Captains, Caring and Consequences [Part 1/3]
There were times when captains wouldn’t allow veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson access to the ships gun to euthanize suffering animals on livestock carriers at sea. There was a fear that, in the wrong hands, the gun, or the barbiturates typically used in practice on land to ease animal suffering, could turn into a means for crew members to commit suicide. The master instead kept these things under lock and key.
Lynn, who now suffers PTSD as a result of her experiences at sea and as a whistleblower ashore, spoke to HRAS about the challenges faced by the crews on livestock carriers.
You have been criticized by animal welfare organizations and concerned individuals for not using standard veterinary euthanasia techniques, instead having to slit animals’ throats or use blunt trauma to the head. What were the captains’ concerns that put you in this position?
When it comes to barbiturates, there’s two reasons: It would probably be quite expensive to do the amount of euthanizing that we do with those drugs, so, there’d be a financial burden. Rarely were they carried. That’s one component, but it was never one that was argued back at me. The big concern was that some captains and companies did not want a euthanasia solution on board, because they were fearful that crew would get hold of it, and they would either use it to attack each other or to suicide.
That meant I had to cut animal throats. It was demoralising as a vet that you’re not even allowed the minimal equipment that our Australian legislation says we should have, or that we are trained to use to meet our Hippocratic oath, which put simply and ironically in the case of the Live Export ships is “do no harm”.
What were living conditions on board like?
One of the interesting things about ours ships compared to the majority of merchant vessels is that we have a crew of 50 to 100. It’s a bigger crew than most ships, and considering most of them are conversions, it’s a bigger crew than most of them are originally designed for. So, often, the accommodation has been retrofitted, and it’s quite cramped. There’ll be four in a cabin, and there might only be a metre between the bunks. Often there’s no ensuite; the crew will use a communal bathroom. This makes it interesting when you’re in a port and you see the same prostitute go from room to room without visiting the bathroom first.
Some of the ships have really rudimentary bathrooms. A lot of the time it was a spout out of the wall with chipped or missing sharp tiles and filthy. One ship I sailed on, the water was always brown as a result of rusty water tanks. They hadn’t been treated properly, hadn’t been looked after, so, you wash in this stuff that looks like opaque Fanta and you’re thinking “I don’t know if I’m cleaner or dirtier now.” Sadly this was one of the newer purpose built ships.
The filthy conditions resulting from working with animals are one of those things you get acclimatised to. The decks are filthy. There’s no two ways about it. We all get covered in shit all day every day. There are repercussions where people get sick, be it the runs or eye infections or sores. The accommodation often smells of musty clothes and shoes trying to dry for the following days work.
What other work stresses do livestock carrier crews face?
The crew works seven days a week, and the majority of non-officers worked ten month contracts. I had one engineer who told me he’d been on 19 months, and he was starting to go a little bit crazy. He was actually the electrician, and they couldn’t find a replacement for him. It was a ship that had dodgy electrics, and we had lots of ventilation blackouts. So, not only was he on there for a very long time, it was really stressful for him because the ship performed poorly. Of course, the minute we lose ventilation, any animals below main deck have got about an hour to live. So he’s under a lot of pressure.
Having a live cargo, regardless, was a stressful thing, because every time we hit heavy weather we knew that it wasn’t just us. We could bunker down in the superstructure and stay safe, but there were animals out there, and we were responsible for looking after them. There were times when we would go on deck when on other ships the crew would not have been allowed to. They would’ve been told to stay inside and keep all the sea doors shut. Instead we walked across slippery rolling decks to get to access points to get further down into the ship and tend to the animals needs. I guess we pushed a lot of envelopes that most ships wouldn’t just because we have live cargo.
What about pay?
Knowing the disparity of money was something that was depressing for a lot of the crew. They knew that the Australian stockmen were on much higher wages than they were. If, for example, we had a British captain, he was on a much higher wage than the Filipino chief officer. Whilst it wasn’t something that people dwelled on, it was something that came up as, “we’re getting exploited,” or “now that I’ve done so many months at sea, I can actually start to make money because I’ve paid off my agent’s fee.”
You have made headlines internationally now for whistleblowing about animal welfare on live export ships, but your role as whistleblower started in support of seafarers at sea. How did that come about?
A lot of the crew are so reticent and submissive about reporting problems with a ship’s maintenance or management that they often asked me do it. They knew that I had to make reports anyway, so they’d discretely take me to different areas of the ship and show me something that was actually maybe structurally dangerous. I’d find a way to link it up with animal health or simply crew safety, and then I would report it to the relevant authority.
In one case, upper tier decks had been collapsing – they’d collapsed on an empty voyage. Luckily the men were not in there cleaning at the time or they would have been squashed. If the decks had been full, they would have just pancaked the sheep below.
Often third world crew don’t have the confidence to complain, and I suspect it’s because they worry that they’ll be seen as whistleblowers and won’t get another contract. Many only financially subsist as it is. It was the least I could do for them given my position.
That did indeed happen to you when you were removed from your position with the Australian government after filing a report that showed pictures of what it was like for animals on live export ships. That, combined with your experiences at sea, has left you with PTSD. How did it develop?
As a vet, you’re trained to save lives, and you’re taught how to use these wiz bang gadgets, MRI machines and ultrasound etc. Then you go out on a ship that’s covered in rust, and shit and death and essentially given rudimentary medications and essentially have to bring your own equipment or improvise. I’ve stitched many a wound with dental floss, ridiculous when you carry a multi million dollar consignment.
With PTSD, what they say is essentially it doesn’t have to be one massive traumatic event, it can be a compounding of pressures and stress. Everybody has a metaphorical stress bucket with a drainage hole, and when your bucket is overwhelmed, and the drainage does not meet the fill rate, that’s when you can succumb to PTSD.
I believe that what I was being exposed to, and I presume a lot of the other seafarers that I’ve worked with, all day every day, was often filling that bucket, especially if you’re a caring person. Every now and then, you would hit a point that you felt overwhelmed.
Such a day for me was when I had to kill 55 Damara lambs. They’re just so cute, but it wasn’t because they were cute, it was the frustration and the wastefulness of the fact that they should never have been there. There is legislation in place that should have protected them from ever being born on that ship, to keep pregnant ewes from such long voyages. Grown men cried; some tried to hide lambs. It was heartbreaking.
I killed them, and I was just raging. I was so angry. I went up to my cabin, and I knew I just needed to take ten minutes out away from any more stimuli. I had a friend in Bahrain – our ship was in Saudi Arabia at the time –and she had been a counsellor in the past. She’s always been a really good person to talk to, and she understands shipping. So, I phoned her, and she just was great. At the end of my tirade when my bucket was less overwhelmed, she very calmly said, “You do realise you probably have PTSD?”
I was more aware of what I was doing after that, and I think you learn coping strategies when you work in extreme environments. People in the military and emergency services certainly do.
Then there was another incident where I had to kill 22 fully-grown cattle one night without a gun. The Russians had confiscated it, and I’d run out of sedation that was useful, and I had to try to knock cattle unconscious, by blunt trauma over the head with a fire axe. When I see footage like that on TV, everyone is saying, “Oh, look at those bastards!” I’m thinking: “Yep, that was me. I was getting paid to do that by the Australian organisation that I worked for under Australian legislation.”
But, it wasn’t until I was actually working with the government to improve animal welfare, and I was told you can no longer do your job in any capacity, because the exporters don’t like you, that I just went into a catatonic state of depression. For over two months, I was just completely uncharacteristically not myself. I’d sleep 23 hours a day, and I wouldn’t eat. I was put on antidepressants; they made me suicidal, so I took myself off them. I had massive feelings of hopelessness, wastefulness, as in you feel like you wasted your time, and your training, and all the effort you put into improving something.
Are you troubled by dreams?
I have dreams all the time. In my case, because a lot of my stuff is now in the legal forum, I spend my nights dreaming about counter arguments. I’m not sitting there thinking, “Oh, those animals with their gushing blood; it was all so gruesome.” There’s been a bit of that, some dreams about being hunted by pirates, but very little. Most of mine involves me arguing with someone about an injustice, and then I wake up with an anxiety attack and a heart rate of 120.
We hear the classic story of a soldier who has flashbacks of a battle, an explosion, or something awful, but I think we need to start understanding how many people who are essentially civilians are affected. People with challenging jobs are at risk, seafarers to start with, because of the social isolation, the remote work environment, the deprivation of a lot of things, be it the psychological or provisional.
How are you feeling now?
I struggled when I was first diagnosed: “What does this mean for me?” and then somebody explained to me that it’s essentially a psychological fact that only well-meaning, good people get PTSD. So, essentially, there is no shame in it, and I pretty much wear it as a badge of honour. In fact, I should get t-shirts made, because I now know so many people with PTSD, and every single one of them is just the most decent human being I’ve ever met.
Are you ostracised by colleagues?
One thing that is very interesting is that, whilst openly you are ostracised by your colleagues and ex-colleagues as a whistleblower, some do still covertly make contact, help and keep you informed of actions that may be of use to your situation. They may not be outspoken about it, but many believe and agree in what you have said, done and stood up for. I suspect they are concerned for their own jobs.
Organisations that persecute whistleblowers should be aware that they may have only persecuted one person and their opinion, but popular opinion may concur with that persecuted individual.
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.
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Part 2: ‘Being the Only Woman Onboard’ – Coming soon.