Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

9: Transports of Despair

There is always a danger of becoming inured to abuse through constant repetition, but some sights and sounds stay with you, haunting and troubling, confirming your belief that an absence of compassion is an absence of humanity. There is nothing which typifies this more than the transportation of animals. Extraordinarily, their status under the Treaty of Rome is exactly the same as that of tins of peas, machinery or bricks - they are nothing more than goods. All credit is due to Sir Andrew Bowden, who laid down a parliamentary motion in 1995 calling on the Government to reclassify them as sentient beings. The motion wasn't given enough parliamentary time and so fell.

One immediate effect of the 1995 demonstrations against live exports was to get European agriculture ministers to introduce a series of regulations covering journey times. However, all it did was to legalize the existing practices. At the time this agreement was reached, not one official inspection had ever been made on transporter lorries throughout the whole of Europe, but reports and film footage had shown me exactly what is involved in the movement of animals. It is a depressing story of overcrowded lorries, journey times of up to 50 hours or more and animals dying of thirst and heat stroke or from being crushed and trampled underfoot. There is no happy ending for these animals, no return ticket - simply a one-way journey to death.

I have seen sheep punched repeatedly in the face with full force because they showed the slightest resistance when being unloaded. I have seen pigs, afraid of jumping the two metres from an upper tier of a lorry, have their feet and heads stamped on and kicked - and I have seen the broken legs that resulted. I have seen boars have their snouts broken with an iron bar because they bit each other out of fear at the overcrowding. I have watched pigs incapable of walking because of smashed legs being beaten, kicked and dragged into the slaughterhouse and others, with their intestines issuing from their anuses, being similarly driven to their deaths.

The abuses which occur throughout Europe are usually dismissed by British and European politicians as isolated incidents. This is, of course, disingenuous to say the least. So little effort is made to check on the conditions in transit that the bodies charged with responsibility cannot have a clue what really happens. In the total absence of inspection on the Continental mainland, such denials of abuse can be little more than cynical, knee-jerk reactions. With no fear of detection or censure, it could also explain why incidents of the most barbaric cruelty are widespread and commonplace amongst transporters.

In 1994, a film was released showing the fate of cattle exported from the EU to the Middle East. By the time they reach Romania, the animals are so exhausted they are too weak to stand. A chain is shacked around their horns and in this manner they are hauled up from a truck and dumped onto a quay for transhipment. While in the air, the skin on the head of one poor creature tears away from its skull, a horn breaks and it falls two metres onto the concrete. There it is left, obviously badly injured, like discarded rubbish, all day and night in winter conditions.

The same film reveals the plight of cattle being transported from France to Egypt. Even before they are loaded onto the ship, their desperation for water is obvious after 30 hours without a drink. Even after loading, water is still not made available to them and they have to endure a further 30 hours of what can only be the most acute suffering. Some become demented while others physically break down. On this regular voyage, sometimes 40 or more cattle die as a result of the conditions they are forced to endure.

In 1993, a particularly disgusting trade was revealed, that of pregnant cows. Their route was from Holland to Ireland via Britain and involved three road journeys and two sea crossings. In June of that year, in a consignment of 38 pregnant cows arriving at Harwich, 20 were dead on arrival. The cause was thought to have been suffocation. In another shipment to Northern Ireland, one cow had to be put down immediately on arrival and several others a few days later.

Before these events, in 1991 and 1992, the Dutch Animal Welfare Society and the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) tracked eight consignments of pigs being transported from Holland to Italy. Almost every journey lasted for more than 30 hours and once the travelling time was 59 hours. In not one case were the animals given either food or water.

There is a bizarre and brutal logic behind this maltreatment. Pigs make extremely bad travellers, being prone to travel sickness to such a degree that they can die from it. The normal, albeit grim, way of trying to reduce the problem is to starve the animals of both food and water for up to 24 hours before travelling. It isn’t known if that was the case in these charted journeys, but it is likely. So, to the journey times can be added a further possible 24 hours of deprivation.

The same groups tracked two consignments of sheep sent from the UK to southern Italy. Neither consignment was given either food or water during the entire duration of the journey, which in one case was 44 hours and in the other case 47 hours.

One of the worst incidents involving sheep happened to a consignment of British animals en route to Greece via the Italian port of Brindisi. When the ship arrived at Igoumenitsa, 302 sheep out of 400 were dead, it is presumed from heat exhaustion. And if proof were needed that there is an inherent insanity at work, while Britain exports about two million live sheep to Europe per year, it has also imported live sheep from the same destination. It was a practice which began and, fortunately, ended in 1994.

As one consignment after another arrived from Poland and Spain, a continuing story of diseased, distressed and injured animals developed. The fate of the final consignment of sheep perhaps sums up the callousness of the trade. One sheep was dead on arrival and a further three had to be immediately destroyed. Another ewe had given birth on the journey and a second gave birth during her overnight stop. In all, 26 sheep were considered to be unfit to continue their journey and were slaughtered, including the two mothers and their newborn lambs.

For what it’s worth, there is an EU regulation which is supposed to prohibit the transport of animals which might give birth during the journey.

The Republic of Ireland is also heavily involved in the live exports trade and has developed new markets in North Africa, in particular Egypt and Libya. Unfortunately it’s not easy to obtain information on the welfare of these animals, but with sea journey times of up to 10 days, even longer in rough weather, it can be imagined.

Most of the animals which have to endure this journey are cattle. In his book, A Far Cry from Noah, Peter Stevenson, of Compassion in World Farming, includes a letter from a boat skipper. Speaking from firsthand experience, he explains the process of travel sickness in cattle, which are physically incapable of vomiting:

They are ruminants and digest their food by fermentation. When they are exposed to extreme motion, the fermentation increases and the gas production in their stomachs becomes excessive, resulting in the condition known as bloat. The whole abdomen becomes grossly extended, they suffer acute pain, falling down on the floor as they are flung around from side to side, grinding their teeth, moaning and groaning in agony, unable to breathe properly, until after hours or days of the most terrible suffering, their hearts eventually give out and, mercifully, they die.

There are two particular scenes which summarize human disregard for other life forms and which must haunt anyone who has ever witnessed them.

The first is the treatment of dairy calves no more than a day or two old. As already mentioned, as soon as they have drawn the life-preserving colostrum from their mothers’ udders they are separated from her and placed in sheds.

Once you have followed the mother cow’s eyes as she watches with alarm as her offspring is carried away, once you have listened to the bellowing of grief which follows its disappearance, you will never view the dairy industry in the same light again.

Traditionally, the bewildered calves are mostly sent to market where they are bought by dealers and transported to the veal crates where they will spend their entire 22-week life. Standing with difficulty on slatted floors, they are unable to turn round or to lie down properly. They have no bedding, no companionship and are never allowed to chew grass or hay because it might turn their flesh from white to pink, the colour it was meant to be. They are fed on a gruel diet and purposely diseased, made anaemic, to provide white flesh for the ‘gourmet’s’ dinner table.

These pathetic little creatures lick at their crates and swallow their own hair in a desperate search for solid nourishment. Offer them your fingers and they will suck eagerly, seeking comfort as much as sustenance. That is just one aspect of modern farming in which all carnivores play a part. And, it has to be said, so do vegetarians.

The other scene which has marked me, and many others, for life was the treatment of a young but fully grown bull, filmed by Compassion in World Farming and shown on national TV in 1992. He sat on the deck of a ship’s hold in Croatia, his beautifully big and curly head looking around in obvious fear and pain. His pelvis had been broken. The handlers kicked and prodded, but he was incapable of movement. One of them placed an electric goad on his testicles and delivered a 70,000 volt shock. The creature raised his head and bellowed a cry to rend the soul. And it happened again and again for over half-an-hour. Each time he tried desperately to rise, scrabbling at the floor with his forelegs, but it was futile.

Eventually, still conscious, a shackle was attached to a foreleg and he was hauled up and out of the hold and dumped on the quayside. Pained and exhausted, he lay in a heap, unable even to raise his head. A debate followed between the ship’s captain and the harbour authorities. It was decided it was more profitable to lose the beast at sea. He was hauled again into the air and dumped on the deck of the ship, which then set sail. As soon as it was clear of the harbour, the bull was thrown into the sea. Whether he was alive or dead seems almost irrelevant after such treatment.

This isn't simply a case of nasty foreigners doing terrible things to innocent animals, but is an integral part of the meat trade and increasingly international. Whenever and wherever a camera is turned on the transport and slaughter of animals it always comes up with images to disgust. Cruelty is commonplace and anyone who supports this trade by eating meat is directly involved in it.

Also, although integration of laws has supposedly now taken place in Europe, it does not apply to the manner in which food animals are killed. There are scenes which have been photographed and filmed by organizations from all over Europe as routine treatment and which are sickening. Sledgehammers are used on horses, screwdrivers sever spinal columns and animals have their throats cut while fully conscious.

Through Viva!’s French associates, a Boulogne-based organization called Aequalis, I received a photographic and verbal report on the fate of a lorry load of sheep and lambs from the UK. It finished up in a field outside Paris where the 1995 festival of Ramadan was being celebrated. The animals were offloaded and ushered into corrals where they were given no food or water.

Improvised wooden frameworks like gallows had been erected and pits had been dug in the ground and covered with iron gratings. Either one at a time or in groups, the sheep and lambs were dragged from the corrals onto the gratings, where men struggled to upend them. The sheep naturally resisted, although the lambs were much easier to control.

Having got them onto their backs, the normal practice was for one man to place a foot on the animal’s chin while another cut its throat. Groups of children stood around watching, their vacant faces indicating that they had seen it many times before. My contact timed the deaths, which on average took four minutes. There were no controls, anyone could take a turn and use any knife. Once dead, the sheep and lambs were hoisted on the gallows, gutted, beheaded and skinned.

Many more of these unfortunate creatures were crudely trussed up with rope and bundled into the boots of ordinary cars, driven to the Paris suburbs where they were killed in a similar way with kitchen knives in people’s back yards. This is religious, religious slaughter and takes place all over the Muslim and Jewish world, both officially and unofficially.

If the thought of back gardens being turned into uncontrolled charnel houses seems very foreign, it isn’t. As Ramadan approaches, little tethered goats and sheep can be seen awaiting their fate in gardens all over Britain. Even when the slaughter is carried out in ‘approved’ slaughterhouses, the method of death is much the same.

My concern does not spring out of racism, far from it, but out of concern for animal welfare. We have arbitrarily decided which cultural and religious habits we will and will not allow to supersede our own laws. We don’t accept multiple marriages, ditorectomies, stoning to death for adultery, public beatings or beheadings or the amputation of limbs for theft, but we do allow animals to be killed in an uncontrolled and painful way. It has to end and there are Muslims and Jews who believe the same, who strongly maintain that if you read deeply enough into either religion you will see that each has vegetarianism at its heart.

So just what is the scale of live animal transportation around Europe? According to MAFF, Britain alone exported approximately one million lambs and sheep in 1995. For calves the figure is about 550,000 and pigs about 150,000.

The annual trade from Ireland involves approximately 370,000 cattle, about 300,000 sheep and some 150,000 pigs. Across Europe as a whole, the figures are huge - about five million sheep and goats, nine million pigs and over three million cattle.

There is something extremely cynical about the British Government’s supposedly moral stance over live exports. From the moment the public protests first began to grab the headlines in 1994, different Ministers of Agriculture adopted the position that, yes, they would like to ban live exports, but the Treaty of Rome forbade them from doing so.

In fact, under Article 36 of the Treaty of Rome, there is a very good case for banning the trade on the grounds of public morality and the protection of health and life of animals. Although the Government made use of this clause until 1993 to prevent the export of live animals to Spain because of the appalling cruelty in Spanish slaughterhouses, it refused to use the same Article to ban live exports generally. It has consistently maintained that to do so would put it in breach of EU law and it would be called to account in the European Court. But such an outcome carries no damaging penalty and to appear in court in order to test a law is a common and accepted method of clarifying what a particular piece of legislation does and does not allow.

The hollowness of this position was abruptly exposed in January 1996, when the Government publicly admitted that it was fully prepared to ignore a European law. The cause of the rebellion was a new EU regulation forbidding the use of a drug called Emtryl to prevent wasting diseases in game birds. Breeders of pheasants and partridges claimed the ban would devastate stocks, reducing the number of birds available to be shot in the autumn and winter - including, presumably, those killed by the Government ministers who still participate in blood sports.

You might think it ironic that the first public transgression of EU law was motivated by the desire to take life and not to save it. Of course it showed that the Government never had any intention of banning live exports, whether it was legal or illegal to do so.

Unfortunately that isn’t the end of the cynicism. The practice of politics is such that any exposé which might reflect on Government policy tends immediately to be denied, diminished or dismissed as untypical. However, there is now a huge volume of eye witness and video evidence to show that cruelty is an integral part of the trade in live animals. It is supported by a welter of research.

One study examined two groups of lambs in transit, one which travelled for nine hours and one for 14 hours. It concluded that they needed at least 144 hours to recover from their ordeal and at least 96 hours rest before being in a suitable state to continue their journeys.

New EU regulations on journey times introduced in 1995 appeared to take little account of this and other studies. Even if the new journey times are better policed than the old ones - and there is no evidence to show that they will be - they will still cause unacceptable suffering. Lambs can be transported for up to 21 hours, including a one-hour stop for food and water, during which time they remain on the lorry. After only a 24-hour break they can legally face a further 21-hour ordeal. For sheep and cattle it is worse - up to 31 hours with a one-hour stop for food and water. Again, after a 24-hour break the process can be repeated.

In 1986 Roger Ewbank of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare reviewed the available literature and research relating to the transport of calves. He looked at stress caused by temperature variations, at the prevalence of hunger, thirst and dehydration, at the rates of exhaustion and the risks of disease. His conclusions were forthright:

Although calves are robust creatures, they should be moved about as little as possible. Calves should ideally be reared on their farm of birth or, if unwanted, be transported to the nearest slaughterhouse for immediate killing.

This view was supported in 1991 by the European Commission’s Scientific Veterinary Committee, which stressed that live transport should be avoided wherever possible. It added that the long-distance transport of animals was unnecessary in the light of modern chilling methods.

In 1992 it went further and said that the EU law requiring that animals be given food and water after 24 hours’ travel was quite insufficient. In 1993 it actually admitted that even these unsatisfactory regulations were systematically flouted. It concluded: ‘Long distance transport in overstocked vehicles, combined with dehydration and starvation, results in very poor welfare and often in high mortality.’

Despite the growing awareness of the fate to which animals were being consigned, exports from Britain increased dramatically over this period. The British Government has consistently adopted the high moral ground over live exports, claiming that British animal welfare is the best in Europe. The implication is almost that St Francis personally carries the animals abroad on his shoulders, tending to their every need!

In fact, MAFF has known for some years that its own regulations were being flouted and commissioned a report from Divisional Veterinary Officer Hugh Morris. It became known as the Morris Report and was completed in March 1994. Morris unearthed several disturbing ways in which the rules were being circumvented and clearly spelt them out. The report was highly secret, but I was able to obtain a copy. It stated:

There was ample evidence of serious malpractice existing in the area of exports dealing with calves for further production and sheep for further production and immediate slaughter. Serious deficiencies were identified in relation to standards of identification and examination of animals.

Another section criticized both the complexity of the rules and those charged with policing them, particularly LVIs - Local Veterinary Inspectors, responsible for examining animals prior to export and the only safeguard of their welfare:

State Veterinary Service staff believed the existing instructions were inappropriately structured, complex and difficult to understand. Furthermore, LVIs have frequently made little or no effort to refer to instructions issued by the Ministry.

In a bizarre piece of privatized, free-market logic which almost ensures the regulations are broken, Local Veterinary Inspectors are paid by the exporters whose animals they inspect. If the exporters don't like the bill or the thoroughness of the inspection or its findings, they can arrange to have the animals inspected elsewhere, by another LVI. This can lead to a touting for business, a reduction in charges or a meaningless inspection which doesn’t inconvenience the exporter. Morris identified the inherent conflict in this:

There was evidence that LVIs are subject to extreme pressures from dealers, hauliers, agents and exporters. The introduction of the Single Market has raised exporters’ expectations of free trade, the pressures consequent upon such expectations contributing directly to the irregularities identified.

The British Government, which claims to be the guardian of farm animal welfare in Europe, responded by banning the report. When challenged on its attitude to the report’s recommendations, it claimed that it had fully implemented them. But in January 1996, along came a Dispatches documentary, ‘The Veal Trail’ on Channel 4 TV, which revealed the hypocrisy of this claim.

It clearly showed that the supposedly strictly enforced regulations governing the transport of animals were still being flouted at every stage. It exposed the fact that calves only two weeks old were routinely beaten and were shipped abroad when injured or ill, and that such welfare requirements as limited journey times and rest breaks were often ignored. Perhaps the most worrying aspect was that the calves’ one protection, a veterinary inspection prior to shipment, was nothing more than a formality, with 500 calves being inspected in less than two minutes.

The documentary also exposed the Government’s claims that strict control is exercised to prevent calves from mothers infected with mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, BSE) as a sham. Two untrained youths were charged with taking the ear tag numbers of hundreds of calves, which have to be checked against a register of infected cattle. Secret filming did not show these checks being carried out, but did show exporters being offered a discount on the charges levied if they prepared their own paperwork. It’s like asking a poacher to report the number of pheasants he kills!

What the programme revealed was that all the abuses identified by Morris were still happening and the victims were the pathetic little calves filmed arriving at the Petham lairage near Dover. So dehydrated were they that some were unable to stand and literally rolled down the loading ramp, trampled under the hooves of other calves. Despite clear footage of calves which could barely walk and others which were diseased, in the course of the programme, none were certified as being unfit to complete the journey to the veal crates of Europe.

One of the final scenes from this programme provided a sickening reminder of why protesters refuse to give up on live exports. The time: three in the morning; the place: the interior of a dirty, dingy French veal farm. The calves are driven out of their crates with electric goads. After 32 weeks of chained immobility they are covered in excreta and can hardly walk. Each stumble and stagger is met with more electric shocks. They are herded through a dark and narrow doorway to where they are to have their throats cut. It does not pay to speculate on the welfare standards with which each one of these little creatures was treated as it met its end.

These were British calves, so we can all be pleased with the statement issued by the Government when it refused to appear on the Dispatches programme: ‘All the necessary action has been taken on the main recommendations of the report to ensure that our high standards of certification are maintained.’

If this is what humans are capable of doing to newborn, innocent animals, then God help all of us!