Live Animal Export: Blindsided

Dr Lynn Simpson on dealing with animals with eye troubles in transit.

I recently went to a charity ball for Soldier On. I wore the requisite long gown, high heels, and make up. I’m tall, and slim(ish), with long auburn hair and green eyes. None of the people I shared that ballroom with, would have picked me for someone who could, and has, killed multiple mature cattle with sledgehammers, a fire-axe and a pocket-knife… in the line of my Australian Government Seafaring Veterinary role.

I didn’t know which fork to use on the beautiful silver service table however; but I know which arteries to sever for a quick kill.

Why am I telling you this? Two reasons.

One, I’ve had four rape attacks. Two at sea, two on land – none ‘successful’. Like many women I didn’t report them. Not through victim shame, I was not at fault, but because it was likely I would be charged with assault or lose my job. The attackers behaviour was misguided and illegal. I physically and proudly hurt all four of them. Prey animals should think carefully before they ‘cross a line’.

Lessons were learnt.

Two; I have, killed with sledgehammers, a fire-axe and a pocket-knife.

Onboard I have much important work to get on with, sulking is not an option.

Land-based live export vets are possibly yet to learn some lessons. Especially that ‘reject’ animals with ‘pinkeye’ should be left on land and treated appropriately as dictated by the legislation; not ignored on final inspection and allowed to board a vessel. The final inspection usually limits the inspector to stand on one side; therefore only 50% of the animal is visualized. Inspection is flawed.

Some cases are difficult to detect, some are mild, some severe. All are painful. More so if the eye prolapses and essentially bursts open. Not uncommonly seen on ships.

These animals are treated on board with a range of medications; eye-ointments, intra muscular antibiotics and anti inflammatories.

In the worst cases I would surgically remove the eye.

With sheep I usually just kill them. Any sheep with severe pinkeye or related prolapse was not afforded the same time and treatment as cattle were. Time was of the essence and I didn’t have time to conduct surgery when carrying the very large numbers a sheep carrier usually carries, and maintain a reasonable level of care for the rest of the animals.

Prolapsed eyes are tremendously painful, they do not heal well and in a crowded shipboard environment get knocked and further damaged in the pens.

This disease is usually spread by flies carrying the bacteria from one animal to the other, on a ship we rarely have flies, hence I believe the mechanical ventilation helps transmit the disease via forced air flow throughout the decks Air required to provide oxygen for life and rid the decks of toxic gas build ups.

Once the eye is removed the animals usually recover with medication within weeks and the bandages can come off. Due to the unavoidable shit coverage on everything at sea the surgical site needs to be bandaged to stay clean and enhance healing. On land we would rarely place a covering over the site. But paddocks are generally clean with no high-pressure hoses splashing shit around.


If the eye injury becomes too severe close to the discharging port these animals are shot and thrown overboard as the time for healing is not available and we do not know what level of care these animals may receive.

A risk with these animals is that if you accidentally approach one from the blind side it may get startled and run you over. This leaves crewmembers wary of going near animals with eye issues and making the movement of vision impaired animals to hospital pens a delicate exercise to ensure the safety of the animal and crew.

I don’t think I’ve done a voyage without pinkeye present.

One unfortunately memorable voyage our ship had a really high incidence of pinkeye. It was evident from day one. The inspection had failed the animals, the crews, the exporters profit margins and Australian agricultures good name.

Many surgeries were conducted, countless animals injected with medication to treat pinkeye.

However, the biggest challenge would come when we tried to unload the ship.

Many of these cases had gone unnoticed in dark holds. The usual whitening of the eyes surface failed to develop clearly, yet the animals were totally blind. In fact, during unloading we found 22 beautiful, approximately 320 kg female cattle were blind in both eyes.

As we tried to move them from their pens to the trucks it was evident they could see nothing. They ran at speed into metal rails and upright beams. If I could have x-rayed their skulls I’m sure there would have been fractures. We couldn’t hear the bones break over the ventilation noise; the impacts were nauseating to watch. The blind animals were left in their pens for several reasons.

First, to prevent them further pain and injury, secondly it is illegal to load a blind animal onto a truck, and importantly it is very dangerous for any person working with large blind animals.

Not having any crewmember accidentally pulverized and run over by a blind cow was paramount.

On this particular voyage we were in Russia. The Russian authorities have a habit of confiscating our gun when we are in port. This is contrary to our welfare needs as we often have animals to euthanize during unloading through injury or evident illness or weakness. I had complained to the authorities previously, yet still our gun was taken. It only had a range of 121 mm, we were not a threat to the Russian Federation.

The shipboard vet is the responsible welfare person, and is not permitted to leave the ship until the last living animal is unloaded.

On this night a colleague and I had to improvise. We used what was left of our sedation and killed all 22 of the blind cattle. Some sedation worked well enough for us to wait for them to collapse, tie them up with ropes and cut their throats using a very sharp pocket-knife. Some, the sedation did not work as desired and I had to straddle the rails whilst my colleague gently guided the animal under my range and I slammed the blind unsuspecting beast in the back of the head with the ships fire-axe. If I was on target the beast dropped with the first blow. This didn’t always happen. It wasn’t pretty.

Once we had the animal on the ground we tied it up quickly and cut its throat.

22 kills with a pocketknife and two very pissed off crewmembers.

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


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