Opinion: Ending cruelty against animals has its price

By Harry Bhaskara, Brisbane, Australia

The Australian government has lifted its month-long livestock export ban to Indonesia but shipments will not start to pick up again until October.

The ban was initially imposed for six months to pacify public outrage following the footage of horrendous cruelty in 11 Indonesian slaughterhouses broadcast here late May. In the footage, gentle Brahmanian steers were kicked and beaten, their eyes gouged and throats hacked at with dull knives.

“Never in my life have I seen or imagined anything as frightful as the slaughtering of Australian cattle in Indonesia as shown on the ABC,” a reader wrote to The Australian.

“Talkback radio in Sydney this morning boiled over with fury,” a blogger commented a day after the broadcast.

Taxpayers know that their government spends millions of dollars on aid to Indonesia — about US$560 million this year alone — including funding to improve slaughterhouses. They might have felt that Indonesia bites the hand that feeds it.

Now that the ban has been lifted, credit is due to government officials of both countries who have thwarted a more serious diplomatic rift.

The Indonesian government did not make good on its word to take Australia to the World Trade Organization or to close its doors to cattle exporters, while the Australian government had the courage to back down also.

Indonesia seemed to realize that the knee-jerk response by Australia was taken under fierce public pressure.

But the damage has been done. Australian farmers were hurt so badly that some put their ranches up for sale. Others threatened to slaughter their stock. The Gillard government doled out millions of dollars to lessen the huge losses sustained by the farmers.

Thousands of people in both countries have lost their jobs and 11,000 cattle were left stranded in the Northern Territory.

The ban was a punishment to Indonesian consumers for the wrong committed by some slaughterhouses. It was a punishment to professional Australian cattle producers who did nothing wrong.

A farmer said the ban was as if there was a decision to ban all cars on the road after it emerged that “3,000 people were killed” in a year.

Animal welfare activists here are not happy with the lifting of the ban as they had aimed for a permanent ban. Never mind if slaughtering is the last link in the chain of cruelty inflicted by man on animals. What about the hundreds of cattle dying at sea every year during shipment?

Despite official assurances, people in some Indonesian regions have been deprived of beef supplies as imports of 550,000 heads of cattle per year were disrupted.

It was akin to the sudden drop in vegetable production in Queensland after cyclone Yasi and ensuing floods devastated vast tracts of agricultural land earlier this year.

Imported cattle make up about one-third of Indonesia’s beef consumption.

A less tangible but significant effect is the notion of violence slipping into the Australian psyche, adding to a list of vice that includes bombings, riots and people smuggling.

Often overlooked in the debate was the fact that the majority of Indonesians were as shocked as Australians in learning about the horrendous killing of animals. Australians tend to tar all Indonesians with the same brush: as ignorant, barbarian and poor.

But cruelty against animals is not restricted to poor countries. More than 277,000 complaints of animal cruelty were reported between 2005 and last year in Australia, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

On the other hand, there are people in poor countries who have the dignity to stun animals before killing them.

The reaction here underscores a less than accurate perception of Indonesia. Australians are not to blame for it, as they are continuously fed negative news about corruption, terrorism and communal conflicts in Indonesia.

Violent incidents in the past do not necessarily translate that an entire people have violent attitudes, for the simple reason that they often became victims of violence themselves.

If anything, the Muslim community has been the most grateful recipient of these revelations, as they learned that they had not been eating halal meat all this time.

Halal killings advocate minimal pain be inflicted upon animals and this is the strongest reason why the government should stop animal cruelty in the country’s 500 slaughterhouses.

On the other side of the ledger, Indonesians may be forgiven for thinking that the public outrage over animal cruelty was fiercer than the outrage over refugees being killed at sea. Still, it is regrettable that another country should point out this evil in Indonesia, a negligence that could send the wrong message, namely that the people here condone animal cruelty.

The ball is now in the hands of the Indonesian Meat Producers and Feedlot Association who will work together with government officials from both countries, as well as the Meat and Livestock Australia to ensure best practices in Indonesian slaughterhouses.

Holding the high moral ground turns out to have a high price; in this case, Australia’s annual $300 million livestock export to Indonesia. When emotions runs high you have to be prepared to pay for it. Otherwise, forget it.

The writer is a journalist.