and body, the rippling black skin and demeanour, were vividly expressive of sheer physical terror, and perhaps even of an animal, bodily fear of death - the kind that JM Coetzee evokes poetically when, for example, he speaks in Elizabeth Costello of the "living, electric being" of an animal, being prodded down the chute.

Many people perceived also in this image a kind of moral horror, one containing incredulity that humans should treat animals that way, or be so complacent in allowing it to happen.

These sorts of responses individualised the black steer and marked it out as a proper object of compassion and moral concern. And the depth of concern for this wholly abandoned creature, one might say, coloured the sense many people had of the broader moral violation which had taken place.

No-one, however, thought that the animals were the moral equals of those whose jobs might be affected by stopping the trade. Still, the horror, pity, and moral outrage felt by some of those who watched that trembling black steer was indicative of a different and perhaps evolving moral mindset.

Simon Coghlan is a veterinarian, who also tutors in philosophy at ACU Melbourne. He recently completed a PhD in philosophy at ACU - on the moral difference between human beings and animals - under the supervision of Professor Raimond Gaita.

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