Live export: close-up with a bad trade

My work week started pretty normally on Monday 30 January. I expected it to be a busy week. We knew a livestock vessel, the Awassi Express, was due in Napier to take 5300 cows to China for the dairy industry. (We now know only 4500 were loaded, but not why it was 800 fewer than expected.) What I also didn’t know then was that I would be leaving the next morning to observe and document the livestock loading.

After a day of discussion about someone going to observe and document the loading of the animals, we decided it had to happen. Luckily I did not have to go alone and was joined by a volunteer experienced in film and photography. First thing on the Tuesday morning we hurriedly left Wellington for Napier, not really sure of what to expect.

About five hours later we arrived. Our first job was to find places from which we would be able to see the loading. One great thing about the port in Napier is the lookout above it. From there you can see down over the entire port. Looking up gives an impressive view out over Hawke’s Bay. It is no wonder it is such a popular vantage point!

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We could see the Awassi Express off towards the horizon. It was easy to spot: a large white ship that stood apart from the container ships. From such a distance it could have been a cruise ship with passengers being transported between ports in luxury. On board this one though, it was far from luxurious: the passengers on board livestock carriers are kept in what become filthy, cramped and foul-smelling conditions. The lack of windows in the solid white sides and the industrial look made it clear comfort was not a factor.

Once docked, there was little going on. We could see what looked like the gear they’d need to load the animals onto the ship. With the number of cows leaving we suspected they wouldn’t wait long to start loading them so we were ready to wait it out. Wait we did. By 1:30 am they had set up the gangway. It wasn’t until 2 am, eight hours after the ship had docked, that the first stock truck arrived.

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When the first truck backed up it was clear it was going to be a long, slow process loading that many cows on the ship. It took them some time before the cows started coming off the truck. We weren’t going to be able to see a lot because the sides of the gangway and the trailer being used to transport the animals from the trucks were solid except for thin slots running the length of truck and trailers. The odd glimpse of the top of an animal was all that showed it was even cows that were being moved.

We couldn’t see the animals but there was one thing was obvious from the start. The people moving the cows were repeatedly, and frequently, using either electric prods or something else to strike the animals through the sides of the trucks. I’ve seen both used to move animals many times over the years and would describe the usage I saw as over the top.

After a couple of hours observing the night-time loading we decided it was time to try and get a few hours’ sleep before getting up for more of the same but in daylight, then the long drive back to Wellington.

In the morning, loading was continuing and there were up to a dozen trucks full of cows waiting to be unloaded. They were waiting in the port and outside the main gate. When we saw the trucks parked on the side of the road we knew we had to check on the cows, and maybe document their last moments in New Zealand before they were forced onto the ship. As soon as we got to the side of the first truck it was clear the cows were curious about us and wanted to interact. All this was despite the obvious fear and confusion in their eyes.

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Making eye contact with the cows and being close enough to reach out and stroke them, made it even clearer to me that we were doing the right thing in ending this brutal trade. They didn’t want to be there, they had no idea what was happening, and they had no say in how their lives were to be spent. We got to spend about two minutes saying goodbye to these lovely gentle animals before we were confronted by the truck driver then made to leave.

It had been a long night with very little sleep, and an early morning watching cows being shocked and prodded on their way to a miserable life and an uncertain fate. Looking into their eyes and seeing the confusion, uncertainty, and fear as they waited, trapped in the truck, had taken its toll.

Now, though, it was time to send off the photos to the rest of the campaign team. This gave us a chance to reflect on the last 18 hours. That’s when it dawned on me: it was 1 February – the day when 22 years ago Jill Phipps was killed while protesting against live exports in the UK.

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As a young activist at the time, I remember clearly the impact of her death. Pre-Internet, it took some time for the news of her passing to reach us in New Zealand. The shock of learning that such a compassionate and caring person as Jill had died trying to stop the live export of calves to Europe for veal was huge. She was someone just like us – doing what she could to stand up and speak out against injustice to the defenceless.

Twenty-two years on from her death, to the day, and here I was at a port on the other side of the world from where she died, working to end the trade of live animals. It really made the importance of what we were doing sink in. Jill’s death had quite a personal impact on me. It has always been a motivator and inspiration to keep on working to end animal exploitation in the face of what can seem to be insurmountable odds.

We can, and will, end the live export of livestock from New Zealand – for Jill, for every one of the 4500 terrified cows that left from Napier on the anniversary of her death, and for every animal that has gone through that journey and ever will until it ends.

You can help ban the live export trade by sending the government a message.

Stephen Manson, SAFE Campaigns Officer and Policy Advisor.

 

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