SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

What is it like to be an animal on board a live export ship?

Image credit: Anonymous veterinarian, presentation to the Primary Production Select Committee 2021
Image credit: Anonymous veterinarian, presentation to the Primary Production Select Committee 2021

While the live export industry can be secretive about conditions on-board, we can get glimpses of what it was like from brave veterinarians, Official Information Act releases, academic papers and government standards. Read on for more information and photos from New Zealand live export’s recent past. Warning: it doesn’t paint a pleasant picture.

Flooring and bedding

The surfaces of the pens that the animals were kept on were hard, non-slip surfaces which can contribute to lameness and injuries. While bedding such as sawdust were supplied, it was not nearly enough – just 25m3 is required for every 1,000m2. See below for what this allocation looks like.

The faeces and urine of the animals is expected to mix with the sawdust to create a lying surface. However, research shows that cattle do not like to rest on wet or dirty surfaces meaning appropriate lying areas were not provided. If the balance is wrong a wet, sloppy mixture is created instead, which is not solid enough to protect from the abrasive surfaces underneath.

Image credit: Anonymous veterinarian, presentation to the Primary Production Select Committee 2021


It took on average 19 days for cattle to travel from New Zealand to China. During the journey, in which they were exposed to unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensation (such as ship motions), they were also kept at a stocking rate far higher than any indoor cattle barn.

A 450kg cow is to be allocated just 1.863m2 of space in the onboard pens, according to our voluntary guidance for the export of cattle by sea. The tight space can restrict movement like lying down, turning around, and engaging in social interactions.


Temperatures easily reach 35 degrees when crossing the equator, but cows start experiencing heat stress from 20 degrees, according to DairyNZ. When crossing the equator from New Zealand to China, humidity also rises and there is little to no respite from the ambient heat – not even at night.

Conditions on live export ships limit thermoregulatory mechanisms (methods that animals use to cool down and warm up) and put animals at a high risk of heat stress. Pens near the engine can experience heat from the walls, despite ventilation from fans; pens above deck have natural ventilation but are exposed to sun. Where there is a build-up of wet faeces it can lead to cattle developing a ‘faecal coat’ – see picture below. These cattle are at greater risk of heat stress.

One veterinarian, in their submission on the Bill to ban live export, stated: “Despite our best efforts to get all the cattle across the equator alive, two cattle died of heat stress on the journey. Although the two cattle written down on our trip report represent a low mortality rate attributable to heat stress, the pain and distress they and the surviving cattle experienced still haunts me.”

Image credit: Anonymous veterinarian, presentation to the Primary Production Select Committee 2021
Image credit: Anonymous veterinarian, presentation to the Primary Production Select Committee 2021

Feed and water supply

Pen design can impact how easily animals can access feed and water, combined with the stocking density of the pens.

A scientific paper in 2021 (Hing et al.) reviewed reports from on board cattle exports from Australia to China between 2018 and 2019. They found that, despite guidelines for export, issues with provision of food were described in 43% of voyage summaries. Water supply issues were also described in 43% of voyage summaries, including leaking hoses, water being contaminated by faeces, and instances where water supply systems failed entirely.

Quotes from veterinarians written into New Zealand voyage reports in 2021-2023 provide more insight:

“45 sore footed (laminitis from abraded soles), caused by wearing from pushing into feed line as a consequence of limited feed access.”

“Suffocated at feeding time. Three heifers had their heads stuck between the railings of the pen. The middle heifer was choked by the heifers on either side of her.”

“On day 18-19, the main waterline supplying water to starboard side of deck 7 broke because of the large swell.”

Health and mortality

Don’t let exporters quoting a low mortality rate fool you: these statistics represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in terms of the total impact of the export process on animal welfare. Mortality rate does not capture the suffering that is experienced by animals.

Respiratory problems, blindness and conjunctivitis, cases of skin disease like ringworm and gastrointestinal disorders, fractures, lacerations, abscesses and hundreds of cases of lameness were reported in live export voyage reports. Quotes from veterinarians written into New Zealand voyage reports in 2021-2023 give a glimpse into the suffering:

“Found dead. Head stuck in railings 3 days prior, died of associated injuries.”

“Broken ribs right side. Died during discharge prior to euthanasia. Unable to post-mortem as crew disposed of body.”

‘Hock scraping wounds became more common in the last few days (waiting for anchorage and port). These occur as the cattle rise to their feet on a slippery surface.”

“Infected right foreleg from full thickness skin wound on elbow. Died during discharge. Post mortem showed severe necrotising, purulent subcutaneous tissue infection spread across shoulder and body.”

“One live calf born to Angus heifer. The calf was euthanised immediately.”

Animal welfare is generally analysed in terms other than mortality rate alone. The government’s advisors, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, agree: they stated in their submission that they support a total ban, and that, “NAWAC considers that good animal welfare is about much more than simply avoiding mortality”.

Rough seas, mechanical failures and sinkings

The tragic loss of the Gulf Livestock 1 in 2020 was not a one-off. An analysis by The Guardian in 2020 found that ships carrying live animals are at least twice as likely to suffer a ‘total loss’ as compared to standard cargo vessels, causing tragedy for humans and animals alike.

This inherent risk was reinforced in the 2020 Heron review, commissioned by the government: “We note the obvious: rules and regulations themselves cannot necessarily prevent tragedies and accidents.”

Below is a summary of recent livestock ship disasters:

  • 2024
    • Australia; 14,000 sheep & 2,500 cattle
      • Ship ordered to return to Australia after 15 days due to tensions in Red Sea - then stranded off the coast of Australia (Trigger & Varischetti)
  • 2023
    • Australia; 3,600 cattle
      • Fire in engine room - ship had to return to port (Brann 2023)
    • Australia 1,800 cattle
      • Major engine failure - animals returned to Australia after 6 days at sea (Fitzgerald 2023)
  • 2022
    • France; 780 bulls
      • Turned away from port and stranded at sea - culled for welfare reasons (Aidin 2022)
    • New Zealand, 12,300 cattle
      • Ship broke down enroute to pick up cattle waiting in pre-export isolation - cattle stranded and welfare problems reported (Nixon 2022)
    • Sudan; 15,000 sheep
      • Ship sank - death by drowning (The Guardian 2022)
  • 2021
    • Suez Canal; 20 ships carrying animals (numbers unknown)
      • Canal blocked - ships stranded at sea with insufficient feed and water (Kevany & Safi 2021)
    • Spain; 1,700 cattle & 864 young bulls
      • Culled for welfare reasons after 3 months at sea (Kevany & Kassam 2021a; Kevany & Kassam 2021b)
  • 2020
    • New Zealand; 6,000 pregnant cows
      • Ship capsized - death by drowning (Ives et al. 2020)
    • Romania; 14,000 sheep
      • Ship capsized - death by drowning (Skerrett 2019; Ng 2019)
  • 2017
    • Australia; 2,400 sheep
      • Died on board - heat stress (Wahlquist 2018)
  • 2014
    • Australia; 4,000 sheep
      • Died on board - heat stress (Towie 2014)

Sources and further reading

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