The ‘Aha’ moment

Host: BMC Consulting
Written by – Blythe Calnan, Consultant, BMC Consulting.

In the past few years I have had many conversations about live export with it’s supporters, those in opposition to it, and those in between. Many people question the culture of the people I work with, wondering why these people think being cruel to animals is acceptable. These questions are not intended to convey malice, people are simply trying to understand events that have unfolded there. My response does not vary: it’s not that simple.

The long answer to this question stems from thousands of years ago. In the regions that we send our animals, agriculture has always been intensive. There are no abundant grassy plains on which their animals can graze and roam without significant predators. From the moment animals are born in these regions they have constant interaction with people. They rely on people to feed them, provide water for them, and protect them from predators. This results in highly domesticated animals that have little fear of the people that interact with them. The result is:

Our animals behave very differently to the animals they are used to. 

Australian sheep and cattle are often raised in rangeland environments where they have very little contact with people. This means that our  livestock, compared to the rest of the world, have more ‘wild’ or natural instinct than most farmed animals and can be considered only semi-domesticated.

Australians and other nationalities which produce animals with more wild instinct have very  different skill sets. We use our animal’s natural behaviors to our advantage when handling them, even with low stress techniques. We expect animals to have a ‘flight zone’- an area of personal space around them which when penetrated causes the animal to move away from us and use their urge to stay together in a group, where they feel safer from predators. In Australia we handle stock by applying and releasing pressure to this flight zone, utilising the animal’s natural instinct to stay together, combined with correct positioning movement and communication. With these techniques we muster animals, move them through yards, onto trucks and through processing facilities efficiently

Photo 2Australian sheep behavior. Photo credit: The Australian

Foreign livestock in contrast are often so desensitised to human contact, that their flight zone is almost non existent. Being isolated does not stress them the way it does most Australian livestock, because they are less likely to see the people around them as predators. This usually makes them easy to move around and restrain without violence or struggling. The expression ‘like leading a lamb to slaughter’ is used to describe a simple task and certainly did not originate from attempting to restrain and relocate a 40kg Australian merino ram lamb to a slaughter point, just ask any cocky! Australian sheep and cattle are big, strong, healthy animals that can be aggressive if not handled correctly, poor handling often results from fear of the animal or fear of its escape.

 2.3Herding Cattle in North Africa Photo Credit: Eric Isselee

In Australia we have developed systems that take advantage of natural animal behaviours through the use of helicopters, bull buggies, wings, races, and crushes. In many of our foreign markets they have not needed to develop these systems. The concepts are foreign to them, and in many cases it is more difficult to get local animals through systems designed for Australian animal’s. In some cases local bulls will not enter a race unless their handler takes their rope and walks in front of them, while a local herd of sheep happily meander behind their human guide through other mobs of sheep and emerge as the exact same unit.

2.4Herding Cattle in Northern Australia Photo credit: The Australian

This said, many of the slaughter techniques used are not acceptable by International, Australian, or my own standards. However, rarely does the slaughter of calm, local animals habituated to human contact result in the kind  of violence that we have seen on television with Australian animals. Where knowledge ends, violence begins.

For just a second imagine walking into the middle of a inner Sydney gym and picking four strong blokes. Present to them an isolated 500kg bull from the scrub, and give them whatever motivation they needed to convince them they needed to slaughter that bull. Then imagine the tools and techniques they might use to do the deed.  It would not be pretty and not so different from what can happen in foreign markets lacking skills or infrastructure is my bet.

So this is where my job comes in. I assess facilities to see if they can safely and efficiently, handle Australian animals with the standards of welfare required. If they do not meet this standard I help management and contractors create plans and action change so that they can raise their standards of animal welfare. I undertake training programs with feedlots and abattoir workers, working alongside them, introducing them to and helping them master the concepts which we often take for granted. Helping them understand why Australian animals behave the way they do reduces the handlers fear of them, which allows understanding and skills to develop. Combine this with the infrastructure that the animals have been educated to use and that takes advantage of natural behaviors, and we end up with systems that can comply with the expectations and regulations we have in place.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlythe being molested by a local sheep who likes the message.

I know this sounds basic to people who work with Australian animals day in day out, but sometimes we are so used to how we do things its difficult to imagine things from a different perspective. By being in market we have the opportunity to share our skills and knowledge, improve the welfare of Australian animals and increase the understanding of all animal behavior. For many people I have spoken to this has been an ‘aha’ moment and one where they see the importance of us being involved on the ground and that any cruelty inflicted to animals in these foreign regions is, more often than not, not the intent, but instead a consequence of not knowing a better way. Let us be part of leading the world to a better way.