Fewer than 23 million people live in Australia, compared to over 74 million sheep. Once a sheep is no longer producing wool at peak rates, economics dictates what its owner will do: ship it overseas to a country with a higher demand and lower supply. After all, Australians can eat only so much mutton.
That “shipping it overseas” part is a lot more problematic than it may sound. In fact, it means torture, starvation and often death for the live “cargo,” as Care2′s Sharon Seltzer has reported. According to Animals Australia and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), “Tens of thousands of animals don’t survive the sea journey.” Animals Australia says that “2.6 million sheep have perished on live export vessels since the trade began.” In 2010 alone, the group reports, 27,000 sheep “died before reaching their destination.”
Not that sheep have it so great at home in Australia. They are subject to mulesing: slicing skin off their legs and hindquarters, without anesthesia, to prevent flystrike. The shearing process is also brutal as shearers are paid for speed; on top of that, “many sheep die from exposure after premature shearing,” according to PETA.
But once they are chosen for overseas transport sheep face a whole new level of hell. Recently, PETA reports, “tens of thousands of sick sheep” on a ship from Australia to the Middle East “were left stranded aboard their vessels, struggling to survive in sweltering weather” after Bahrain and Kuwait both turned them away.
Even without problems at their destinations, many sheep do not survive the overseas trip, or even the trip to the docks. This picture shows sheep hanging over the edge of a transport truck because they are so crowded; conditions on ships are similar. They are packed so tightly into the trucks and then ships that “many are unable to reach food and water troughs.” Crowding also means some sheep are trampled to death, according to animal advocacy group Viva!
European Union rules permit animals to go over a day without adequate food and water.
“The grueling journey can last several weeks through all weather extremes, with sheep confined amid their own waste on ships that hold up to 100,000 animals. Conditions are hot and cramped—the perfect environment to spread” painful diseases.
Australian sheep are not the only ones forced to endure and often die during miserable transports. Recently 45 sheep died while being transported from the port at Ramsgate in England. The doomed segment of their journey started on a truck “carrying more than 500 live sheep on four tiers,” according to Farmers Weekly. The truck was declared unfit for travel, and when the sheep were unloaded, 43 of them were so lame that they had to be killed. The surviving sheep were placed in a holding area, where two more of them then drowned after the floor collapsed.
Another truck was turned away from Ramsgate because the sheep aboard had no access to water. Farmers Weekly reports that authorities “rectified the situation,” but if that is the case, it is unclear why the sheep were then sent away. Ramsgate recently suspended live transports from its port.
A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that “If meat needs to go to the Continent then it should be on the hook, not on the hoof,” in order to prevent this kind of suffering. Personally I’d rather see less (or even better, no) meat and not have anyone “on the hook,” but even those who support the meat industry like the RSPCA find live transport unsupportable.
The Australian sheep industry is not interested. Meat & Livestock Australia reports that “live sheep exports” are expected to stabilize “after 2011′s decline, in terms of numbers shipped.” The Australian government has also failed to take any action.
What you can do: boycott wool. If there were no market for wool, there would be no spent wool sheep to transport overseas.