When I think of live animal exports I think of barbarism and home.
Last week a steer dubbed "Manny" leapt off a cattle ship into the Fremantle harbor and made a mad dash for freedom that got him as far as North Coogee. He was on the lam for 24 hours. He ran right past me.
That Sunday a vegan friend and I bought burgers from Missy Moos in South Fremantle, and headed down to South Beach to catch the sunset. In the car we discussed the ethics of meat eating, she referring to me as a "bloodmouth."
We stood in the beach car park and looked out past the community showers, I said something like "they need to empty those dog shit bins", when, suddenly, a brown cow ran through the scene. Onlookers laughed and filmed it on their phones, little dogs went berserk with confusion, and everyone looked at each other with a look of "well, fuck me."
It was going at a steady gallop, making its way up the cycle path towards Coogee.
"Where could it have come from?" my worried friend asked. She was from California and didn't know anything about Fremantle. I told her a clunky lie about a mismanaged petting zoo, but I knew it must have come from the docks. From the cattle ships.
There's nothing like growing up in a working port town. To see the sauropod cranes moving crates like marionettes in the world's biggest stage play is spectacular. On still nights I can hear the creeks and clangs of the port from my house.
I grew up in the waning days of the Fremantle wharf, the post America's Cup malaise that has stultified the city since 1988. I spent my childhood with my father on a megaphone at the industrial protests of the Howard era, and my teens walking past the rows of fishermen with my friends and cheap wine.
Live export is a crucial part of the port's economy. A total of 131,951 heads of cattle were shipped out of Fremantle harbor in 2014–2015. That same year Western Australia exported 1,945,559 head of sheep, again, mostly through Fremantle. The port's key export was once wool, and still in 2016 it very much "rides the sheep's back." Animal cruelty is tied to the town's past, present, and identity.
I grew up familiar with the stink of death.
I have early memories of returning home from my grandmother's in Palmyra, driving along Leach Highway behind a truck full of cows or sheep, their shit and piss sloshing around and trickling out the back at every red light and intersection. I remember feeling pity but I also remember feeling used to it.
There's nothing like the lead-heavy stink of a sheep-ship on a summer day. At high school, the smell would sit in the courtyard and permeate through the classrooms—a strong waft of death and desperation, curling up while you chowed down on a canteen pie. I didn't think twice about it, the stink was inescapable, like PE. It was something to put up with.
The smell has a Proustian effect on me. It brings up my front door, chill nights with my girlfriend, family picnics, town shop fronts, screaming crackheads, and paper mache hippie floats protesting uranium and live export in the Fremantle Parade. It's an olfactory trigger that takes me through a kaleidoscopic montage of Fremantle vignettes and characters.
These images are intrinsically linked to the stark horror of the industry that the stink itself results from.
On December 29 last year the Israel bound M/V Ocean Outback returned to port after experiencing engine trouble. It was stranded there for 10 days. 33 livestock aboard the ship died of heat exhaustion—30 sheep and three cattle. To an accountant, 33 out of the 7,500 on board doesn't seem too bad.
Manny the cow escaped from a similar ship on a 37-degree day. Another steer in the escape suffered leg injuries and was quickly euthanized. But somehow Manny got away, looking desperately unhappy as he galloped past us. There's nothing as undeniable as the image of an animal in distress. An ingrained human instinct makes it instantly recognizable. Manny looked petrified. She had jumped into the ocean, clambered up the rocky south-mole, and bolted through town on a boiling hot day.
As I'm writing this I check the Fremantle based "Stop Live Export" page for any news only to see a post from four minutes earlier stating that Manny died. When he was finally caught there was a short-lived effort to move Manny to a farm sanctuary, and a petition had gained 1,300 signatures. There's nothing quite like an escape narrative—it appeals to an atavistic respect for anything that defies fate and leaps off the treadmill of life's predetermined bullshit.
Manny swam and ran a long way and now Manny is dead.
The group released this statement: "To protect the health and safety of the general public the steer was heavily sedated prior to its return to the quarantine facility, where it was monitored by a veterinarian. Unfortunately the steer did not recover from the combined effects of sedation and its physical exertion and passed away in its sleep."
Witnessing Manny's escape was less of an epiphany and more of a confirmation. I am numb to the brutality of the live export industry simply because of my lifelong proximity to it. I well up if I see a lizard get hit by a car, but I feel next to nothing when I see a truckload of sheep torturously forced onto a creaking death-ship to suffer in sweltering heat for weeks at sea until they're offloaded to understaffed slaughterhouses in foreign lands.
The smell of their suffering is as banal to me as the Fremantle Round House, a former prison and torture pit with a whaling tunnel passing underneath it.
We watched the sunset and looked on as a bevvy of confused rangers in hi-vis waddled up the beach asking anyone if they'd seen a cow. We'd all seen the cow.
I ate my burger.
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