Live Animal Export: Australian horse transportation by sea for slaughter

Dr Lynn Simpson returns with a depressing look at horses being shipped around the world.

Horses at sea? Really? I’ve loaded a few. They are very high maintenance and dangerous to crew. The last large amount of horses shipped from Australian shores were for the World Wars, many died of respiratory diseases on the voyage, one dead one was returned for a museum.

I thought we had learnt our lesson.

Years ago during a voyage I was surprised when a crewmember showed me images of horses of all colours, sizes and ‘ex’ purposes (racehorses, polo ponies, children’s riding ponies, some still with shoes on), all unfamiliar to each other crammed into our ship with a similar stocking density that is currently used.

They were old, broken down, injured, lame and unwanted horses being exported from South America to Europe. Destined to be slaughtered for human consumption as meat, especially as salami.

It was quite a sight to see these animals in the bowels of a ship; I was so conditioned to cattle and sheep, I was amazed.

Recently the Australian government has been developing standards for the transportation and management of horses to be ‘live exported’ from Australia.

Really!? We have been exporting sheep and cattle for 40 plus years and haven’t got that to a broadly acceptable standard yet. In a trade that is struggling along with other shipping sectors at the moment and should be looking for a more reliable, less volatile, chilled, frozen meat alternative; it is ludicrous that it is gearing up for expansion. Or is it grasping at straws?

This week the Australian senate announced support for the blocking of live export of horses, donkeys and equids for slaughter.

However; the Department of Agriculture has prepared contingency plans already: in case someone submits an application to do otherwise.

I have had horses for over 40 years and they are commonly seen coming off of horse trailers with leg and tail bandages on. Over protective owners? Possibly? More likely they are more physically fragile than cattle and have the ability to hurt themselves readily, especially their legs.

Ships are not designed for horses, railings, holes, drains- all horsey risks. The risk of horses hurting themselves increases as they are prone to bite, fight, kick and get ‘cast’ (stuck upside down when resting on the ground) more so than their less highly strung cattle and sheep peers. That’s if they do lie down during the voyage, they have a strange hind leg locking mechanism that enables them to sleep standing up, something I’m sure they would find difficult in an open pen in heavy seas. This would result in extreme fatigue and lameness.

Several years ago, against my better judgment I relented and bought a horse from an island state. He had to travel in a horse truck, on a ship for about 24 hours. There were no disasters, no adverse weather, breakdowns etc. However, when he was unloaded he had injured his tail down to the bone by the movement of the ship and required minor surgery to correct the damage. I can only imagine how much damage a horse could get into on a voyage of any longer duration.

What about the crew? Horses are flighty in nature and do most of their damage to humans accidentally.

They go to kick another horse, get a person. They go to rear up in a confined space and can strike a nearby crewmember.

Are crews going to be specially trained for shiploads of horses? I doubt it.

They take more finesse to handle and manage humanely. I predict the crew could get badly injured trying to help injured horses.

Feral horses and donkeys are much more likely to injure crew through fear and avoidance behaviour.

However, there is another danger that domesticated and tame horses pose. The most commonly used anti-inflammatory drug used in Australia is Phenylbutazone (PBZ). PBZ is used routinely on horses that have injuries or illness resulting in pain. There is no register of which horses have been treated. The bottle states it is NOT TO BE USED in horses intended for human consumption regardless of when it was administered in the animal’s life.

It is a legal requirement in fact that PBZ is not to be used in any animal producing or intended to produce food for human consumption. Hence the reason it is not used in primary production animals ever.

Old or excess horses are more likely to have ailments that have meant they have been exposed to this drug. Increasing their potential to pose a human public safety risk to the consumer.

The risk is low but present. It can cause a rare but potentially fatal blood disorder in humans called ‘aplastic anaemia’ causing the consumers bone marrow to fail to produce blood cells. It is currently not possible to say what amount triggers this disorder, hence it is not possible to identify a safe level of residue in the meat.

Horse meat has been the cause of many a scandal when it has been used to substitute beef by unscrupulous traders.

A joint assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) stating the consumption of potentially PBZ residue is not their highest concern, however; it is not possible to set safe levels for PBZ in food products of animal origin and both the ESFA and EMA state its use in the food chain should remain prohibited.

Is it fair to be using consumers as ‘guinea pigs’. Gamble with their health with a product we cannot assure the safety of? Again.

I don think so, I would hope the Australian government would take heed of the European science and not take the risk.

In my experience there are millions of helpful and safe horses at sea already; they are called ‘white horses’ and indicate the white crest of small waves at sea as seen in the background of the header image.

Live export vessels rely on these ‘horses’ to help flush the toxic gases (Ammonia, CO2), and heat out of open livestock decks and replenish fresh air.

The smart money is to utilise these environmental ‘horses’ at sea to help the already trapped cattle and sheep while this trade persists and leave the breathing horses on land, where they belong.

For Lynn Simpson’s full archive of shocking exposés into the livestock trades, click here.


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  1. This is a barbaric trade which must cause unnecessary physical and mental suffering for the animals, many who have served their Owners well during their lifetime.

    1. I totally agree with the above statement. There are a lot more drugs that cause problems in people who eat horse meat. Trichenosis a n f toxoplasmosis are two more problems with eating horse meat.

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