Live animal export: Shipping’s modern slave trade

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.


Livestock conditions 2

Livestock conditions 4

Livestock conditions 3



  1. I read (with dread) this article and find the conditions incredibly unbelievable. The writer did specifically single out Australia as the ‘exporting’ port (?) and only referenced “northern hemisphere” points of discharge. Here we go again. What is the point of the story, spreading technical, factual, knowledge, if we don’t use specific names of countries or ports that are involved with this trade?

    Who are the owners and operators of such ships? Where are the flag states of the vessels involved?

    You can’t solve the problem if you don’t first be intellectually honest about WHAT it is, WHO is involved and then address them specifically.

    I believe the shipment of live animals can be accomplished humanely and efficiently. But owners may argue costs and profit margins at that point. I’ve seen it done before on cattle carriers out of Hawaii, relatively smaller ships (about 3000 head) running up to Vancouver, Canada. Vets were on dock during loading onboard, as well as out at ranch for loading into trailers for hour drive to harbor. They also monitored loading and inspected ship throughout the day/night. Usually done within 10-12 hours. As a harbor pilot, we used to do theses ships here about 3 or 4 times in a year for a large ranch owner here. I would stand around and watch, talking to truckers, cowboys, ranch managers, and vets, as well as Captain, about whole process. Rather eye opening if you’ve ever seen this before! Very unique “sea-going” operation.

    But those style of shipments stopped quite a while back. Shipping still done, but entirely different method, using special custom fitted containers.

    This problem as described in your story should be addressed by entire community involved from land to sea and back to land. Everyone involved in shipment process plays a role, whether they admit to it or not.

    1. Hi Ed, appreciate your comment. Lynn outlined full details in a report for the Australian government. She was fired for doing just that and is currently fighting the government in court. You can read and see a TV segment on her story here. We’re very lucky to have her speaking out for the first time.

  2. Thank you for speaking out Lynn. There is an alternative to supply meat overseas as you say, chilled meat, yet our government keeps resisting. The government in their non action are condoning this horrific cruelty both on the ships and at the destination.

  3. This is heartbreaking!

    Why are we shipping live animals via ocean freight in the first place??

    Thank You Lynn for bringing this to our attention.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story and your experiences Lynn. Too often the plight and suffering of animals in many situations goes unseen by the world , and it takes people like you to enable their story to be heard. Much respect.

  5. There are some who might remember me as the President of the Singapore Steak Lovers’ Association, a once vibrant social group that eventually fizzled out. These same folks might be surprised to learn that I’ve since gone vegan, only about one week before this article was published. The cruel treatment of animals as described in the article is one of the three key reasons for going vegan, the other two being the impact that the meat industry has on the environment, and the health advantages. This article is a useful reminder for staying the vegan course. Kudos Dr. Simpson.

  6. Modern slavery is an apt description. Meanwhile many of us continue with the excuses and talk rather than taking meaningful personal action. Anyone with genuine compassion for the obvious suffering of these peaceful animals, must do more, and dare I suggest it, move out of our comfort zone. A good start point is to stop supporting slaughter houses, and other vile animal exploitation here in our own backyard. Many are doing this and I hope soon the numbers will reach a critical point when we will have the power to help these brutalised modern day slaves. If you want to help, be strong and start making some courageous moves rather than hoping someone else will fix it. Our leaders aren’t going to help any time soon.

  7. As a veterinary consultant with extensive experience in the live trade, I feel a strong obligation to respond to Dr Simpson’s subversive and highly contentious assertions.

    It is sad that Dr Simpson is now very prejudiced against the same trade that employed her for so many years. She might have some reasonable grievances, but her ability to actually contribute to some positive outcomes within the industry is clearly limited by her clear and very public contempt for the whole industry. Dr Simpson’s comparison of the human slave trade to live animal transporting by sea and air smacks of anthropomorphism – expressing human feelings in animals – in a way which is certainly very emotive but, in reality, is very wide of the mark.

    Dr Simpson has completed 57 voyages live export voyages, but is now appearing on the ABC and publishing online articles being very critical of the very industry she worked in for more than a decade. This in itself is quite telling because Dr Simpson is going to great lengths to point out the ‘dark side’ of the live trade, without providing any positive observations. If the industry really is that bad, what was Dr Simpson doing during the dozens of voyages she worked on and did she try to change the things she didn’t like?

    Live animal exporting is purely an exercise in very basic animal husbandry aboard a floating vessel. In simple terms, it comes down to a certain density of suitable animals congregated together in a pen. The animals are supplied with food and water and the flooring is deep litter.

    The animals need adequate ventilation and protection from the elements. Any circumstance which compromises these basic requirements creates and animal welfare risk. It is that simple.

    My experience, with includes taking about 20 voyages over four decades, is that about 98 per cent of voyages take animals which are suitable for export (young, fit and healthy), and load them at a suitable density of roughly two-thirds full which allows enough room to sit in sternal recumbency.

    The animals also have ad lib access on at least two sides of the pen to water and high-fibre, low starch food, with fresh air supplied via ventilation systems which does not rely on the ship’s movement and has a fail-safe back-up.

    Hard floor surfaces covered with deep litter, consisting of food litter mixed with animal manure and urine, while not suitable for humans, is very acceptable and sought-after by animals. It does not constitute a risk of faecal contamination.

    The vast majority of shipments meet these very basic animal husbandry needs. The use of accredited Australian stockmen and supervising vets are supposed to ensure that these principles are adhered to and such professionals are there to apply appropriate animal husbandry measures if an animal welfare risk occurs.

    Stockmen and, where appropriate, vets supervise in a hands-on capacity to help avoid loading and discharge stresses on the animal, provide treatment to the sick and injured and dispose of the very small number of animals which die on board.

    They are to speak-up and demand a better standard for the animal if compliance is compromised to ensure that, while there will always be a certain number of deaths, that number is as low as possible and in keeping with best-practice animal welfare standards.

    The Australian Government has created laws and regulations to cover the ship design, animal standards and the licensing of exporters. Daily reporting systems are in place to monitor the welfare of the animals at sea and animals are now even monitored after discharge all the way to their slaughter in approved abattoirs.

    Problems do occur in the live export industry when the accountants are allowed to dictate terms at the expense of animal husbandry principles and the animal is compromised. We can’t control a weather or shipping catastrophe, but we can and do determine the standards the industry must adhere to in terms of best practice principles and strategies.

    In this setting, none of the animal welfare risks presented are unmanageable nor do they justify the closure of the industry.

    All interested parties need to rise above the criticism and fix the problems as they arise.

    There are a number of compelling imperatives associated with live animal export industry, including social, ethical and economic, and it benefits both Australian and our customers overseas.

    I believe strongly that we have a moral responsibility to keep the trade going.

    Of course there are many people who see any animal or livestock industry as abhorrent and unacceptable.

    In agriculture this includes caged egg farms, chicken broiler production, intensive pig breeding and insensitive calf rearing for veal. Other non-agricultural examples include rodeos, horse racing, cock fighting and so on. Some of these present welfare issues which are plainly unacceptable, while others are acceptable provided that the animal welfare is protected by appropriate regulation and backed-up by sound acceptable animal husbandry.

    It is my opinion that most animal intensive production is well covered in countries like Australia by government laws, welfare bodies and legitimate, respected industry groups like the Australian Veterinary Association.

    Unfortunately, more extreme groups often have a hidden alternative agenda and are just basically mischief making. The general population which is increasingly naïve about animal industries and meat production, can be impressionable when it comes to such mischief making.

    As such the role of those of us with professional knowledge and experience is even more important. Animal welfare professionals have a particular responsibility to must bring informed balance and integrity to the discussion. I fear this responsibility has not been met in recent days by Dr Simpson.

    Dr Peter Arnold (Veterinary Consultant – BVSc, MSc)
    Perth, WA

  8. Dear Peter,

    I apologize if the sharing of my factual live export experiences has offended you. Some of these matters are clearly confronting. Since my introduction to the live export trade in 1999 I have made multiple, if not almost constant attempts at influencing reform and improvements for the animals in this trade that I have found to be flawed.
    Thank you for the prompt to share with the readers, that, apart from my onboard veterinary work including daily and end of voyage reports as well as specialized reports on selective and sometimes unique onboard problems, my attempts at animal welfare reform in live export have included:
    -Being a cattle lecturer to the ‘Stockmans onboard accreditation course’, writing a submission to the ASEL review, (a process of which I know your familiar), writing a submission to the Marine Orders 43 review, contracting my veterinary services upon request to the Australian Governments Department of Agriculture, Meat and Livestock Australia and LiveCorp.
    Your definition of “deep litter” being sought after by animals for resting purposes troubles me. In my experience, animals do not seek to rest in a slurry of shit and urine. Lets call it what it is. It starts as an inadequate layer of sawdust, then becomes a deep layer of accumulated shit and urine. It is not “deep litter” it is not “bedding” it is not correct to even call it a faecal pad, it is livestock sewerage. They cannot escape it.
    We agree however; that more people from the live export trade should be demanding better standards for the animals. I dearly wish more people would! However; my, and others experiences proves to me that when this is done, suggestions are either ignored or the person who speaks up loses their job.
    Thank you for reiterating in your ABC radio interview from 2013,
    the inherent shipping risks faced in live export such as pirate attacks and rough, gale forced weather. Im sure the animals would not choose to take these risks if they had a contract to sign before boarding. However, as two animal welfare professionals we appear to have had some varying experiences. I for one have never had the experience of, having had a voyage mortality that was “so low it was embarrassing” and “mortalities were negligible” as you state in your radio interview. That voyage must have been something special. Id love to see photos of it some time. Perhaps this lower stocking density of which you speak from this voyage should be adopted in the new version of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) to which we are legislatively bound, when it is rewritten? Have you suggested to the Government that this could be the new outcome? That would be fabulous.

    I agree with you that as animal health professionals we have a moral responsibility to both our farmers and the welfare of the animals involved in the live export trade.
    I disagree that the “general population is increasingly naïve about animal industries and meat production. In fact quite the contrary, that’s why they are voraciously demanding reform. The public is increasingly aware and increasingly opposed to many outdated practices still being perpetuated on our and other soils, and of course at sea. Thank you for taking the time to share your opinion Peter.
    Much appreciated.
    Dr Lynn Simpson

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