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Live animal export and knee-jerk reactions

By Brian Holden - posted Saturday, 11 June 2011

I was walking in the McDonald Ranges in Central Australia. In a gully at the foot of a low mountain, my small party walked up the descending dry creekbed. Our aerial photograph indicated that there was a likely rock pool up ahead - and we needed water for our camp in about an hour.

There was. It was above a two meter rise in rock which was easily scrambled up. But at the base of the rock face were a number of feral horse and cattle skeletons. They had smelt the water, but could not climb up the rock. They had died of thirst. A few days earlier we had seen some magnificent galloping brumbies. Now we knew what their awful fate was going to be when the next drought arrived. Life was not meant to be easy for animals.

Due to public clamour, there will be no live animal exports to Indonesia until further notice. The anger of the cattlemen is understandable. The market is being manipulated in response to emotional pressures. In any polarisation, it's always a good idea to look at the science which tells us that we tend to see in animals that which is not there.


I love my cat and I feel that she loves me - but she doesn't. A powerful program in an animal is geared to the animal's safety. Only acute hunger or thirst will override it. Over time a pet learns to trust the owner to be that animal's haven of safety. It suits our emotional needs to identify this as a mutual bonding - but the affection is all one way.

(The dog is an exception. That animal which looks so different to us has a mind uniquely in tune with our own. But it does not suffer as we do.)

What is suffering?

Pain is an electrical signal which travels from the tissue under stress along nerves to the brain where an interpretation of unpleasantness is made. To suffer an animal must have a sense of identity. The stronger the sense of identity, the stronger the sense of being a victim. A human is the only animal which can feel sorry for itself. A human is the only animal which can hate a pain and focus on the pain.

If, for example, you had a splitting headache and the phone rang to inform you of great news - the headache instantly disappears. There is no room in the same skull for both misery and euphoria - so the misery is given the flick.

The cattle being transported are automatons. They ingest, excrete and sleep. This routine is occasionally broken by sexual activity which is a program to be followed after it is triggered into action in the presence of chemicals emitted into the air from the opposite gender. They are also programmed to be on the alert for danger and become relaxed when experiencing the continual absence of danger.


The cries we hear when they are injured are the audible outcomes of a physiological event in their bodies. If we are disturbed by their stress, then it is because we know ourselves what pain is. But, we only know what pain is in ourselves.

I will always hate to see an animal treated as they were in the Four Corners program - but that is because I live a comfortable life. Are the Indonesians really cruel if the lives they live are so much harder than our own? If to live is to struggle to keep your children alive, then there is not much emotional room to be worrying over how animals might feel.

Whatever the level of an animal's intelligence, it has the potential to enrich your life if you are in a fortunate position to allow it to do that. As a child, it gave me pleasure to watch my grandmother's free-ranging chooks cluck as they scratched the earth. Then one day a hen would appear with little chicks running behind her. That was a delight to see.

Politicians talk of regulations as if they are not capable of any other perspective. But if we are to expect the abattoirs workers in Indonesia to see the dignity in the animal which is to die, then we have to raise them to a standard of living where they will be open to seeing that dignity - and appreciating that the more dignity we confer to animals, the more we enhance our own.

However, in a world where 30,000 children die each day in the pain of hunger or infection, animal rights is not the biggest window through which to look at the world.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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