Locked away deep in the hold of a 40-year-old ship, sheep and cattle are crammed into pens below decks in searing heat on journeys of up to 18,000km from Australia to the slaughterhouses of Russia and the Middle East.

The trade in transporting live animals is under increasing pressure from animal welfare groups who are lobbying governments and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to stop shipping live animals by sea or improve the conditions on-board livestock ships.

Dr Lynn Simpson, is an Australian vet who worked on-board a livestock ship for five years. Angered by the poor conditions the animals endured for prolonged periods, she decided to highlight the issue by lobbying the government in Canberra.

“The main problem I identified was the duration of the voyages in an artificial environment. The longest voyage was for about 42 days with cattle on concrete decks. Animals aren’t designed to cope with that, it’s like holding them in a multi-storey car park,” said Dr Simpson.

In graphic detail, Dr Simpson highlighted the drastic measures she had to take to stop the animals’ prolonged suffering.

“Bedding was insufficient and leg injuries were common, often requiring me to euthanise them as a result. The stocking density was too tight, the animals were generally very crowded, but this was within the limits of the Australian legislation to which we loaded. Animals often injured each other by stepping on one another; sometimes suffocating pen mates by collapsing or sleeping on their heads and necks.

“Stocking densities need to be majorly reduced and bedding provisions such as sawdust dramatically increased to reduce or prevent abrasion injuries from harsh decking surfaces.”

Drastic changes are needed and Dr Simpson says that the ocean transportation of live animals is a fraction of the size of the chilled and frozen meat sector, which has many benefits by comparison.

“Australia and many other countries have a very strong chilled and frozen meat export industry involving reefers, also called boxed meat. This industry currently dwarfs the live export sector in Australia and has an overwhelmingly greater animal welfare outcome from Australian meat processors compared to animals having to travel on a long sea voyage.

“I believe the health status for consumer safety of the boxed meat exported from Australia meets a much higher standard when compared to the transportation of live animals when they are unloaded in other countries. Animals on ships are exposed to stress, any disease that may be on-board and injuries, as well as possible medication residues for treatment given during the voyage.”

Exporting semen and embryos for artificial breeding programs would allow countries to build up their herds or change their herd genetics without the unnecessary welfare and risks of live animal transportation by sea. Australia already exports these products but it is not well known.

For Dr Simpson’s part, her campaign is now underway. She is communicating with the IMO, raising issues such as the risk to seafarers working on-board livestock vessels, as they are often exposed to high temperatures, ammonia and CO2 emissions. She is also lobbying political groups in Australia to push through legislation that puts an end to the suffering of the animals.

“AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) has developed what I believe to be the best material and design standards for live export ships anywhere in the world. AMSA have done much to improve animal welfare standards and they should be commended for this.

“I think shipping is amazing, but the inherent risks are not fair to inflict on live animals. Crew get to choose to take the risks, pirates, weather, mechanical failure. Animals don’t. Slaughter them close to home, save them the risk.”