The exposure on Four Corners of the treatment of Australian cattle exported to Indonesia had a number of interesting features. For one thing, few people would have seen so graphically such relentless and extreme animal cruelty.
As everyone now knows, cattle in the abattoirs variously suffered eye gouging, repeated throat slashing, goading, dragging, thrashing, and so on. Viewers could be in little doubt that those inflicting the violence saw no moral limit, or virtually no limit, to what may be done to these animals.
Many people, perhaps for the first time, were deeply disturbed and even haunted by the way animals were treated. Some may long remember certain images, such as the sight of a steer visibly trembling in fear as it watched other animals suffer the treatment it was itself moments away from experiencing.
Politicians and members of the public and cattle industry labelled the treatment “disgusting”. More than usual for a news story about animals, there was much public and media discussion, and significant political action, such as the rapidly organised campaign by GetUp.
The event also led to unusual alliances, between some farmers, meatworkers, and animal groups, and between the welfare-orientated RSPCA and the rights-orientated Animals Australia which obtained the footage.
The evidence raises general questions about our moral responsibility for animals sent to any country, not just Indonesia, which may have lower standards of care. It also invites us to reflect on the tensions between economics, culture and religion, and the treatment of animals.
Below are two possible moral reactions to such issues. They are not the only possible reactions, but they are suggestive of two main points of view.
First response: The welfare of animals in other countries is an important ethical issue. Hurdles to reform include cultural differences (like local (mis)interpretations of halal killing), a poorly educated and trained workforce, and lax or absent animal welfare laws.
Such conditions may limit the degree to which we can rapidly change these practices. However, Australian operators clearly have a strong obligation to do what they can to improve animal welfare outcomes. For example, they can work with and educate the local workers in standard operating procedures and in internationally determined minimum requirements.
Furthermore, the exporting bodies provide slaughter equipment and inspections to ensure that practices meet certain minimal standards. Often change will need to occur over time, little by little. Occasionally there might be speedier changes. With the commitment to animal welfare shown by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and Livecorp, conditions for the animals can be improved.
Moreover, our participation in live export to places like Indonesia and the Middle East is better than ceding the market to our competitors. Some other nations have very poor welfare standards and regulation, and are far less likely than Australia to take an interest in the often laborious task of modifying conditions on the ground.
Seen in this light, Australia has an obligation to animals to continue the trade to countries with mediocre welfare records.
Nor should it be forgotten that this industry, not least the multimillion dollar Indonesian component, contributes substantially to the Australian economy and to employment. Where possible we should, for now, stop our cattle going into any abattoirs identified as serious abusers of animals.
Yet ceasing the trade altogether, or seriously reducing it, is quite likely an unwarranted reaction. It would be bad for humans and not beneficial for animal welfare overall.
Second response: No-one would deny that employment and economic considerations are extremely important. Also, our relations with other countries must be carefully nurtured and protected.
However, the Indonesian abuses are an edifying example. When we are tempted to yield to political or economic arguments, we might recall the haunting images on Four Corners. Then we may see that even lucrative industries that employ a lot of people may sometimes be seriously put to the question.
In this case, the video evidence from ten abattoirs suggests that the abuses are hardly isolated. Prior to the expose, there was no real control over which abattoirs the cattle were sent to.
Temple Grandin harshly criticised aspects of Australia’s involvement, such as the industry’s own holding boxes, which perpetuate the local technique of casting animals onto slippery concrete floors.
Suppose, however, that the relevant authorities in countries such as Indonesia were to agree on paper to major changes in feedlots and slaughterhouses. One problem here is how we can be assured of adequate enforcement and of change which is genuinely permanent.
After all, the Indonesians themselves admit that the relevant cultural differences run deep. That is also true of other countries like some of those in the Middle East.
Furthermore, despite all the effort and reassurances from Livecorp over the last decade or more, barely any serious progress happened prior to Animals Australia coming along. We were even told recently that cattle welfare in Indonesia was “generally good”.
In other words, on this issue there is a very real question of trust in government and industry. MLA insist that they will only export animals if we can be “absolutely confident” they will not be treated in these ways. How can we have such confidence now that the reputation and credibility of the relevant parties has been so severely damaged?
We have a special moral responsibility for our own animals. It is the sort of responsibility that would stop a farmer sending her own cattle to such a fate as may await them in the Middle East or Indonesia.
These, at any rate, are two possible reactions. It would be interesting to hear how members of the veterinary profession responded.