Dr Lynn Simpson, one of Australia’s most experienced and respected live export veterinarians, writes for Splash.
Only a true seafarer can understand how addictive shipping is. Only a few of us can explain it to the uninitiated. It’s often adventurous, it also has its challenges. These challenges shouldn’t be as grave and predictable as throwing dead animals ‘over the side’ on a regular basis and having ships fitted with machines to grind up dead bodies.
Bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, fires and pirates should be enough to sate any adventurous appetite.
I worked as a stevedore in Fremantle for the last three years of university to pay my way through vet school. This was my introduction to shipping. I was soon hooked. I never expected my veterinary degree and love of cattle to see me sail with the merchant navy for 11 years.
Upon graduating I found myself walking up the gangway with my luggage for the first of my 57 live export voyages from Australia to the northern hemisphere as a shipboard veterinarian.
I loved shipping for its sheer scale and adventure. Tragically I was quickly seeing the live export trades similarities to the historical human slave trade. In the 19th century, empires were built on the backs of slaves, kidnapped and sold from their home countries. High mortality rates on voyages, and poor treatment in destination countries once on sold.
Replace human slaves with live animals in your mind’s eye and, well, it’s the same scenario.
It was believed that economies would collapse if slavery were abolished, but brave people like William Wilberforce prompted social pressure to end the slave trade – and economies still flourished.
Whilst helping sick and injured animals at sea, I was always reminded of the human slave trade and the song Amazing Grace, written by an old slave trade sea captain, in repentance. Poignant and mournful.
I’d be doing a surgery such as an eye removal on a bull, kneeling inches deep in shit and urine as the ship rolled, and wonder if in the future this trade would be abolished like slavery and the world would look back in wonder and shame that it was ever considered acceptable. I spent hours at sea in conversation over how wrong what we were doing was. Then head back on deck to see how many animals needed killing and thrown overboard next.
I believe in time society will collectively see live export as abhorrently unconscionable, just as we now consider the human slave trade was.
Why did I stay involved since 1999? Well, my feelings were akin to offshore detention centre doctors today. I had the skills, access and pragmatism to provide the care, help and in many cases euthanasia required to minimise the animals suffering in this difficult environment. I couldn’t turn my back on those animals trapped in this draconian system we call live export. I wanted to provide a positive influence in reducing the unnecessary pain and suffering this trade involves.
I’ve sailed with animals through war zones, cyclones, heat waves, pirate-infested waters, over capsized ferries with human bodies bobbing against our hull.
I’ve also been to some exciting and remarkable places, worked with some amazing crews, nationalities and great characters! I bought a set of antique slave shackles in Libya a decade ago. A stark reminder to me of my complicity. Also a great conversation starter to the uninformed.
During unloading we were usually tucked away in foreign ports like lepers. Returning after any shore leave I was always astounded by how much my floating home reeked like I was returning to live in road kill. No wonder other seafarers used to ask me how I can stand it, having told me they could smell us for miles!
The people working on these ships have my total respect. It is a very difficult job to do well. I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing and professional seafarers that worked tirelessly to try to make up for insufficient animal welfare legislation from the Australian government’s department of agriculture. I’ve seen these deficiencies cause much embarrassment to shipowners and crews, myself included.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has acknowledged this deficit and as such invested much effort into making the ship standards as animal friendly as possible. I applaud them for their achievements; however, animals are not designed to thrive in such an environment. These AMSA standards should be mandatory worldwide as an absolute minimum.
However, in my veterinary opinion the most humane shipping option for the animals is of course to not board a ship alive but to be sent as chilled or frozen meat.