Live export vet: Animals were 'cooking from the inside'

Whistle-blowing live export vet, Dr Lynn Simpson, pulls no punches in a brutally honest series of exposés that are catching attention worldwide — detailing the daily reality of 'life' on-board live export ships.

LAST UPDATED: 6 September 2017

Dr Lynn Simpson served as the on-board vet for some 57 live export voyages, tending as best she could to the needs of animals and humans alike.

Now, in an ongoing series of hard-hitting editorials (in the renowned shipping magazine Splash 24/7 and more recently The Good Weekend) Dr Simpson is using her unique insider's view to systematically shred the marketing spin of live exporters. She gives harrowing and vivid descriptions of debilitating injuries, heat stress, slavery, pirates — as well as suffering and death on a colossal scale.

Australia condemns millions of animals to live export every year. These are just some of their stories.

You're in extreme environments where death is everywhere around you.

A live export ship is no place for a nursery

Expectant human mothers are lavished with attention, they're treated with tender care and devotion — but most animals aren't so lucky. Despite being just as protective and loving mothers as their human counterparts, pregnant sheep and cows are frequently forced on board export ships, despite their delicate condition.

Dr Simpson reports seeing countless mother cows and sheep suffer abortions or still births due to stress. Others are unable to protect their babies from being crushed to death in the cramped conditions on deck. Sometimes the newborns outlive their mothers, but not for long, as animals born at sea are required to be 'humanely killed'.

On some voyages, Dr Simpson was forced to kill newborn lambs nearly every single day.

The crew were all so sad. Many missing their children terribly ... would challenge me as to why we had to [kill newborns]. Grown men cried. Some tried to hide lambs. It was heartbreaking.

On another voyage, as she conducted post-mortems on 120 dead and dying sheep, who had been roughly piled together on deck, Dr Simpson describes how it broke her heart to see a newborn lamb curled up against his dead mother's side, seeking the warmth and protection he would now never know.

Hell on the high seas

Floating coffin may more accurately describe the experience of being on board a live export vessel. Sheep die on every ship that leaves Australia.

When they are first driven on board live export ships the animals should be fit and healthy — in the prime of their young lives. But after just days at sea, some will look like soldiers returning from war. Filthy, swathed in bandages, with broken horns or open wounds.

Injuries commonly seen are cuts, fractured bones, chronic abrasions, internal injuries from being thrown against rails in bad weather...

They are the walking wounded. Except in those cases when they can't walk — or even stand — due to exhaustion, starvation, injuries or sheer lack of space. They are fighting for their lives, unaware of the hell that still awaits them.

Gentle Australian sheep, used only to grazing in the wide open space of paddocks, are suddenly thrust by the thousands into cramped shipboard pens. Danger lurks at every turn: from rogue waves and overcrowding to extreme (but predictable) weather conditions.

Once in the Great Southern Ocean, somewhere between Antarctica and Australia, a sheep was picked up by one of many freezing cold rogue waves several decks above the freeboard, thrown into a gate pin, ripped open from his sternum to his mid thigh, landing at my feet with his intestines and liver spilling over my boots and onto the walkway. I cut his throat within 10 seconds. Others were also hit by rogue waves in upper decks and thrown around like ragdolls. Thousands of sheep were being smothered by others and hundreds died of hypothermia within hours.Dr Lynn Simpson

Floating ovens

At the other end of the thermometer to hypothermia is heat stress. And that doesn't mean just getting a bit sweaty. On a ship without adequate ventilation, a few degrees can mean the difference between life — and a truly excruciating death. Dr Simpson recalls a harrowing phone call she once received from another vet on board a poorly designed live export ship with practically non-existent ventilation. The temperature had shot up, and the vet was watching on in horror as the cattle in his care literally disintegrated before his eyes.

Dr Simpson describes the phone call she once received from a rattled vet on a badly designed ship with inadequate ventilation, who told her the cattle in his care were literally disintegrating. To clean up, they were trudging through a soup of melting cattle.

For perspective, YOU can suffer from brain damage if your body temperature climbs over 41 degrees Celsius. Without immediate medical attention, you could die very quickly — and painfully.

Now imagine the fate of sheep who are rounded up in the middle of an Australian winter, crammed onto live export vessels, and shipped straight into the heart of a sweltering Middle Eastern summer.

The humidity goes through the roof and when severe heat stress took hold of animals, there was little Dr Simpson could do — except sweep through the decks with a sharp knife delivering 'mercy killings'. Sheep deaths double on ships at this time of year, yet exporters have consistently fought against attempts to give animals more space (and more chance of survival) during this high-risk period.

Dr Simpson once took the temperature of a fallen sheep, and was blown away to find it was 47 degrees Celsius. (That's essentially the same temperature as your hot water system at home.)

Their fat was melted and like a translucent jelly. They were cooking from the inside. After that, any animal that looked like it was about to collapse, I killed.Dr Lynn Simpson

We chastise different countries for boiling animals to death. Yet here were our sheep cooking from the inside out.

Dr Simpson says she no longer eats "lamb". Treating heat-struck animals left her with the indelible impression that "there is very little difference in my view to slow cooked meat and bodily decomposition post death."

Moving dead and dying sheep aside to treat their fallen companions, their legs would sometimes literally come off in her hands. Trapped in the floating ovens that live export vessels can become once they hit Northern Hemisphere summers, these Australian sheep had agonisingly baked alive in their own skin.

I don't need to watch cooking shows, I've watched it happen on the hoof. ... The deck smells like a cross between a Sunday roast and roadkill.Dr Lynn Simpson

The voyage is just the beginning

Incredibly, even after all of the suffering these animals have gone through, their trials are not yet over. Tendon slashing. Eye stabbing. Sledgehammering. Butchered alive. This is the litany of horrors that have awaited countless Australian animals in overseas slaughterhouses.

Dr Simpson remembers watching Animals Australia's Indonesian live export investigation — 'A Bloody Business' — that aired on the ABC's 4 Corners program, describing it as "an earthshattering revelation."

Some Department of Agriculture employees were so affected by watching A Bloody Business they needed counselling.

Watching the footage of 'Trembling Tommy', the young Australian steer who watched on, helplessly, as his companions were slaughtered in front of him, Dr Simpson trembled herself.

She had risked her own safety to tend to the animals in her care, often with substandard veterinary equipment, and under extremely difficult circumstances, only to unwittingly deliver them to "torture and a cruel death". The realisation shocked her to the core.

I should never have put a single bandage on. I should have shot them all in the head. It would have been the more humane thing to do.

This is the reality of live export. It is messy, cruel and chaotic. And every year Australia condemns millions of gentle sheep, cattle and goats to suffer in this industry.

Each and every one of those animals had a unique personality and experience of life. And none of them deserved to suffer at sea, or be subjected to a terrifying death a world away from home. For them, and for the countless animals who we have the chance to spare from this agony, here's how we can...

Fight live export cruelty

To the live export industry, these animals are faceless commodities. But to us — and to you — every bull, cow, sheep, lamb and goat is an individual, who deserves our care and protection.

I believe, in time, society will collectively see live export as abhorrently unconscionable, just as we now consider the human slave trade.

We all have a choice to make about how we see and treat animals. And what better way to stand up against live export cruelty than by celebrating these amazing individuals, each and every one of them?


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