Do Cows Get Seasick?
Australia routinely ships live animals by sea, despite ongoing animal welfare concerns. Oceangoing vessels transport thousands of animals at a time on voyages that can last for three weeks or more. A lack of independent reporting obscures the true conditions aboard these vessels. Veterinarians don’t have to be present on ships bound for China, in contrast to voyages of similar length with other trading partners. In response to an exposé about animal cruelty in this trade, in April 2018 the Australian government set up independent observers (IOs) on some trips. The Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) then summarized these trip logs and made the summaries available to the public on its website.
Researchers in this study used reports of live cow exports to China from July 2018 to December 2019 to identify the type and frequency of welfare issues. A total of 147,262 cows meant for slaughter, feeding, or breeding were carried on 37 voyages. Trip lengths ranged from 14 to 25 days with an average of 19.5 days. A total of 15 different vessels were used, including six converted container ships and nine purpose-built cow carriers.
The authors analyzed the IO reports and summarized the welfare issues into 10 categories.
1. Health Conditions: 37/37, Or 100% Of Voyages
Cows routinely suffered from pink eye, pneumonia, lameness, ketosis, ringworm, bloat, chronic diarrhea, and sepsis. While overall mortality was only 0.14%, the suffering these animals experienced was likely immense. Furthermore, the authors note that death figures may be underreported, especially considering the prevalence of heat stress and food and water deprivation that occurred on the voyages.
Lameness in particular was a common ailment reported by IOs, often caused by abrasive deck materials, softened hooves from inadequate bedding, and pre-existing injuries or heaviness. Lameness is painful and may discourage animals from rising. Thus, the animals often lied in urine and feces, not eating or drinking. Some also developed urinary tract infections and pressure sores. There were even reports of cows causing fatal injuries to their penmates, and cows’ heads being stuck in rails, resulting in death.
2. Poor Pen Conditions: 30/37, Or 81% Of Voyages
Australian welfare standards require farmed animals to live in a safe, comfortable environment with enough space to stand, lie, stretch, and perform natural behaviors. However, the per-animal space requirement in these same standards is insufficient to meet the animals’ needs. Wet, sloppy pads from accumulated urine and feces, inadequate bedding materials, and insufficient space were common across the voyages., Indeed, animals lying down with overlapped heads and bodies were visible in some of the IO photos, emphasizing the crowded conditions. The authors note that basic cow welfare calls for dry, soft bedding material, but bedding standards were often not met. Wet, sloppy pads are associated with impaired mobility and hygiene, heat stress, and painful hoof conditions. Other cows were forced to lay on bare floors without a substrate.
3. Poor Ship Infrastructure: 23/37, Or 62% Of Voyages
Poorly maintained ships led to a variety of welfare issues, and unfortunately, malfunctions were often not rectified. Improperly secured food and water troughs led to hunger and thirst. Broken water systems flooded pens, creating sloppy pad conditions and worsening injuries. Finally, ventilation issues likely caused respiratory distress and disease.
4. Absence Of Veterinarians: 22/37, Or 60% Of Voyages
An accredited stockperson is required on all voyages, but a veterinarian is not. While veterinarians have extensive training in animal health, stockpersons only need a four-day training period and do not need any advanced knowledge of animal health or pharmacology. Almost 60% of export trips had no veterinarian on board. In instances where veterinarians weren’t present, IO reports noted unhygienic drug storage, drugs stored at the wrong temperatures, poor drug administration technique, improper dosing, and delayed euthanasia. As of April 2020, the training requirements for stockpersons has been eliminated, meaning that any stockperson can attend a live export regardless of their accreditation, as long as the industry deems them suitable.
5. Mismanagement At Discharge: 20/37, Or 54% Of Voyages
IO reports noted discharge delays, unsafe vehicles for land transport, and unnecessary prodding of cows by handlers. Adequate food and water were sometimes lacking, especially following voyages where food and water deprivation took place. Not all cows met the standards set by the buyer, leading to further cow deaths as they were euthanized upon discharge. IOs weren’t always present during discharge, which means the issues listed in the report may be underreported.
6. Exposure To Extreme Temperatures: 19/37, Or 51% Of Voyages
Cows going to China travel across the equatorial zone. They endure not only high heat and humidity, but during mid-summer and mid-winter trips, they experience extreme temperature fluctuations. This can make it difficult or impossible for animals to regulate their body temperature, and they can suffer hyperthermia or hypothermia. Bos taurus cows, the breed most often exported to China, do not easily lose heat through sweating. This creates heat stress, and equatorial conditions can make overnight recovery impossible. In some instances, heat and humidity levels reached emergency or crisis status, and cows were seen presenting distressed behaviors such as panting, gasping, and lethargy. Unfortunately, water deprivation sometimes occurred when heat stress was present.
7. Hunger: 16/37, Or 43% Of Voyages
National standards require vessels to bring enough food to feed each animal for the duration of the voyage plus 20% extra or three days’ worth of food. However, food shortages still occurred on 10 of the trips. Of these, four had to ration food or completely exhausted their food stores because the trip lasted longer than expected. Indeed, at least six of the 37 vessels exceeded their planned transit time, in one case by nine days. Insufficient food was a predictable outcome. Other factors limiting food access included limited mobility when cows were injured, poor pen conditions, competition, and suppressed appetite from heat stress or rough seas.
8. Thirst: 16/37, Or 43% Of Voyages
The amount of water that cows need to drink increases with temperature and humidity, conditions that arise whenever an Australian ship travels to China. Water issues ranged from insecure water troughs to failure of the reverse osmosis (RO) system. Where troughs were filled by a hose and float system, there were incorrectly set floats, leaking hoses and supply systems. Some cows couldn’t figure out how to use the water devices, meaning they went without water until they adjusted. Sometimes the water became contaminated by dust, urine, feces, or other substances, meaning cows refused to drink it. Water deprivation often occurred on the same voyages as food deprivation, creating an even more stressful situation for the animals.
9. Rough Seas: 11/37, Or 30% Of Voyages
The IO reports held less information about sea conditions. However, there is evidence that cows experienced rough seas for prolonged periods on some trips. Such conditions can lead to loss of appetite, injuries as ship movement tosses animals about, lameness, and poor pen conditions as water washes over decks. Broken water systems and rain can also affect deck surfaces. And if conditions warrant, crew members may be confined and not allowed to tend to the animals.
10. Mechanical Breakdowns: 4/37, Or 11% Of Voyages
Engine failures and other, unspecified mechanical issues required anchoring for anywhere from several hours to multiple days. When this occurs in the equatorial zone, it can contribute to heat stress since the normal air movement from traveling stops. Bad design and a lack of maintenance can add to poor welfare conditions for the cows. Despite the obvious harms of being delayed in the equatorial region, at least one IO report claimed that the mechanical issues had no effect on the cows’ health and welfare.
The authors provide a lengthy set of recommendations to improve the welfare risks to live cows shipped by sea. Advocates can use these to start public education and legislative activities. The recommendations include larger estimates of fodder and antibiotic requirements, proper watering infrastructure, and sufficient bedding. Trip planning should account for weather forecasts to avoid extreme heat or cold. Space per animal must be increased, and veterinarians should be required on all voyages. Only mechanically sound ships should be allowed to transport live animals. Finally, the IO program, paused because of COVID-19, needs to be reinstated with a training requirement for all designated IOs.