When live export ships become huge floating ovens

If you saw a dog trapped in a car on a sweltering day, what would you do?

LAST UPDATED: 9 August 2017

Odds are you'd act urgently. You might call security or the police, you might smash a window — above all you would do what was needed to get that dog OUT. And it's safe to say: you'd be furious that someone put an animal at risk like this.

Now imagine that dog is a sheep. But instead of being locked in a hot car, she's trapped on board a live export ship heading into a scorching Middle Eastern summer.

For her, and for hundreds of thousands of Australian sheep each year, rescue isn't a smashed window away. Death by heat stress is a constant risk to animals on live export ships, and it surges during June to September, as they're sent from a freezing Australian winter into intense heat.

Each year thousands of Australian sheep die on board live export ships — many from heat stress. This suffering is accepted by the industry as a cost of doing business.

She'll be crammed in tightly with other animals, and if weather conditions do become extreme, the temperature and humidity soar to unbearable levels. The air will thicken with ammonia rising from the urine and faeces surrounding their feet ... and as the metal bars enclosing the pen start to radiate heat.

Eventually the stronger animals, desperate for cooler air, will climb on top of the weaker — searching for any scrap of a breeze. Those shoved down are crushed, often suffocating under the weight. Others, panting and foaming at the mouth, crowd around limited air vents and strain their necks through barriers to the rancid air of the corridors.

When respiratory distress sets in, they can take up to 300 breaths every minute. This severe overheating is so common the industry even has a term for it — ‘tonguing’ — where animals are gasping for air, mouths wide open and tongues hanging out.

An Australian live exported sheep suffering acute heat stress

Some sheep will hover near water troughs, but end up in such a bad state of dehydration and weakness that they choke when they try to drink. With so many animals packed into each deck, it's impossible for the one vet on board to assist individuals. Regardless, vets can't perform the miracle that the sheep need: a dramatic reduction in air temperature and humidity, and more oxygen to breathe.

If the air temperature doesn't drop, their bodies will reach a point of no return where it's simply too hot for their systems to function, their internal organs shut down, and they collapse. Then these gentle animals start to die.

Sometimes this already nightmarish situation erupts into all-out disaster, like it did on the live export ship called the Bader III in 2013. On that horror voyage, more than 4,000 Australian sheep died of heat stress during an extreme weather event.

Or in 2016, when over 1,700 heat-stressed Australian sheep perished on board the Al Messilah. Another 1,286 animals remained unaccounted for, with the live export company's report to authorities describing how it lost count of the number of dead and dying sheep as the ship arrived in Doha.

Marking bodies was ineffective as they were decomposing rapidly in the heat making marks difficult to distinguish and keep track of.Live export company Emanuel, in The West Australian, 9 Aug 2017

Even if the weather becomes cooler, the damage is already done. For days, animals will continue to die from the lingering effects of acute overheating.

And the final tragedy? For the animals who endure this excruciating suffering to arrive at the intended destination, only more cruelty awaits. Ultimately, their throats will be cut while still fully conscious.

In the wake of one of the “most extreme heatwaves” ever recorded, Australian live exporters are still packing thousands of sheep into suffocating ships to the Middle East and exposing them to fatal heat stress.

Surely, even live exporters can see that this is wrong. Click here to take urgent action for these animals today.

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