- Friday, 22 May 2015
Sheep stay silent in war of words over whether animals can suffer verbal abuse
"A case of alleged animal abuse in the far west of New South Wales has led to debate about whether sheep can comprehend human speech.
It began in September last year, when the New South Wales branch of the RSPCA received a tip-off about the alleged mistreatment of sheep, including verbal abuse, that were being shorn at Boorungie Station, 130 kilometres from Broken Hill.
The complaint was lodged by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which had apparently obtained footage and testimony from an undercover operative working at the station.
For Ken Turner, who operates Boorungie Station, the complaint itself suggests the sheep could at least understand English.
"The basis for the concerns was the rights of the animals, that they might have been harassed by viewing things they shouldn't have seen or verbal abuse by people using bad language," he said.
"To my knowledge, there was no actual cruelty on the job.
"The allegation was that bad language was used by an employee on the property in front of the sheep, and that they could have been offended by the use of bad language."
Steve Coleman, CEO of NSW RSPCA, said the war over the words began when it was decided, for reasons that remain unclear, that the video footage was not legally usable.
"We felt the footage was inadmissible and therefore we relied on what oral evidence came from both parties," he said.
"It was conflicting and on that basis we were unable to continue.
"The evidence that was available basically came down to one person's word against another."
While Mr Coleman did not deny that verbal abuse was a factor, he insisted the complaint contained more concerning issues than just bad language.
"Certainly there were other concerns well beyond yelling at sheep," he said.
While describing claims about verbal abuse of animals as "rare", Mr Coleman said the RSPCA took such allegations seriously.
"If there is an allegation that puts at risk an animal that would cause it unnecessary suffering and distress, we would investigate it," he said.
"I don't know if it matters what language is used. An animal is not going to understand it."
But Nicolah Donovan, president of Lawyers for Animals, said animals did understand.
"I think it is conceivable that verbal abuse of an extreme nature against an animal, whether it be human, sheep or otherwise, could constitute an act of violence," she said.
"We have accepted that domestic violence can certainly be constituted by acts of extreme verbal abuse, particularly when the victim of the abuse is especially vulnerable - if they have a low fear threshold or they lack understanding that the verbal abuse isn't going to proceed to a physical threat against them.
"This might be the case with children or farm animals, and the level of abuse needn't be that extreme to cause that kind of fear in an animal."
Lynda Stoner, CEO at Animal Liberation NSW, agreed.
She said animals did not need to understand language in order to comprehend that a human speaker was frustrated or angry.
"I'm not sure all animals can understand different dialects," she said.
"I don't think they're getting the nuances someone is using.
"What they will be getting though is the threat inherent in the way that voice is used.
"I believe they can absolutely comprehend emotion.
"We all know that animals feel pain and suffering, we know animals remember what's been done to them, and we know they can anticipate brutality if it's come before.
"I don't think that's placing human emotions on animals. It's simply that all animals, all species, are capable of feeling pleasure, pain, suffering and all those feelings we feel."
The issue was a topic of some debate at last week's Pastoralist's Association AGM in Broken Hill, where some graziers argued that livestock handling - during mustering, for example - necessarily required a degree of intimidation.
Dean Boyce of the RSPCA, who was addressing the meeting, also voiced a concern that many of the 15,000 complaints received by his organisation each year amounted to concerns that were "petty".
But Ms Stoner argued that, far from excusing bad language and behaviour, the challenges posed by livestock handling required workers who were level-headed and compassionate.
She said that, as in the field of surgery, where bad language might be seen as a sign of dangerous frustration levels, the fields of farming required individuals who could keep a cool head.
"There are ways with working with animals that don't require screaming, shouting and just losing it completely," she said.
"Someone who needs to resort to constant bad language, constant screaming and shouting … there is something inherently flawed in a person like that.
"That person has issues whereby they need to dominate and they can't step back from what kind of person they are.
"They need to step back and see there's another way of doing things."
The case against Boorungie Station has been formally dropped.
In a statement to ABC Rural, PETA said "if foul language were the worst that sheep in Australian shearing sheds had to endure, then no complaint would have been filed".
As for Ken Turner at Boorungie Station, the experience has been an eye opener, but he is not about to watch his words in future.
"It made me ask a lot of questions of myself about what we're allowed to do and not allowed to do," he said.
"I believe we do things properly.
"We'll continue as normal.""