As the enormous vessel Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal in March 2021, an estimated 200 000 animals became trapped, most of them sheep shipped from Romania to Saudi Arabia. The ships transporting the animals were unlikely to contain enough water or food to keep them alive. Moreover, the heat onboard the ships was blistering. It was estimated that most of the animals would die in hellish conditions before reaching their destination.
Such animal catastrophes are not isolated events. Live animal transports have been the object of valid yet ignored criticism for a number of years. They are excruciatingly long, and take from several days to many weeks or even months. They expose the animals to prolonged and intense physical discomfort, fear, and stress. The petrified and tired animals are often subjected to violence, such as beating, kicking, punching, pulling, and prodding. The suffering is further accentuated by overcrowding, heat, and lack of water/food. As the number of slaughterhouses has dropped, animals are being transported ever-greater distances, which further increases their anguish.
Some politicians have tried to step in. For instance, the EU commissioner for food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, has asked Romania to stop exporting live animals to the Middle East. This is because the searing temperatures on board the ships can be deadly, and because the transports have been shown to include extremely violent handling; moreover, at their destination, the exhausted sheep are often stuffed into car trunks before eventually having their throats slit. Instead of following the recommendation, Romania has increased the exports. Evermore animals will thereby undergo the horrors of transport, desperately trying to find comfort from each other amidst the chaotic, frightening conditions.
They nurture their friendships, are loyal to and defend one another, and likely feel the pangs of love for their nearest, just as we human beings do.
Let’s take a pause to consider, what type of animals we are talking about. Sheep are highly intelligent creatures. Their memory abilities outshine that of many human beings (mine definitely included), as they for instance can remember the faces of 50 individuals for two years. They also excel in solving problems, and are known to navigate complex mazes. Most importantly, next to manifesting these and many other intricate cognitive abilities, they are also highly social and emotional creatures. In all likelihood, sheep can feel emotions ranging from anger to fear, frustration, despair, care, attachment, joy and happiness.
Therefore, the existence of Ovis aries is coloured by – not only learning, remembering or intending – but also sensing, wanting, yearning, feeling. In the terms common in philosophy of mind, it is like something to be a sheep. Just like you and me, sheep have their personal histories, experiences, wants, emotive aches and delights. In short: they are conscious, minded creatures. Next to being a member of her flock, a sheep is thereby a subject, an agent, an individual with a unique perspective onto the world.
In the wild, sheep can live up to 12 years or longer. Female offspring stay with the ewes that gave birth to them, and thus daughters, mothers and grandmothers tend to spend their lives together. Rams, on the other hand, usually leave their mothers at around six months of age, and form playful, boisterous groups with each other. In general, sheep form life-lasting bonds with their conspecifics, and are known to defend one another against dangers and competitors. As such, they nurture their friendships, are loyal to and defend one another, and likely feel the pangs of love for their nearest, just as we human beings do.
Lambs have just arrived onto this planet, and playfully, eagerly, jubilantly run toward its offerings.
Lambs are the blissful crown of the sheep-world. These nonhuman children greet the world with astounding curiosity and wild joy that makes them flick their legs as they take enourmous, care-free leaps into the air. Lambs have just arrived onto this planet, and playfully, eagerly, jubilantly run toward its offerings. They are the manifestations of elation, of a boisterous and inquisitive engagement with reality, a playful desire to jump, run and snuggle up to others out of sheer joy. When looking at lambs that are playing catch or sleeping curled up to one another, I cannot but smile and think: the world is beautiful.
Unfortunately, however, that world does not treat lambs well. First, lambs are separated from their mothers long before their natural weaning age. Depending on the farming method, the forced separation can take place as young as 6 weeks of age, and is deeply stressful both for the ewe and the lamb. Stated in realistic terms, here nonhuman children are violently taken from their mothers.
After weaning, it is common for the lambs to undergo extensively long transports. They are routinely shipped alive from one end of the world to another. Depending on the destination, the transport can take from several hours to several weeks. As described earlier, the transport conditions are often excruciating.
When the lambs finally arrive at their destinations, another hell begins. They are shoved onto trucks and brought to slaughterhouses, where they may have to wait for days in hunger and thirst for their turn to have their throats slid. Some are sold for ritual slaughter, some undergo standard killing. Whichever the mode of slaying, the animals will be petrified, exhausted, and pained.
Some members of Homo sapiens prefer the texture of young animals’ flesh – they like to eat the young children of nonhuman mothers.
It is worthwhile remembering that often, the lambs are brought to slaughter straight after they have been separated from their mothers. This is because some members of Homo sapiens prefer the texture of young animals’ flesh – they like to eat the young children of nonhuman mothers.
Let’s take stock of the situation. Joyful, playful youth are coercively separated from their mothers, then forced onto trucks and ships, where they all too often undergo physical injuries, severe thirst and hunger, and the sort of fear and stress most of us human beings will never have to even contemplate. These are nonhuman kids at the beginning of their lives – eager to bounce around, play, run and explore, and desperate to stay with their comforting mothers. These are young creatures with their own emotions, their own unique perspectives, whom are met with depriving, slashing violence.
When their lives have just begun, the lambs are pushed into a human-made hell and made to suffer injuries, deprivations and terrors no human should ever inflict on feeling, sensing beings. The reason? Financial gain, an appetite for the flesh of young animals, custom – in short: human profit, human preference, human selfishness.
The joy and playfulness of lambs is thereby cut very short. Each year, around 550 million sheep are killed for food. 550 000 000 individuals with their own perspectives, fears, joys, yearnings. Let’s repeat that: 550 000 000 conscious, minded individuals. 550 000 000.
Most of these animals go through agony before their dead muscles are put on human plates. Some end in major catastrophes before reaching their untimely and unseemly deaths. Beside the recent Suez disaster, here are just some examples:
In 1919, 14 000 sheep sent from Romania to Saudi Arabia drowned in the Black Sea.
In 2017, 2,400 sheep died of heat-stress, as they were shipped from Australia to the Middle East.
In 2016, an undercover investigation revealed that sheep in Australia were routinely punched, jabbed with sharp objects, kicked, jumped on, and had their eyes poked with fingers.
Most of the horrors never make it to international headline news. As I am writing this text, there are bound to be vast numbers of sheep being violently beaten, and dying from heat-stress or lack of food. As you are reading this, there are uncountable young animals fearing for their lives, calling for their mothers, trying frantically to make it back to their nearest despite of being hundreds of miles away, gripped by panic and pains, incapable of knowing why and what is happening to them – all in the name of human want and custom.
I repeat: these are nonhuman children, ripped from their mothers, scared and anxious. They are young animals, who should be playing, running around, chasing each other, getting nurture from their mothers. What type of creatures are human beings to subject these animals to torment and abuse in the name of eating meat with a particular texture?
When meat is cheap, so is animal life.
Of course, sheep are not the only animals to suffer live animal transports. Cows, calves, chicken, turkeys, and many other of our nonhuman kin are made to spend from days to weeks or even months in transport. To give one recent example: in early 2021, 1600 cows were confined at sea for three months, in unbearable conditions, only to be slaughtered when they finally reached the shore.
Both the distances and the numbers defy comprehension. Transports from one continent to another are common. Each year, around half a million cows are shipped from South America to Turkey. In 2017, 640 000 sheep were transported from Australia to Qatar, and four million chicken were shipped from Holland to Thailand. These are just some examples. Transport between countries on the same continent are even more common: for instance 5-6 million pigs are transported each year from Canada to US.
Some countries specialize on exporting live animals. Next to South-America and Australia, Europe is a place of such export eagerness. Each year, around 15 million pigs are exported from Denmark, and 12 million pigs from Holland. Annually, 350 million chickens are shipped from Holland, whilst the number of chickens shipped from Germany is 320 million.
Indeed, the European Union is the biggest live animal exporter. In 2019, it exported 1,6 billion animals. The EU does so despite of knowing that the transportation continually violates welfare measures – it allows live animal transports regardless of the utter agony it causes to nonhuman beings.
The motivations for live animal transports consist of absurdities. Danish farmers have bred sows that give birth to bigger litters, whilst the Polish farmers have made the rearing of piglets as cheap as possible. As a consequence, five million piglets are each year transported from Denmark to Poland. Some countries, such as Romania and Slovakia, can rear animal cheaply but lack the needed processing technologies, which means that animals are exported from these countries in order to be slaughtered elsewhere. Indeed, increasingly animals are born in one country, bred in another, and slaughtered in a third.
Here, animals are defined as living ingredients of processed food, who are treated as if they had no consciousness, no minds, no feelings, no value. Ethically, the situation is wholly untenable, wholly unjust, and wholly lacking in compassion. Live animal transports are among the vastest moral crimes of our times.
Animal young, such as piglets, are routinely separated from their mothers and made to stay in lorries for days or weeks, just so that the profits of the meat industry can be increased. I repeat: young animals are taken from their mothers and made to suffer long transports just so that financial profits are greater. When meat is cheap, so is animal life.
These animals try to stay alive, they struggle to hang on to life. They undergo extreme suffering and terror only to be killed. These animals are made to suffer trauma, neglect, the sort of multiple physical and emotional miseries nobody should ever have to face.
Two billion unique agents, who deserve empathy and respect, not violence and neglect.
Worldwide around two billion animals are shipped from one state to another each year, and the rate is increasing. Let’s take another pause. Over two billion animals! Two billion lives and individuals, each filled with stress, fear, longing. Two billion unique agents, who deserve empathy and respect, not violence and neglect.
Dinner is best served, when it doesn’t contain the slaughtered bodies of non-human toddlers or their parents.
This is the price of meat: animal terror, animal agony. This should never, ever take place. Animals are not meaty ingredients, whom can be shipped around without moral constraints. They are individuals, who deserve much, much better.
If there is anything to be learned from the animal catastrophe at the Suez Canal, it is this: dinner is best served, when it doesn’t contain the slaughtered bodies of non-human toddlers or their parents. Human beings can thrive without meat, and ditching meat will also support the wellbeing of other animals and the planet. Let’s make meat history – and live animal transports a terror of the past. Sheep, pigs, cows, chicken, all animals deserve better.
(Cover image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media)