Protect Animals, but Don’t Forget about People


The Australian government has halted all exports of live animals to Indonesia. This means that Indonesian abattoirs will have to find other sources of beef and Australian Aborigines will have to find other jobs.

The ban was a hasty response to images of appalling brutality in a few Indonesian abattoirs. Animal welfare activists and television journalists produced stomach-churning evidence.

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The cattle struggle against ropes as they are forced onto the concrete floor and die bellowing after clumsy attempts to cut their throats. Ideally, the cattle should be stunned first, then slaughtered. But in some of the Indonesian abattoirs there are no stun guns. The May 30 broadcast on the investigative program Four Corners sparked instant outrage. This week, with the phones running hot on talkback radio, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig slapped a six-month ban on exports.

The Australian live cattle trade with its closest neighbour is worth A$368 million a year. According to the producers, the industry employs 13,000 people across rural and regional Australia and is worth $1.8 billion to the Australian economy.

An estimated 700 of the workers are Aborigines in the dusty, sparsely populated, jobless outback of northern Australia. These people indirectly support a further 17,000 in station communities. In short, says journalist Chris Uhlmann, the ban:

“risks a catastrophic destruction of jobs and fragile regional economies. Contractors — road train drivers, helicopter pilots — were having their work terminated within hours of the suspension of the trade. Indigenous jobs — any jobs — in regional and remote communities are hard to come by. Their loss would also be a tragedy.”

Health, education and welfare in isolated Aboriginal settlements across the north of the country are not just bad, but catastrophic, with mind-boggling rates of domestic violence, drunkenness, petrol-sniffing, pornography, illiteracy and poverty. Conditions are best described not as Third World but Fourth World. It is a world of wretchedness and despair.

After decades of failed government programs, there is nigh-universal agreement that hand-outs have made Aboriginal society in the outback dysfunctional. What residents of these communities badly need is to recover their ability to work and hold down jobs. And now a significant number of those jobs have vanished. The welfare of cattle and the votes of the Greens, it turns out, are far more important to the Australian government than the welfare of its most disadvantaged citizens.

Animal protection is important. Animals should not be treated with deliberate cruelty, as if they were insensible objects. Our attitude toward them is a window on our attitude to our fellow human beings. Decent treatment of animals is a hallmark of a civilised society.

But the treatment of Australian cattle has to be weighed against the impact of a ban on the men and women, especially in Aboriginal communities, who are supported by the industry. A total ban was completely unnecessary. Most cattle are processed in abattoirs which meet Australian standards. Only a handful of rogue facilities have been identified. It would have been possible to blacklist them alone, saving hundreds of Aboriginal jobs.

To some extent, the public outcry is understandable. Animals are innocent and it’s easy to feel sentimental about their pain because they remind us of children. Typically, Lyn White, an Animals Australia investigator who filmed cattle being slaughtered in substandard Indonesian abattoirs, is teary about a steer whom she describes as a small child:

“It was hard not to fall in love with Brian. He was a big affable steer who was trying his best to keep out of trouble… Brian did nothing to deserve being kicked in the face, whipped or kicked. Each time this occurred he called out in a way that was heart-wrenching. I swear I could hear him call out ‘Why?’”

What about reporting abuse of human beings? It took decades before the shameful conditions in Aboriginal settlements became widely known. Where were the investigative journalists then?

Too little publicity is being given to an epidemic of abuse of the elderly and mentally ill who live in unseen nooks and crannies of Australia and other developed countries. It exists, you can be absolutely sure of that.

Britons, for example, must be wondering whether their country is really prepared to care for its growing elderly population. Two scandals have horrified the public in the past few weeks.

In the first, a survey of public hospitals found that elderly patients were sometimes so badly neglected that doctors had to prescribe drinking water. Inspectors from the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the National Health Services watchdog, reported that in some cases patients were so dehydrated that they could not even call for help. Of the first 12 of 100 hospitals investigated, three did not meet minimum standards of care.

But that was just an appetizer for revelations from a BBC undercover program about life in Winterbourne View, a private hospital for people with learning disabilities and autism. Four carers were arrested and later released on bail. The film crew captured scenes in which patients were kicked, pinned down, slapped, dragged into showers while fully clothed, taunted and teased. Some observers called it “torture”.

And while viewers in the United States can watch animal welfare officers rescuing dogs, cats and snakes on the popular show Animal Cops, where is the reality TV show dedicated to uncovering elder abuse? June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, but it is unlikely to surface in the media.

But when it does, as it did recently in California, it is far more horrifying than animal abuse. According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, ambulance officers were called to help a demented woman living in faeces and urine, who “weighed just over 35 pounds and was covered in bedsores, some so deep they bared bone. A metal rod from hip surgery was visible.”

“I would say that first responders and medical examiners haven’t seen a lot of cases like this — yet,” said a researcher in the management of advanced illness. “But this is not going to be an unusual case in a few years.”

Australia, the United States and the UK are all going to face a crisis of abuse of human beings over the next 20 years. There will more elderly, less money to care for them, and fewer carers. Real journalists and truly compassionate governments would spend their resources responding to this awful crisis, not in sentimental over-reaction to the deaths of animals in a distant country.


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  • Michael Cook

    Michael Cook is the editor of He earned a BA at Harvard University and later moved to Australia where he pursued a career in journalism.

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