Cruel acts against flesh and blood

November 20, 2003

The insular scribe doesn't listen to a great deal of commercial radio. But if asked to nominate a favourite commercial radio presenter he'd say Derryn Hinch, presently with Melbourne's 3AW and lately back on television via Foxtel's Mars Venus. Hinch, 59, was jailed in 1987 for his on-air convictions and has also been outspoken in his antagonism to bull fighting. Hinch may be among those to note recent reports from Barcelona, suggesting bull fighting may soon be banned in that city. The scribe has always, naively, felt a legislative ban shouldn't be necessary. You'd think people would turn, voluntarily, from such an evil public torture. Why some continue to refer to bull fighting as a "sport" must be a mystery in perpetuity. Barcelona 1; Madrid 0.

That's bulls dealt with, which is just as well because this is supposed to be about sheep.

Many people were kind enough, or concerned enough, to write to the scribe in the wake of an October 9 column complaining about the treatment of those Australian sheep aboard the Cormo Express, correspondence which might be modestly regarded as endorsement for the column's contention that the sheep were a big community talking point. There's something worth saying, perhaps, about public responses to the sheep article and which may have escaped the Minister for Agriculture, Warren Truss, and others involved in the unedifying Cormo saga. So far as the scribe can judge, people aren't desperately interested in the delicate political nuances of the live sheep export trade. Nor do they seem overly concerned about its financial implications. Correspondents were almost totally preoccupied with the comfort and welfare of the sheep. What they objected to was what they perceived as unnecessary, mindless, barbaric cruelty.

Anyway, it's said to be an ill wind that blows nobody any good and some serendipitous good may have emanated from the Cormo affair. The Nine Network's 60 Minutes – courtesy of Richard Carleton and his producer, Howard Sacre – was moved to screen two segments on the Cormo sheep, plus an update a few weeks back. And the broadcasts appear to have had ramifications. A tape of at least one of the programs found its way to Israel, where animal welfare is regarded as a particularly serious issue. A group called Anonymous for Animals Rights has been asking the Israeli Supreme Court to require that country's Ministry for Agriculture to show cause why the handling and trans-shipment of live exports from Australia should not be banned.

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Some of 60 Minutes' footage was so gruesome, incidentally, the network chose not to screen it in family viewing time (7.30pm, Sundays). In truth, you can rarely accuse 60 Minutes of being overly squeamish. But its executive producer, John Westacott, wasn't keen to generate "hysteria". Westacott says: "We weren't campaigning against sheep exports. What we did was simply to show the exact conditions under which they get shipped and to encourage the elimination of any cruelty."

Cruelty? Well, the Cormo affair has resulted in trade whistleblowers, animals rights people and others suggesting sheep are frequently beaten with iron bars and deliberately maimed to make them more tractable during unloading. There have been suggestions their eyes are sometimes stabbed out with swords or knives and that they regularly try to jump overboard from their floating Belsens.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, didn't entirely escape the aftermath of 60 Minutes and other Cormo commentary. Just as the affair was becoming a fulcrum for widespread news and comment, Howard happened to be a guest on a talkback program – hosted by Jeremy Cordeaux – on Adelaide's Radio 5DN. Howard told one caller he was all in favour of "more humane" treatment of live exports but reminded listeners live exports constituted "a very valuable economic asset". The caller's riposte took on the tone of some of the scribe's mail and was somewhat to the point: "If you (Howard) or I did it to our (pet) dogs we'd be jailed for it." Howard was, of course, on familiar territory. He knows most of what there is to know about floating cargoes of unwanted flesh and blood.

To conclude on a positive note: those who observed that November 12 Lateline footage of the property developer, Warren Anderson, would have recognised both a potential animal rights warrior and a master of public relations. A Northern Territory court has granted an injunction preventing the feared destruction of giraffes, zebras, hippopotamuses and other exotic animals at a Tipperary Station zoo, once owned by Anderson. His method of dealing with what appeared to be legitimate media inquiries about the estimated 2000 animals was to repeatedly yell "go away". Asked specifically about reports he and some mates intended shooting the creatures, an indignant Anderson replied: "So what? They belong to me anyway." The Territory Government is said to have stepped in after claims that the animals were starving.

Anderson was always a gracious, charming fellow, something not as widely appreciated in the general community as it should be. He'll be eternally grateful to Lateline for correcting any unfortunate misconceptions.

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