The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and Compassion in World Farming are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take immediate action following reports that 400 pregnant cattle among a total of 3,900 cattle being transported by ship from the United States to Russia have died en route. The groups are urging USDA to thoroughly investigate the incident and take all necessary steps to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
Last week Compassion in World Farming received complaints from a Gibraltar supporter that the ship, called the Pearl of Para, was crammed with cattle and had docked temporarily on July 30. The supporter raised concerns because the ship reportedly smelled "awful." The ship was on its way to Russia.
Accounts of the incident suggest that the animals may have suffocated on ammonia fumes due to a breakdown in manure removal and ventilation systems with no back-up system in place. U.S. regulations require that vessels transporting animals for export have spare motors and fans available on board for each type of motor or fan used, in order to facilitate replacement or repair of the ventilation system if any malfunction occurs during the voyage.
To animal welfare advocates familiar with this type of disaster, an occurrence involving U.S. cattle was inevitable. Cattle exports from the United States have expanded rapidly in the past two years, as countries like Turkey, Russia, and Kazakhstan try to establish breeding herds. According to USDA, last year approximately 100,000 animals—many of them pregnant dairy cattle—left from the east coast on voyages to Europe and Asia lasting more than two weeks. During transport, many stressful experiences—including inadequate ventilation, noise, motion sickness, and heat stress—severely impact animal welfare and make the animals more susceptible to illness and disease.
"We don't know how many animals become sick or injured or, as happened in this case, die on these voyages," said Dena Jones, farm animal program manager for AWI. "The suffering involved in the suffocation of 400 animals must be immense and shouldn't be tolerated by the people or their governments on either side of the Atlantic."
"This tragedy illustrates that it is impossible to ensure the health and welfare of animals on such long journeys. Cramming pregnant cows onto a ship for days on end is downright inhumane and unacceptable," said Leah Garces, USA director for Compassion in World Farming. "We hope USDA will take a long hard look at this incident and realize that is no justification for these nightmarish journeys."
In early 2011, AWI and the World Society for the Protection of Animals—aware of the expanding trade in live animals from the United States—petitioned USDA to revise federal animal export regulations to include animal "fitness to travel" criteria. To date, USDA has not responded to the petition.