I was born in 1967 – the year of the sheep. Until Wednesday 10th of June I hadn’t felt any special affinity with sheep – but after that day I felt much like the animals herded onto the live export ship, powerless, bewildered and tormented.
That day started like any other until we received a phone call from a reporter at the Timaru Herald who wanted to talk to SAFE about the large shipment of sheep and cattle about to leave from the port at Timaru.
The news came as a complete surprise to us – and a very unpleasant one.
We were told a shipment of 50,000 sheep and 3000 cattle were being loaded onto trucks that day. A ship, MV Nada, was waiting at the Timaru port. They would leave for Mexico at dawn the next day. This was the largest shipment of live animals New Zealand had ever seen. The ban on live exports of animals for slaughter since 2003 meant that we hadn’t been confronted with this kind of situation in over a decade. We were told these animals were breeding stock – it was cold comfort.
We were shocked and outraged. We had questions – lots of them.
The clock was ticking and we needed to take action. There was no time to rally the troops and organize protests. No time to challenge the authorities – we had been stymied – and it was highly likely to have been intentional.
We made a few phone calls and discovered the location of the feedlot from where the sheep were being transported – we only had hours before we lost daylight. If we wanted to see what was going on we had to go now.
Hans and I jumped in the car with a couple of hastily put together placards and a camera. We just knew we needed to represent those animals any way we could.
The drive from Christchurch to Timaru is just over two hours. We left just after 1pm – after debating whether to go home and pick up a better camera we decided there simply wasn’t time – we needed the daylight.
Around 3pm we arrived at the feedlot. About half a dozen large stock trucks were parked on the side of the back-country road so we knew immediately that we were in the right place. It was pretty intimidating driving up to these stock-trucks with their drivers waiting outside. We stopped up the road to take some photos of the sheep waiting in the feedlot. There was not a blade of grass to be seen. The sheep gazed at us from their dirty paddock – oblivious to the trucks and the fate that awaited them. It was heart-breaking.
The sheep were being loaded onto trucks about 100 metres down the road so we jumped back in the car and drove through the stock trucks literally into the lions’ den. We parked briefly and I jumped out of the car to take some quick shots of the sheep being loaded onto the trucks. My hands were shaking with anger and fear so I was worried I wouldn’t get any decent photos. The men loading the trucks were shouting and herding animals so were oblivious to us for the most part but I knew this wouldn’t last and we needed to get to the port.
The feedlot was about 25 kilometres from the port. It felt like we were surrounded by stock trucks – they were literally everywhere. Sheep peered at us through the slats of the trucks. By this stage I was starting to feel sick. The impossibility of the task ahead of us weighed heavily on me.
I thought of Jill Phipps – a British animal activist who was killed in 1995 during a live exports protest. She and nine other activists had planned to chain themselves to one of the stock trucks. Jill was crushed beneath one of the trucks wheels during the protest. Apparently, the truck driver was distracted by protestors running around. It struck me how brave she and her fellow protestors were to put themselves in this situation.
As we drove calls were coming in to Hans’ cell phone from the media who were now aware of the shipment, following the press release our campaigns team had sent out just before we left. We pulled over to do an interview with Radio Live and Hans was asked to appear on Breakfast TV the following morning.
At the port
As we approached the security gate at the port I felt very small and vulnerable. The trucks were large and intimidating. The staff at the port were instantly aware of us – no doubt they were expecting some kind of reaction from activists. Two large security officers came straight over and told us to leave. While they talked to Hans I took as many photos of the sheep in the trucks as I could while I had the chance. A burley looking stock truck driver shouted at us, clearly wanting to rile us. Ignoring him, Hans explained to the security officers that we wanted to gain access to the ship. They agreed to contact the port office about this. In the meantime, we moved our car out of the port car park. A small TV crew from a local farming show ‘On the Land’ were hovering around the public car park. They too were trying to get on board. They clearly knew more about the shipment than we did and had even applied formally to the port for access – and been denied. Our chances were slim to nothing – but we were still going to try.
Back at security we were told it might be possible for us to go on board with one of the MPI veterinarians. With this knowledge in hand we walked down to the port office. Within seconds of announcing ourselves to the port receptionist the port CEO, Phil Melhopt, came out to talk to us. He must have seen us walking up to the building. We needed no introduction as he recognised Hans. He wasted no time in telling us we wouldn’t be allowed on board or on port property. Hans explained that we had been told it might be possible if one of the MPI vets accompanied us. Once again we were surprised when he conceded that we could go and talk to a MPI vet if we wanted and directed us to their office.
We doubted, with 53,000 animals being loaded as we spoke, that any of the MPI vets would be in their offices, so couldn’t believe our luck when a man dressed casually in blue overalls confirmed that he was one of the MPI vets.
Hans introduced himself and explained our concerns for the animals. The vet was completely at ease and almost cavalier in his response. He couldn’t understand why we would be worried – everything would be fine; there was nothing to get upset about. The animals appeared to be of no more importance than a shipment of apples that might get the odd bruise in the transport process. Hans asked some questions about the expected mortality rates and potential for the animals to go off their food. Once again the vet was not at all disturbed. “They (the animals) had a few days to get used to the pellets.” Hans wanted to know what would happen if there was an incident at sea – he understood the animals wouldn’t be allowed back in the country? The vet confirmed that was the case. He shrugged it off and simply stated that any sick animals would be ‘buried at sea’.
The vet explained he had to leave and get back to the ship. We asked if we could go with him – after all, according to him everything was fine and there was nothing to stress over. He hesitated and said he’d have to call his superior in Wellington about that.
We waited while he made the call in another room (out of earshot). When he came back he explained that the answer was ‘no’. He was a guest of the port and therefore didn’t have the authority to allow us onto the boat. We explained that the Port CEO had told us he did have that authority. I let out a frustrated breath. “We’re getting the run round aren’t we?” “Yes,” he confirmed.
We knew we weren’t going to get anywhere so decided to leave. We took a few more pictures before the light left us – it was just after 5pm by this stage and already starting to get dark.
The drive home took longer that usual due to more media calling for interviews. Hans did an interview with Radio New Zealand on the side of the road and organised for Mandy, our Head of Campaigns, to appear on the Paul Henry show the following morning.
We arrived home late. I jumped onto the computer and loaded up the photos we’d taken. Hans sent out a few emails – we were both feeling shattered and frustrated by the events of the day.
We were home – but the journey for the animals had just begun. I thought of the Cormo Express in 2003 – a shipment of 58,000 Australian sheep bound for Saudi Arabia. The sheep were refused entry into Saudi Arabia when a vet discovered scabby mouth on board. The ship floated around at sea for nearly four months in punishing heat. Thousands of animals died on board of starvation and heat stroke.
John Key is trying to turn this shipment into an act of altruism – NZ helping another nation following the drought in Mexico, a similar drought in New Zealand leading to an over-supply of sheep. It’s a win/win in his eyes. The only drought I can see is in the ethics of the government, the farmers who sold their animals and the MPI vets who turned a blind eye to the suffering of the animals.
Please help us stop the cruelty by taking action now.
Nichola Kriek, SAFE Education Officer