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Ship of shame

Sunday, September 21, 2003
INTRO — RICHARD CARLETON: Somewhere in the Middle East tonight, there's a ship of shame, a ship packed with more than 50,000 Australian sheep that no-one wants. Now, it should have been only a 16-day voyage, but these poor animals have now been at sea for 47 days and a large number are known to have died.

Now, this is yet another animal-welfare disaster, compounding the case against the Australian live-animal export trade, a trade we first highlighted two months ago. Now, that story is still attracting mail from outraged viewers and tonight's will no doubt cause more anger, as some scenes are quite distressing.

STORY — RICHARD CARLETON: This is the Cormo Express. We found it lying at anchor over the United Arab Emirates at the mouth of the Persian Gulf just three days ago.

RICHARD CARLETON (ON PHONE): Sir, good morning to you. Richard Carleton's my name, calling from Sydney, Australia. Could I speak to Martin Robertson please, the vet on the ship?

After contacting the ship, we were stopped from broadcasting an interview with its vet by LiveCorp, the company that runs Australia's live export industry.

RICHARD CARLETON (ON PHONE): Could I ask you a few questions for television please about what's happening on the ship?

We can't broadcast the vet's actual words, but I can tell you he says the mortality rate is "not too high". Not too high, if you find seven percent, just under 4000 dead sheep, acceptable. That count was last Thursday.

What would be your guess as to the conditions on board the Cormo Express right now?

STOCKMAN: Well, at the end of three or four weeks, the smell is unbelievable.

RICHARD CARLETON: The sheep were loaded in Fremantle in the first week of August, bound for Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis rejected them, saying a disease called scabby mouth was above the agreed threshold levels. Australia rejects that and received an independent vet's opinion to that effect.

In the 45, 50 days they've been on it now, what's your guess as to how much faeces there'd be on the bottom?

STOCKMAN: Oh, nine inches to probably close to a foot now.

RICHARD CARLETON: So they're in pens and they've got four to six inches headroom clearance?

STOCKMAN: Yeah. When you discharge, anything's that's dead in the middle of the pens is pretty much covered up by faeces by the time you discharge.

RICHARD CARLETON: What? There are dead ones in the middle of the pens? Why don't you pull them out?

STOCKMAN: We can't get in there.

RICHARD CARLETON: This stockman has asked that his identity be concealed, because last time he spoke out, the industry regulator blackballed him. Now this man has done the very same journey on the very same vessel, the Cormo Express, that's in this most unholy mess now. Now, all indications are that the circumstances on the Cormo Express now are much worse than he experienced and his experiences were horrific.

STOCKMAN: What they do is, when they die and they're out at sea, they drop them down a big laundry chute into a mincer at the bottom and it just smashes them up and squirts them out the side into the water.

RICHARD CARLETON: So how deep is this laundry shoot?

STOCKMAN: Nine stories. It's just like a laundry chute, opening door on each floor and you just drop them down. And in quite a lot of cases, the sheep are still alive. In theory, there is plenty of time to cut their throats and kill them first, but they just get put in the chute alive.

RICHARD CARLETON: This is unbelievably cruel.

STOCKMAN: Well, it happens pretty quick and they're so close to dead anyway, but they're just left in the walkway sometimes for a couple of days just kicking their legs.

RICHARD CARLETON: It's not as if this is the first time these disasters have happened. It used to be so frequent that for nearly 10 years we banned the trade with Saudi Arabia altogether.

GLENYS OOGJES: This doesn't surprise me at all. We had 11 shipments rejected through '89 and '90. We put a ban in place then. It should still be there.

RICHARD CARLETON: Glenys Oogjes, from the welfare group Animals Australia, says this current disaster was totally predictable.

Well, the Government seems to argue that it's done nothing wrong, Australia's done nothing wrong, we've fulfilled the contract.

GLENYS OOGJES: It's a morally bankrupt thing to say. I mean, for goodness sake, the minister allows this trade to continue. It's just for profit. He allows animals to get onto boats not knowing whether they'll get off at the other end and how they'll be looked after.

RICHARD CARLETON: Minister, is the truth of the matter you can't give them away?

WARREN TRUSS: We are undertaking a range of negotiations involving agencies and countries...

RICHARD CARLETON: The minister responsible is Warren Truss, Minister for Agriculture.

How many have died?

WARREN TRUSS: The number of sheep that have died is above the two percent limit …

RICHARD CARLETON: How many have died, Minister?

WARREN TRUSS: ... which triggers an investigation into these sorts of issues, but speculation about those sorts of numbers is amongst the issues that causes difficulties when it comes to discussions with other countries. Some people associate these things with disease and any suggestion that the animals are anything other than fit and healthy is clearly unhelpful to the discussions.

RICHARD CARLETON: Minister, may I suggest to you it's not very helpful talking to you if you won't reveal the number of dead when the owners of the ship have posted a figure on their website, and yet you're trying to keep it secret.

WARREN TRUSS: I am not trying to keep it secret.

RICHARD CARLETON: Well, what is the number?

WARREN TRUSS: What I have done is confirm is that the number of deaths is above the level which will require a full investigation.

RICHARD CARLETON: Yes, that's 1000 sheep, so two percent?

WARREN TRUSS: Our priority at this time is to find a satisfactory outcome to the discussions and surely those who care about the sheep, those who really care about the sheep, will be giving a priority to their welfare and making sure that the negotiations can progress as quickly and as smoothly as possible.

RICHARD CARLETON: We're talking about the same photographs, aren't we? I mean, these ones showing these unbelievable conditions.

STOCKMAN: Yeah.

RICHARD CARLETON: These are all your photographs?

STOCKMAN: Yes, they are.

RICHARD CARLETON: You sent them to LiveCorp?

STOCKMAN: I did.

RICHARD CARLETON: What happened to the stockman who took these photographs on the Cormo Express points to, well, questionable administration of LiveCorp. Bear in mind, this chap is no city slicker. He's been working stock for 30 years.

STOCKMAN: Actually, they're lambs. The ewes that was on the voyage had lambs and they couldn't be discharged, so the crew was asked to hit them on the head and they were put down the chute into the mincer.

RICHARD CARLETON: But you're not allowed to have newborn lambs on these ships.

STOCKMAN: No, there shouldn't be pregnant ewes exported.

RICHARD CARLETON: But after alerting LiveCorp to the conditions on his trip, our stockman says his days working for them were then over.

STOCKMAN: Yes. At first, when I sent the information and complained about it, they seemed quite distressed, or the person in charge of the livestock offices for LiveCorp did, but, obviously, when she went to the next level, things went cold.

RICHARD CARLETON: And no more jobs for you?

STOCKMAN: No. Not in live export.

RICHARD CARLETON: LiveCorp says our last story on this issue was biased and malicious. We showed how sheep are sometimes trucked 50 hours straight, then a voyage of two or three weeks, then this outrageous treatment at the receiving end, in this case, Jordan and Israel. Before this footage was broadcast, it was shown to LiveCorp and shown to the office of the Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss.

WARREN TRUSS: Now, many members will have, no doubt, seen the story on 60 Minutes ...

RICHARD CARLETON: After the broadcast, the Minister told the Parliament …

WARREN TRUSS: The disturbing vision that was provided for that program came from a European animal activist group known as Animals Angels and is obviously many years old. Some are even questioning whether the footage involves Australian animals.

RICHARD CARLETON: In fact, they are Australian sheep and this footage was less than one year old. This footage is from just last week and it shows more of the same, more of the treatment that would be just not on in Australia.

Are these the facts that, for the last 47 days, 57,000 Australian sheep have been standing in faeces up to a foot deep with four inches headroom clear, half of them have urine raining down on them and there is no end in sight?

WARREN TRUSS: The Australian veterinary officer on board in his most recent report has advised that the sheep are in good condition, they are putting on weight, that they are healthy, that the weather conditions have improved and that the standards on board ship meet expectations.

RICHARD CARLETON: Sir, can I suggest to you that this fiasco was totally predictable?

WARREN TRUSS: Well, I would suggest that that's a rather strange comment to make, in view of the fact that there have been almost 40 shipments to the Middle East since the new protocols have been put in place without incident. This particular event has occurred for unpredictable reasons. We don't know why the Saudis have chosen to reject the shipment but, at this stage, our priority is to have these animals unloaded as quickly as possible in the best possible location.

RICHARD CARLETON: What do you make of this situation?

STOCKMAN: Well, I believe that it can be tidied up considerably, but there's too many shortcuts and the problem is the people that are in the industry, in the facilities in LiveCorp that can make the difference, don't seem to want to ruffle any feathers with the exporters, because they are trying to protect their jobs.

RICHARD CARLETON: Look, LiveCorp knows this is going on.

STOCKMAN: It's been going on for a lot of years.

RICHARD CARLETON: I mean, they have to know it, some of their board members are the exporters.

STOCKMAN: They know.

RICHARD CARLETON: The Minister knows this is going on?

STOCKMAN: Well, if he doesn't, he needs to maybe go for a voyage.

RICHARD CARLETON: This current voyage of the Cormo Express has caused a crisis for the live export industry. The ship's vet told us that, if it comes to slaughtering the sheep on board, then the fallout could be the end of the trade altogether.

GLENYS OOGJES: These sheep, unfortunately, I think the best of a bad lot is for them to be killed on board, on board the Cormo Express, as soon as possible. I'm suggesting that to elongate this journey any more in the heat and humidity that's over there at the moment is a welfare disaster.

RICHARD CARLETON: Is it possible that you can humanely slaughter these 50,000 or 55,000 sheep on board the ship now?

STOCKMAN: No. All they can do is cut their throats.

RICHARD CARLETON: And put them in the mincer?

STOCKMAN: And drop them down the mincer if they're out to sea.

RICHARD CARLETON: Look, I'm no animal liberationist, but I get the impression that the suffering that these animals go through is absolutely immense. Is that right?

STOCKMAN: Well, it's distressing, you know, if you work with livestock all your life and you see the way they're suffering, when, really, a lot of it is not necessary, because the exporters are trying to push extra food or take shortcuts or overload the particular ships to get the few extra head on and it makes the conditions unbearable. Someone really needs to be serious about the thing and the way things are with LiveCorp at the moment, everyone seems to be sort of pushing things under the rug.

RICHARD CARLETON: The live export trade is worth $1 billion a year to Australia. Given a continuation of present practices, soon it may be worth nothing.

Minister, can I suggest to you you're faced with three options: you can find a place to offload these sheep, you can bring them home or you can slit their throats and throw them into the sea. What's it to be?

WARREN TRUSS: Our preferred option is to find a home as quickly as possible as near as possible to the location of the sheep at the present time. The prospects of a long journey home are unappealing and any suggestion of slaughtering the sheep at sea would be a monumental and extremely difficult task and not one that has good animal-welfare outcomes.

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