From late 2001 until mid 2011, Dr Lynn Simpson worked on live-export ships, tending to livestock literally covered in their own excrement. When she tried to improve animal-welfare conditions from the inside, she found herself cast out, a victim of regulatory capture. By Alex Gilly
The ship is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and it’s time to pray.
There’s a diagram of the vessel (200m long, 35,000 tonnes, nine decks) pinned to the mess door, with a laminated arrow pointing towards Mecca. Whenever the ship changes course, one of the junior officers comes down from the bridge to adjust the arrow, but the vessel hasn’t changed course since leaving the dock at Fremantle five days previously, and won’t until it rounds the Horn of Africa in several more, so the worshipper doesn’t bother to consult the diagram. He goes to his cabin, removes his shoes, and washes his hands and face. He lays down his mat facing towards the bow of the ship—northwest, towards Arabia. Today, he has decided to pray for his friend, the ship’s vet, Dr Lynn Simpson. She is not a Muslim. But she cares for the animals, and it is her job to keep them well. The worshipper hopes his prayer will help her.
“There were lots of Muslims onboard, Palestinians and Pashtuns mostly,” remembers Dr Simpson of her 57 voyages aboard live-export ships. “Lots of Filipino crews, [but also] Bangladeshis, Indians, Syrians. Some ships are really fun … The majority of individuals are really nice people, and they’re out there and they’ve got well-paying jobs as far as they’re concerned, compared to conditions back home. They’re sending money back home, most of them, and looking after their family. They’re respected for what they do. A lot of people are higher educated than their station on the ship. Some of the Bangladeshis, they’d have master’s degrees in teaching and philosophy and classical music. Yet we had them on the ships, shovelling shit.”
There’s a lot of shit to shovel on a livestock carrier. The largest carry up to 20,000 cattle, 100,000 sheep, or a combination of the two. A voyage from Fremantle to Jeddah typically takes 16 sailing days (post several days’ loading). Even the most diligent shovelers can’t keep up.
“The [animal] decks are filthy. There’s no two ways about it,” said Dr Simpson in a recent interview with the advocacy group Human Rights at Sea. “We all get covered in shit all day every day. There are repercussions: people get sick, be it the runs or eye infections or sores.”
But it was the effect of all that shit on the animals themselves that led to Dr Simpson finding herself professionally and emotionally shipwrecked in her land-locked hometown, Canberra.
“I’ve always joked to people that I was sent home to the wrong family,” says Dr Simpson. “I grew up in Canberra. My family is all Scottish. They immigrated out here in the year before I was born, in 1969, and my father worked for NASA. He worked on a deep space radio telescope tracking dish, like the one out at Tidbinbilla, just outside of Canberra. I was born here, I grew up here and went to school here. I was always infatuated with animals from a young age, which was weird because our family wasn’t at all interested in animals. I remember very clearly when I was six years old playing with two little toy dogs underneath the Christmas tree on a trip to Scotland, and one of the relatives said, ‘You should become a vet.’” When she asked what a vet was, her relative said, ‘A vet is somebody who spends their life healing animals and making animals better.’ “I’m like, ‘You’re kidding—there’s a job like that?’ I still remember just being completely gobsmacked.”
Simpson’s childhood ended abruptly at the age of 15, when, in the same year, her father succumbed to stomach cancer, and her older brother, Douglas, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
When she asked what a vet was, her relative said, “A vet is somebody who spends their life healing animals and making animals better.” “I’m like, ‘You’re kidding—there’s a job like that?’”
“I had a horse. We weren’t rich or anything, but I got a pony when I was 12. I refused to give it up. I had lost enough and I wasn’t going to lose the horse, so I just started working at the supermarket as much as I could [to pay for its upkeep]. Because I was doing so much work, and then escaping by riding my horse, my grades went from being advanced in everything to barely turning up.”
Simpson graduated from high school, but only just. She didn’t have the grades to get into university. So instead, she spent four years working with horses, riding them, breaking them in, carting them around. She found work on sheep and cattle stations around shearing season and mustering time. She went north and spent three years working with camels, just because she thought camels were cool.
“I took out safari tourists. I was a safari leader around Alice Springs,” she says. “Then I came back [south] and worked in the Snowy Mountains taking tourists on five-day [horseback] rides. Everyone was going, ‘You’ve got the best life. It’s so much fun.’ I was bored stupid. I realised I needed to do something with my head and not just sitting on my bum riding around beautiful scenery.”
Simpson started studying in her spare time. She enrolled at TAFE in Canberra, repeating year 12. Then she did a year at ANU, taking science classes. Finally, she was offered a place in the vet school at Murdoch University in Perth.
She was thrilled; she was studying to do the job she’d wanted to do ever since she’d been six years old. But Simpson had a problem: she was dead broke.
At the beginning of her third year of vet school, thanks to her experience working with animals, Simpson was offered a job on the wharf in Fremantle, loading livestock onto ships.
“Essentially, we were just climbing up and down the side of semi-trailers all day, every day like barnacles, and just pushing sheep and cattle off. The trucks would be loaded with cattle and you would climb outside on the frame of the truck and poke the cattle out, hoping your fingers didn’t get kicked and squashed and rammed. If you weren’t doing that, you might be on the ramp, encouraging the animals to go up the ramp into the ship. If you weren’t doing that, you were inside the ship somewhere, usually on what we call ‘the corner’. There would be areas where animals would slow down because of the design of the vessel and you needed someone there to encourage them around the corner, so you’d be doing that.”
Simpson graduated from vet school in 2001. Within three weeks, she was on a live-export ship, heading for Saudi Arabia.
“It was exciting. Ordinary as well. There’s a lot of animals that die on the ships, but you could tell from loading the ships that the conditions … anyone with half a brain could tell that they’re pretty crowded. The holds start to heat up pretty quickly once you start to put animals in them, because each animal gives off its own heat, a bit like if you get stuck in an elevator for too long or you’re starting to think, ‘I wish you’d all leave.’ That was a northern winter voyage. You could still tell, even though that wasn’t a heat stress, high-risk voyage, you could still tell that it was ordinary.”
Dr Simpson’s role aboard the ships was to tend to the welfare of the animals bound for slaughter. She found the conditions aboard miserable for the animals—but she felt she had the right balance of knowledge and character to push for change from within.
“The holds start to heat up pretty quickly once you start to put animals in them, because each animal gives off its own heat, a bit like if you get stuck in an elevator for too long.”
“I thought my work on the ships was the most meaningful way for me to utilise my vet training and pragmatic nature,” explains Dr Simpson. “Live export is an outdated practice, but if you work hard, you can make a huge animal health and welfare difference. I suspect colleagues struggle to understand why I bothered as these animals were destined to die. In my mind, they deserved the last part of their life to be as tolerable as possible.”
Still, during her stays ashore between voyages, Dr Simpson took to working for the RSPCA, partly for the opportunity to practise her medical and diagnostic skills that the ships didn’t afford, and partly to purge from her mind the things she witnessed on the ships.
“Both exporters and RSPCA knew I was working for each other. RSPCA staff who didn’t know me would be wary of me, others asked a million questions. Exporters used to just shake their heads at me. I once joined a ship wearing an RSPCA T-shirt just to get a giggle. The exporter who was a friend of mine simply shook his head, with a smirk, as I got to the top of the gangway and told me to ‘get that bloody thing off’.”
The contrast between the two worlds taught her an invaluable lesson: on the ships, animal-welfare conditions could be terrible, and equipment and veterinary supplies limited, whereas on land, conditions were better and supplies more readily available—but there were clients to deal with.
“Often the clients are the most stressful part of our work [as vets],” she says. “[That’s] probably why I suited and was comfortable at sea, where there were no clients. The decisions regarding animal health were mine to make.”
Some of the decisions still haunt her. Once, when sheep in overpacked pens on a poorly ventilated deck started dying from heat exposure (Dr Simpson calls it “cooking from the inside out”), she was forced to euthanise them. But inadequate supplies meant she had to do it with a knife. She slit the throats of so many sheep that day, she lost count. On another trip, Dr Simpson had to kill 55 lambs born aboard, even though pregnant ewes are meant to be filtered out at loading. And once, on a trip to Russia, she had to kill 22 fully grown cattle by a combination of striking their foreheads with a fire-axe and cutting their throats, because Russian officials had confiscated her gun.
And then there was all that shit.
“From day one of loading, livestock shit begins to build up on deck,” wrote Dr Simpson in her column for Splash 24/7, a shipping-industry website. “This build-up makes living quarters for the animals unsuitable. Part of my job was to manage the cleaning, wash-down and re-sawdust program for the duration of the voyage … Ideally we wash every four to five days, so it’s a never-ending loop of build-up, wash, re-sawdust, build-up, wash, re-sawdust. Every time we washed a deck we disrupted the feeding, watering and hygiene associated with normal livestock management … Sometimes if we were experiencing a potential heat stress mortality point, we would wash cattle to cool them off.”
But, despite Dr Simpson and the crews’ best efforts, the animals were usually covered head to hoof in their own excrement—so much so, their ear tags became illegible. Dr Simpson describes walking around the animal decks with a Westergun—a spring-loaded staff used to inject animals with anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, or sedatives—trying to identify the specific animal in need treatment.
“Often you’ll see an animal and you’ll go, ‘That’s the one that’s got the bad leg, but I only saw it when it was here. It’s now behind there.’ You’ll just be not paying any attention to what you’re doing when you’re drawing up [the dose] by reflex and you’re watching that animal so that you don’t lose it, and then you get in and just inject whichever part of it you can access.”
“I gave up taking down ear tags in the first voyage because I realised it was ridiculous and not practical. Do you want me to bring you in some photos to show you why?”
Protocol demands that vets write down the ear-tag number of every animal they treat, but “You would have to catch that animal, sedate it, and clean the ear tag just to get that number,” says Dr Simpson. “You’re of course not going to do that. In the time that that takes, you could have treated another 20 animals, walking around doing your rounds of another deck or another whatever. [I remember one vet] who did a voyage and it went poorly. It became a reportable mortality. There was an investigation into it, and the government came back and said whilst it wasn’t his reporting that was the problem that caused the deaths, they were talking about criminal prosecution against him because he didn’t write down all these tag numbers. I overheard it when I was working in the department doing this technical advisory stuff. [I said] ‘If you’re going to prosecute him, you have to prosecute me because I’ve done heaps more voyages than him. I gave up taking down ear tags in the first voyage because I realised it was ridiculous and not practical. Do you want me to bring you in some photos to show you why?’”
Dr Simpson did bring in some photos. She included them in the confidential report she was asked to produce for the Australian Standards for Export Livestock (ASEL) committee, which operates under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture’s (DoA) since-disbanded Animal Welfare Branch. The photos showed animals covered in shit, their eartags illegible; it showed the eye and other infections the animals suffered from their filthy conditions; it showed specific injuries to legs and fetlocks caused by the overcrowded conditions and poor bedding. The ASEL members seemed truly shocked by the photos she showed them, says Dr Simpson. She was pleased that they were seeing what she had seen. She felt she was putting forward a powerful argument to reform the industry, and that she was finally being heard.
Then, in February 2013, someone uploaded Dr Simpson’s confidential report to the DoA’s website.
“The government have been telling me that it was an inadvertent publication,” says Dr Simpson, without conviction. Whether it was done by malice or incompetence, the leak ended Dr Simpson’s career in the Animal Welfare Branch. She was told, first in person by the division’s deputy secretary, then in writing by the first assistant secretary, that she could no longer continue working on live-export-related issues because the industry the department were charged with regulating now perceived her as biased in favour of animal-welfare organisations, and that this perception was “having an adverse impact on [the Department of Agriculture’s] capacity to engage appropriately with industry and hence to deliver acceptable animal welfare reform in the area of livestock exports.”
It was an instance of what Dr Simpson called, in an article she wrote for Crikey, “regulatory capture”: when a regulatory body falls under the control of the industry it is supposed to regulate.
It was also the start of Dr Simpson’s slide into depression. She felt cast out from an industry she had spent virtually her entire career in. She felt isolated, was unable to get out of bed, found herself consulting one psychologist after another.
“I sat at home, basically, on compensation wages for what they call adjustment disorder, which is really PTSD, which is a really common thing that perceived whistleblowers get.”
I’ll never get a job in live export, or in something industrial like a chicken plant, pig plant or feedlot again, because all someone’s got to do is Google my name, and the amount of shit that comes up about me, they’ll just say, ‘dobber’.”
Time and information have helped Dr Simpson recover. She now lives on a farm outside Canberra, surrounded by dogs and horses and the art she collected at all the ports she visited. She is learning to accept her PTSD. She is writing down her life, and she is involved with support groups for whistleblowers. And though Dr Simpson is now on the outside, she remains steadfastly committed to seeing the live-export industry being significantly reformed.
“I do not believe it is in any animal’s best interest to be exposed to the inherent risks of transport by sea, especially the long distances I travelled as a vet,” she told Vet Practice. “I think animals destined for slaughter should be slaughtered as close to their place of birth as is practical, reducing transport stress.
“Live export is more than just primary production animals for slaughter. Live export is pets travelling to other countries with their owners, zoo animal transfers, race horses moving globally to compete each year. These animals are afforded a much higher level of care, at much greater expense. This in my view is generally acceptable. I don’t believe that just because an animal is destined to be a food source, it should be subjected to lower health and welfare outcomes.”
Somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, meanwhile, the faithful are preparing to pray.