Shearers in Australia are shown punching, kicking, throwing sheep about, and cutting them so badly they require stitches, in a video made by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Claire Fryer, a campaign coordinator at PETA Australia, claims that 70 staff in 19 shearing sheds across New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia between August 2013 and March 2014, were involved in the abuse.
The president of Wool Producers Australia (WPA), Geoff Fisken, said the abuse shown in the video was “unacceptable and unsupportable,” but represents a very tiny minority. He said that WPA had spent $2.8 million last year alone on shearer training. While the training focuses on temperament and sheep-handling techniques to prevent injury or cruelty, some of the shearers shown in the PETA video look clumsy and inexperienced. Others lose their temper quickly with little provocation and punch the frightened and struggling animals in the face, or throw them hard onto the floor.
Australia’s Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, says that questions ‘need to be asked’ about how PETA obtained the footage. Such questions are valid. PETA would like to see an end to farming animals and unrealistically recommend that we all become vegans and, in the video, that we leave wool products on the shelves. However, Mr. Joyce should be aware that violence is endemic in Australia. With high numbers of battered women fleeing their homes to seek safety in shelters, this video rings alarm bells about the safety and welfare of vulnerable and defenceless farm animals.
The Australian Workers Union (AWU) blames the abuse of sheep on the problem of drug use in the shearing industry. Yet I witnessed similar abuse to that shown in the PETA video, on two farms in Victoria during the late seventies and early eighties. And the abuse did not involve drug use. Paying shearers per sheep shorn rather than an hourly rate creates competition between them. It is therefore not hard to imagine that this could lead to rough handling and abuse.
My first visit to a shearing shed was a nauseating experience. City born and raised, I wasn’t hardened to farm life. The Australian term “rough as guts” comes to mind as the most appropriate and accurate way to describe what I saw. One of the shearers carelessly gouged out a sheep’s eye with the shears, and cut others so badly he had to stop to stitch them up. The farmer classing the wool didn’t bat an eye. But I was shocked when I saw all the red stripes covering newly shorn bodies.
However during my six years on a sheep farm I never witnessed shearers punching sheep in the head, or hitting them with the shears. But throwing them roughly, kicking them hard in the side with boots, and booting them out the trapdoor when they stood trembling, too scared to move after their ordeal with the shears, was common. Shearing is a huge trauma for sheep, as stated in the video, and I remember seeing a sheep drop dead with fright just as the shearer finished shearing it.
Witnessing this abuse was so distressing at the time I became speechless and numb. I can still hear the shearers curse over the time they were losing when they had to stop and sew up a bad cut. And it was a ‘rough as guts’ stitching up at that. With the sheep jostling on the wooden boards in the shearing shed pens and bleating nervously, the shrill whistling of the roustabout while pushing them into the pen next to the shearers, and the stench of tightly packed sheep making the air thick and heavy, I was always grateful to escape in the afternoons and ride my horse in the fresh air to bring in the next mob of sheep to be shorn.
As I write, the same distress is with me that I felt all those years ago. Yet perhaps I am getting back my voice to protest at last and say that we need to treat sheep with the respect and kindness they deserve. After all, at least it would show some gratitude for the wool that keeps us comfortable and warm in the cold and damp while they suffer the cold August nights shorn almost to the skin.
Sheep feel and have emotions. They suffer pain, fright and terror each time they are herded into tightly packed yards and handled – whether it is for drenching, injections, crutching or shearing, dehorning, or having tight rubber rings put on their tails and testicles as lambs. Witnessing this at the time, and watching the sheep run in blind terror away from dogs and humans, I began to think deeply about how some farmers treat them as mere money-making objects…and that it wasn’t right.
After leaving the farm and my marriage, and the numbness from my experiences began to wear off, I wrote about the farm and my time in the shearing shed. This is a little of what I wrote:
To the farmers sheep represented hard cash which would buy material comforts, a new car, or something for the farm to make it more productive. Dealing with birth and death was all part of a day’s work and the quality of life didn’t seem to matter. The shearer who gouged out an eye with his shears, booted the terrified animal through the trapdoor so he could get on and fill his day’s quota. Newly shorn sheep could die by the hundreds during a cold snap if they had nowhere to find shelter for the night. And when I saw my husband kick a sheep when it panicked and ran the wrong way in the yards, I felt the pain as if it was me he had kicked.
When I was expecting my second child I began to think a lot about the quality of life. Would I deliver my baby into a world where birth and death were merely the boundaries of an existence that no longer had any real meaning, where we used each other to make a living – like the farmers with their sheep – not really caring for each other unless they served some useful purpose to help us get what we wanted? As I waited to give birth to a new life, I wondered what I could offer her apart from an existence where we played games with each other to stave off boredom and fear.
Existing between birth and death I felt that I had already begun to die, and that the cold days reflected the winter that had crept into my soul.
The RSPCA in Australia says it is going to investigate whether the PETA video shows breaches of animal welfare laws. Such an investigation is long overdue. I believe that it is realistic to expect that we can change shearing practices to reflect respectful and compassionate handling of sheep.
If you choose to watch the PETA video (below), I advise caution. Viewing it I felt tense and sick to the pit of my stomach. Perhaps that is good because it shows how much I have regained my capacity to feel again after the numbed out, dissociated, half dead state I was in during my time on the farm. After thirty years, I am finally able to cry for the sheep and the abuse they suffered.
These experiences taught me that it can take a lifetime to learn to feel again if we shut down our feelings during childhood abuse. Yet if we are to change the culture of violence in this world (which often causes the development of PTSD in its human victims), it is essential to deeply feel our feelings – enough to develop empathy, compassion, and respect for each other, and all living things.