Cormo Express

A report from one of our Australian Members - Olga Parkes


Letter from Olga Parkes - Australian Member

 

The Story of the Cormo Express

Although problems for animals continue unabated in Australia, as does the work of animal groups to bring about improvement, it was suggested that in this Bulletin I write about the Cormo Express, our infamous sheep transport ship. I very much appreciate this opportunity, and I’ll do my best to give you the story.

The suffering of sheep and cattle exported live, is the most pressing animal welfare issue in Australia, because of the millions of animals involved. Efforts to ban the trade have been underway here for at least twenty years, and there have been many tragedies at sea during that period. Hundreds of thousands of animals have died on the journey by drowning, fire, disease, suffocation or starvation, but it is only in the last couple of years that the necessary film footage has been obtained in the Middle East. Shortly before the Cormo Express disaster, our 60 Minutes TV programme put that footage to air and thus Australians saw, for the first time, the true horror of live exports – transport across Australia, transport across the oceans, barbaric death in Middle Eastern abattoirs. The transport is sheer misery for the animals, but the most shocking vision is the killing. No stunning, no effort whatsoever to despatch the animals quickly – they lie thrashing around on the slaughterhouse floors as they bleed to death after their throats have been cut. This is the fate of roughly 6 million sheep and thousands of cattle exported annually to the Middle East. There is also a growing trade in live cattle to South East Asia.

Having been made aware of the facts of the trade, people were horrified. 60 Minutes received the highest viewer response to their programme that they had ever received on any issue. The Minister for Agriculture (The Hon. Warren Truss, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600, email: W.Truss.MP@aph.gov.au if you would care to contact him) was constantly on TV and in the newspapers trying to hose down public concern. Animals Australia launched a petition calling for a ban, and this resulted in 80,000 signatures being presented in Parliament and a further 26,000 being lodged with the Australian High Commission in London. I saw at first hand how upset and angry people were because almost 2,000 people came into the op shop of Hunter Animal Watch in Newcastle NSW (I am the hon. secretary of that animal charity), and they couldn’t wait to sign up. The RSPCA attacked the trade in the newspapers.

So the campaign was well underway when, on 5th August, 2003, the Cormo Express sailed from Fremantle bound for Saudi Arabia with 57,937 sheep on board. Some of these animals had already endured up to 50 hours on a truck to reach Fremantle. The ship arrived in Jeddah on 21st August, by which time 544 sheep had died. The Saudi Minister of Agriculture rejected the shipment, claiming that 6% of the sheep were infected with “scabby mouth” (contagious pustular dermatitis) when the normal acceptance level is 5%. This claim was rejected by the Australian vet on board who estimated the incidence of scabby mouth to be 0.35%. Be that as it may, Saudi wouldn’t take the animals and the Cormo Express sailed around the Middle East, condition on board deteriorating by the hour, trying to find a country to take them. Dozens of countries were given the offer. None accepted.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, public anger was mounting and the possibility of having to return the ship to Australia was becoming a public relations nightmare for the Government and the industry. The suggestion was made that the sheep should be killed at sea but this, in the eyes of the Minister for Agriculture, “would not give a good animal welfare outcome”! 60 Minutes followed up with a second programme.

After 80 days at sea in extreme temperatures, 5,691 sheep had died on board. It looked as though there was no option but to bring the sheep back, quarantine them on a remote island, and then return them to the Australian mainland for slaughter. The Cormo Express headed “home”. Then, at the last minute, the Australian Government negotiated to give the sheep free of charge to Eritrea, plus $1 million dollars. So, after standing in ever-deepening excrement for weeks on end, with the dead and the dying amongst them, unloading began at Massawa on 24th October, 2003. “A good animal welfare outcome”?

In October 2003 the Government launched a Review of the industry under the chairmanship of Dr. John Keniry, a former President of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The committee consisted of five members, none of whom was a representative of an animal welfare organisation. The thrust of the Report is that if various measures are put in place, the industry could still be viable. However, it is extremely critical of the industry as a whole in terms of animal welfare and speaks of the confusion that comes from differing state and federal legislation and the serious lack of accountability across the industry. It states that public concern is completely justified.

In accordance with the terms of reference, the Review considers only “farm to discharge into the market”, i.e. farm to unloading at destination. The animals then face brutal handling – beating and throwing animals from truck to truck i common – and a terrible death. This aspect was not within the terms of reference of the Keniry Committee, yet it is this intolerable cruelty which has caused the national and international outrage. Even if all recommendations in the Report are implemented by the Government, conditions in the Middle East do not change. Australia cannot control what happens to our animals in the Middle East, and as an indication of attitudes there, Saudi Arabia did not respond to an invitation to make a submission to the Keniry Report as to why it behaved as it did in the rejection of the sheep.

This is a crucial time in the campaign to ban live exports. Further horrific film footage has been obtained in the Middle East and shown to the Government. This footage is expected to be shown on TV in the near future. Many members of animal welfare and animal rights organisations are seeing their Federal MPs and lobbying for change to a carcass trade. In my own region of the Hunter Valley of NSW several of us are speaking with local MPs and showing them video footage, which includes vision not yet shown publicly, (they are visibly shocked and find it difficult to watch), and reminding them that in 1985 the Government of the day was advised by a Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare to phase out live exports on animal welfare grounds. A Federal Election is due this year.

The Australian meat processing industry estimates that 17,000 jobs have been lost here and 25 abattoirs closed as as result of the live export trade. Australia already has accredited halal and kosher abattoirs, where slaughter is carried out by experts in a couple of seconds instead of the callous barbarity which awaits in the Middle East, where animals will lie struggling and dying over a period of minutes.

To phase out live exports and export carcass only (and nothing else will do) is the challenge to our politicians. Such a shift in export practices would minimise the suffering of animals, provide jobs and “valued added” opportunities within Australia and, importantly, go some way to restoring Australia’s good name, which has been severely tarnished in recent times.

I feel not a little disappointed that throughout the Cormo Express debacle, and debate on the live trade generally, I have not personally seen a comment in the media from the Christian church.

On a brighter note, I have come across occasional letters on animal issues in religious newspapers; a wonderful animal service was conducted by the Dean of Newcastle in our beautiful Christ Church Cathedral last October; I am hopeful that an animal-related motion will be raised at this year’s Synod of the Diocese of Newcastle; a few concerned Anglicans are in touch with one another on animal issues. Disappointingly, though, the National Council of Churches of Australia Decade to Overcome Violence has not taken up the suggestion to consider violence done to animals as part of its thinking, though there is a brief reference on their website that “Christian faith involves responding to God’s call to share in the care of all of God’s creatures”.

And to finalise a couple of issues I raised in the last Bulletin: tail docking of dogs is now illegal in Australia, except for therapeutic reasons; and Arna, the single elephant kept by Stardust Circus contrary to the law (no elephant is allowed to be kept as a single animal) now has a companion. I won’t go into the story, because I’m sure I’ve used up my space, but I have seen the two of them together and it was obvious that Arna is much happier now that she has Gigi with her. This is the best outcome for Arna that could be achieved at this time.

Please keep our live export animals in your thoughts and prayers as we do our very best to encourage a change in the current system.

With best wishes.

Olga Parkes


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