Court orders reduced suffering in animal shipments

While ruling out total live transport ban, justices give government until April 30 to report on steps to improve animal welfare

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

De-Levie Agriculture Produce promotional video showing a shipment of sheep. (YouTube screenshot)
De-Levie Agriculture Produce promotional video showing a shipment of sheep. (YouTube screenshot)

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday ordered the government to “change gear” and speed up attempts to reduce the suffering of animals shipped to Israel for fattening and slaughter.

Giving its interim opinion on a petition submitted by animal rights groups for a complete ban on what the groups call “death shipments” and their replacement with imported chilled meat, justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Hanan Meltzer and Neal Hendel instructed the government to provide an update by April 30 on efforts to implement policies that would reduce the suffering of imported animals.

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.

Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynn Simpson)
Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynn Simpson)

Evidence from Australian vet Lynn Simpson, who served as the official on-board vet for 57 live export journeys, including to Israel, described animals in cramped conditions, passing the journey covered in their own excrement, calves “cooking from the inside” in the boiling temperatures of the Red Sea, and animal corpses being tossed into the ocean. Simpson was fired, reportedly because the Australian livestock industry no longer wanted to work with her.

In the court’s interim judgment, Rubinstein wrote that while one had to distinguish between the duration of journeys from Australia — three weeks — and Europe’s three to five days, all the defendants were interested in reducing animal suffering and were working towards it, but neither the market, consumer demand nor costs allowed for banning the import of live animals altogether. The aim had to be to improve the animals’ welfare during transport.

Justice Rubinstein referred to a government decision taken — “whether by coincidence or not” — a month after the petition was first lodged in 2015, which dealt with the need to protect animals in line with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1994 and to implement recommendations of an inter-ministerial committee.

One government decision required the formation of an advisory committee comprising academics, government officials and public figures, as well as the establishment of a department for animal welfare within the veterinary services unit of the Agriculture Ministry, along with new regulations for livestock transport.

Left to right MK Yael Cohen Paran, MK Dov Khenin, Ori Shavit protesting live animal imports, January 28, 2017, (Or Keren)
Left to right MK Yael Cohen Paran, MK Dov Khenin, Ori Shavit protesting live animal imports, January 28, 2017, (Or Keren)

“There is nobody who doesn’t think transported animals shouldn’t suffer. The gap is between zero imports, as requested by the petition, on the basis that there is no real way to prevent suffering and to supervise and enforce, and between real steps to reduce suffering,” the judgment said.

There was room to advance “more energetically” to reach this latter goal.

The advisory committee — due to meet again only in April — met for the first time just days before the court hearing, though not all of its members have been appointed.

“At this pace, it’s hard to believe that there will be sufficient progress,” the interim ruling said. For the picture to become clearer, there needed to be a “change of gear” both in the staffing of the advisory committee — which should include groups such as the petitioners — in its timetable for meetings, in the work of subcommittees involved in drafting regulations, and more generally in government actions dealing with the issue.

Ran De-Levie, who runs De-Levie Agriculture Produce, one of the defendants in the petition and a company which imports livestock from Eastern Europe on its own ships, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that “the lies according to which calves come covered in excrement and all sorts of shocking descriptions like that are not correct.

“One camera which photographs a driver going through a red light at a junction doesn’t provide information about all drivers,” he said, dismissing what he called “fiery talk and lies.”

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)

Livestock import jobs support 10,000 Israeli families, he said, adding, “We are the first to support any law that improves the welfare of animals.”

Dr. Haggai Almagor, a former Agriculture Ministry officials once responsible for overseeing implementation of Israel’s Animal Welfare Act, lashed De-Levie’s “audacity.”

Almagor told the same Israel Radio program that “the transport of live animals is nothing more than transporting meat in live bodies which don’t rot.” Only the bare minimum standards are kept to ensure the animals arrive alive.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was failing to protect vast numbers of animals that were seen as mere “statistics,” he added. The law is written in ways that protect individual animals from specific acts of cruelty, but does not properly protect the animals who suffer at the hands of modern industrial farming techniques.

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