Australians are, as a rule, a selective people when it comes to the wellbeing of animals. We are more likely to be incensed by an isolated case of neglect in the suburbs than by, say, the systematic suffering of chickens raised in factory farms. The Anthropocene extinction – the accelerating, human-caused mass disappearance of up to 140,000 species per year – seems to trouble us less than a time- and geographically-limited shark cull.
Last week my Facebook newsfeed was filled with outrage at the deaths of two horses (including the favourite Admire Rakti) at the Melbourne Cup – less than a month after video filmed by Animals Australia was broadcast on national television showing the horrific maltreatment of live animal exports in Kuwait, Jordan and Gaza. The silence around this footage continued as, just a few days ago, news broke of an impending live cattle export deal with China. This single deal, if finalised, could lead to the doubling of the size of the live export trade in this country.
It’s fair to say that (if you’ll pardon the approaching pun) the ire at the deaths of Admire Rakti and Araldo was, in many cases, a stalking horse masking a broader contempt for the Melbourne Cup and its traditions: the gambling, the binge-drinking, the ostentatious displays of wealth and bad taste, the enforced ‘wackiness’ of workplace celebrations. But why, then, the predominance of concern directed at the fate of two animals that, by any standards, had been extremely well looked after during their lives? (This is no mystery – a racehorse, unlike an Ingham’s chicken, can be valued at tens of thousands of dollars and, albeit in rare cases, can be worth much more in terms of prize money).
The visibility of horse racing, as opposed to factory farming, is unquestionably a factor: perhaps, to adapt the old adage about abattoirs and vegetarianism, if racetracks had opaque walls nobody would object. Ironically, the comparative rareness of horses dying during or immediately after races probably also played its part in making the demises of Admire Rakti and Araldo more notable. According to the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, only around 130 horses have died so far this year on Australian tracks – a vanishingly small amount when compared to the between nine and ten million cows that are killed for meat in this country every year.
‘But, but, but,’ I was challenged when I dared to air this comparison on Facebook, ‘the Melbourne Cup is just expendable fun – we need to eat meat.’ The reality is that most Australians eat meat, most of the time, for the same reason many take pleasure in watching and having a flutter on the gee-gees: because they like it. Of course, the full cost of horse racing in terms of animal welfare is not appreciable by simply monitoring on-track deaths. The practice of whipping, for example, is unquestionably cruel and, as Professor Paul McGreevy, a veterinary scientist from Sydney University has noted, would be a prosecutable offence if it were to occur anywhere but on a racetrack. Whipping is also needless: multiple recent studies have demonstrated that whipping a horse does absolutely nothing to increase its chance of placing first, second or third in a race. And then there is the issue of what the industry euphemistically calls ‘wastage’: the withdrawal of unprofitable horses from racing, horses that usually go on to meet grisly ends in knackeries.
All of this, however, is small beer. Anybody with a constitution strong enough to get through the aforementioned live export cruelty footage will know that there is a world of difference – indeed, as Walter Sobchak would have it, a world of pain – between the life and death of an animal bred to be shipped alive to the Middle East for the consumption of its meat, and a pampered racehorse. With the prospect of an independent Office of Animal Welfare quashed by the Abbott government, it is abundantly clear that administration’s priority, with Barnaby Joyce running agricultural portfolio, is the expansion, not the reformation, of the industry – and this means more, not less, suffering.
The live export industry’s regulatory framework, known as ESCAS (Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System), has so far, despite its number one principle purporting to ensure ‘animal handling and slaughter in the importing country conforms to World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) animal welfare recommendations’, proved impotent. Repeat offenders, such as Livestock Shipping Services, continue to operate with virtual impunity. Joyce, meanwhile, in line with the Government’s broader program of cracking down on whistleblowers, is more interested in preventing activists from exposing animal cruelty than the cruelty itself. Who knows what will become of the one million live cattle a year Christopher Pyne has boasted Australia may soon be exporting to China, a country with, to put in mildly, an animal welfare record that does not inspire confidence.
And finally, to pan back once more, it is possible to put even the endemic savageries of the live export trade into a sobering context of their own. The industry is, deal or no deal with China, tiny, accounting for just 0.4 per cent of Australia’s total exports. That’s a good argument for shutting the trade down altogether – but not for prioritising it as an animal welfare issue over factory farms, within which some 500 million animals, each one every bit as sentient as Admire Rakti and Araldo, are suffering for our pleasure.
The relative remoteness of horseracing from our daily lives makes it an easy target for derision but the annual festival of grief and anger over horse casualties at the Melbourne Cup will retain its sentimentality for as long as meat eaters fail to reflect on how their lifestyle choices perpetuate the suffering they claim to abhor once a year. We may not celebrate the misery of factory-farmed animals in the same way we do the Melbourne Cup but the difference is, in real terms, inconsequential and serves only to highlight the blaring cognitive dissonance that continues to characterise our relationship with animals – our pet cat purring contentedly at our side as we chow down on a T-bone steak, a third party-pie hovering in front of our mouth as we rail at a boy who waves a flag in front of the face of a racehorse and inadvertently sends it careening to its death. I loathe the Melbourne Cup as much as the next right-minded Australian, but as far as animal suffering goes it is the lowest of the low hanging fruit.