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The export of any animals for slaughter has serious welfare problems — some relate to transport conditions resulting in stress, disease, injury and death and others relate to a lack of control over what happens to animals in importing countries. These risks are especially high for horses and donkeys.
Exported animals pass through many stages prior to leaving Australia, from mustering to yarding, loading, trucking, unloading, holding in an assembly area and then trucking and final loading for export by air or sea. General stressors associated with transport include:
Horses and donkeys are highly sensitive animals and thus very susceptible to the multitude of cumulative stressors inherent with live export. Studies have shown that even trucking previously handled horses or donkeys for as little as four hours results in both species showing a stress response, with donkeys showing higher levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, than horses (1). A study of faecal cortisol in horses trucked 200 km found that levels increased threefold from prior to transport to the morning after transport (2). A recent Australian study of records from 180 consignments of horses transported over 4000 km (from Perth to Sydney) concluded that long-haul transport is a risk for horse health and welfare (3). A further study showed that donkeys trucked for six hours showed other signs of stress including significantly increased heart rate and respiration rate as well as decreased electrolyte levels circulating in the blood including calcium, potassium and sodium (4). Low electrolyte levels can result in dehydration, which is acknowledged as being one of the most significant adverse impacts of transportation.
Several researchers have also commented that domesticated donkeys are very difficult to load and that it is essential that donkeys are handled with great care and patience by competent people. Likewise, even well-trained horses can develop an aversion to transport and pose a danger to themselves and the handler.
In addition to a stress response and dehydration, other adverse impacts associated with transporting horses and donkeys include:
Where feral horses or donkeys are sourced for live export, these welfare risks are compounded by their lack of any prior contact with humans or experience of yarding, loading or transport. While domesticated horses and donkeys can be difficult to load, these problems are exacerbated for feral animals, as are the impacts of the stressors associated with transport.
In addition to this, conditions of transport, handling, and slaughter in importing countries cannot be effectively monitored or controlled by Australian authorities. The Australian Government has no legal means of ensuring horses and donkeys exported overseas will be treated humanely or in accordance with Australian animal welfare standards. Extensive evidence gathered from countries importing Australian livestock has shown inhumane slaughter and handling practices that would be contrary to Australian laws and standards.
For all these reasons, the RSPCA is opposed to the live export of horses and donkeys for slaughter from Australia.