An estimated 2,500 Israelis braved unusually cold weather in Tel Aviv Saturday night to send a message to the agriculture minister, the country’s two biggest meat companies and the Supreme Court: Stop shipping live animals to Israel for slaughter.

On Wednesday, Supreme Court justices will discuss a petition against live shipments lodged in November 2015 by the animal rights groups Anonymous and Let the Animals Live. It is not known whether they will reach an immediate decision.

In 2016, 571,972 heads of sheep and cattle arrived at Israeli ports from Europe and Australia – nearly double the number for 2015 (292,274), according to Agriculture Ministry figures.

More than 30 percent came from Australia – the biggest live animal exporter in the world — on journeys that take up to three weeks, with the remainder arriving from Eastern Europe and Portugal.

Ships resembling multi-story parking lots carry from 1,000 to 20,000 cattle, or 100,000 sheep, or a combination.

Once in Israel, the animals are loaded onto trucks for journeys that can take hours to slaughterhouses or to pre-slaughter fattening facilities.

Protest in Tel Aviv against live animal imports, January 28, 2017, ( Revital Topiol)

Protest in Tel Aviv against live animal imports, January 28, 2017 (Revital Topiol)

At the rally, actress and animal activist Yarden Segal read excerpts from the testimony of Australian vet Lynn Simpson, who served as the official on-board vet for 57 live export journeys, including to Israel.

Simpson submitted a harsh, confidential report on live shipments to an Australian government steering committee in late 2012. The department accidentally uploaded the report to its website, and weeks later, Simpson was fired, on the grounds — according to the Australian Broadcasting Company — that the livestock industry did not want to work with her anymore.

Simpson had reported that the space given to each animal was so small that the animals could not lie down and rest. Those that could were often smothered or trampled. Many cattle suffered serious leg problems as the result of standing for long periods on bare metal or bitumen decks. Photographs she took showed animals covered in excrement.

Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynn Simpson)

Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynn Simpson)

“In stormy seas, waves would break into the ship and sweep animals out to sea,” Segal read, “while others sustained injuries such as broken necks and legs after being thrust against the bars of their enclosures.”

During one passage, freezing waves threw sheep around like “rag dolls.” Thousands were suffocated under others and hundreds died of hypothermia within hours.

When the ships reach the Red Sea area, the biggest threat is the high humidity and heat, Segal went on. The animals start competing to get close to the fans, Simpson’s testimony reads. “The stronger ones climb over the weaker ones and when they are exhausted, they collapse, lose consciousness and die.”

“One day, we had a full shipment like this. We lost them one after another. They fell around us as if someone had shot them in the head. But there wasn’t a single bullet. As soon as they fell on the deck, we would drag them out and I would slit their throats out of mercy. Those that would have survived such heat stress would have died a slow death within a week from kidney failure. Lambs literally started cooking from the inside, the temperature of their bodies reaching 47 degrees Celsius (116.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The team was forced to throw carcasses into the sea. Legs pull off as you try to drag out a body and it just falls apart.”

Protest in Tel Aviv against live animal imports, January 28, 2017, ( Revital Topiol)

Protest in Tel Aviv against live animal imports, January 28, 2017 (Revital Topiol)

In a Times of Israel blog posted in September, Simpson said, “When I’ve been in Israel after delivering live cattle, I have seen meat in butcher shops with injection marks that run deep into the flesh. The bruising is indicative of the types of injection guns we use on the ships; the spread of the bruise is indicative of how deep the main concentration of medication has spread. The color of the bruise indicative of recent injection, hence such meat poses a high drug residue risk. Consumption of such residue has serious ramifications.”

“There have been no changes in the guidelines since Simpson was fired,” lawyer Yossi Wolfson, representing the animal rights groups before the Supreme Court, told The Times of Israel.

“The calves that arrive are covered in dried excrement and the bodies floating off the coast tell the story. There is also no disagreement, and every expert will agree, that these shipments inherently cause suffering.”

If in the past, high Israeli import taxes and stringent limits on the quantity of imported chilled meat made live exports – which started in the 1990’s — more economically competitive, import tax cuts and the opening of the meat market to Poland and Latin America last year changed the rules of the game, he said.

And if chilled meat slaughtered in Israel stayed on supermarket shelves for six weeks, sometimes even longer, it could be shipped the three weeks to Israel from Australia, Wolfson added.

Cattle on Live Export ship from Australia (Courtesy Dr. Lynn Simpson)

Cattle on Live Export ship from Australia (Courtesy Dr. Lynn Simpson)

The Australian agriculture ministry determines that livestock mortality has to be reported if it is higher than 2 per cent for sheep and goats or over 1 per cent for cattle on a trip of more than 10 days. That means that the deaths of up to 100 cattle or 200 sheep out of every 10,000 of their kind on a shipment to Israel are not deemed “reportable mortality events.”

A statement from Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture said a ministry supervisor or a government vet had to be present at the arrival of every shipment to check the consignment, the state of the animals, the conditions of the ship (most shipments are by sea) or the airplane and the unloading conditions. If defects are discovered in the consignment, the ministry turns for clarification to the authorities in the exporting countries.

“For example, recently, the ministry stopped live shipments by air after a consignment from Hungary was discovered to have an irregular mortality rate as well as deviation from ministry regulations on animal cruelty. The ban will remain until there has been a full investigation of the conditions that lead to the unusual mortality of the animals.”

Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynn Simpson)

Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynn Simpson)

In addition, the ministry was working to increase the import of meat to Israel, which would certainly lead to a reduction in shipments of live calves, the statement went on. Officials were looking into the possibility of extending the shelf life of imported chilled meat so that imports from South American and other countries could be increased and chilled meat prices bought down.

Furthermore, the statement said, the ministry had pushed for approval of regulations for the transport of animals within Israel, which include reducing transport time as well as providing shelter from rain, ventilation, cooling and relief from overcrowding.

“The regulations prohibit transporting animals who are injured, tied up, hoisted, or otherwise gripped in cruel ways during loading (such as being hoisted by the head or the horns) and also forbid the use of force or electric shocks (with the exception of reasonable force).”

“The ministry calls on the public to report any suspicion of animal cruelty,” the statement concluded.

A spokeswoman for the Tnuva company said, “The subject is being discussed in court and therefore we are prevented from responding.”

MK Tamar Zandberg (left) at protest in Tel Aviv against live animal imports, January 28, 2017 (Ruty Benziman)

MK Tamar Zandberg (left) at protest in Tel Aviv against live animal imports, January 28, 2017 (Ruty Benziman)

Two years ago, lawmakers Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Miki Zohar (Likud) proposed legislation to halt the shipments and submitted it for a vote in July, when Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) asked them to wait and to let him try to bring the numbers of live shipment animals down.

“In the meantime, the opposite has happened,” Zandberg told The Times of Israel. “The numbers have just increased.”

“I think we have to expand the public, parliamentary and legal struggle to stop these shocking shipments altogether. We’re talking about tens of thousands of animals crammed into ships, sick and wounded, in insufferable veterinary conditions, just to be taken off the ships in a cruel way and taken to their deaths. I don’t think you have to be a vegetarian to be shocked by the images. This has to stop.”

MK Sharren Haskel (Likud) said, “The struggle for animals is the struggle for humanity and compassion that is within all of us. The purpose of the live shipments was to bring down the prices of meat in Israel, but the absurd thing is that in practice, the prices haven’t gone down and in the meantime, horrific abuse is being carried out on tens of thousands of animals every month.”