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RSPCA and live cattle exporters at loggerhead -

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MARK COLVIN: Animal activists and livestock exporters are at loggerheads again. This time, it's because a live cattle ship had to return to Fremantle after encountering mechanical issues.

The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty against Animals) says it's a disaster for the live export trade because the ship involved is the same vessel on which hundreds of cattle died last year.

From Perth, Caitlyn Gribbin.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: The Pearl of Para left Fremantle last Tuesday, bound for Israel. More than 5,000 head of West Australian Brahman-cross cattle are on the ship.

But three days into the trip, the captain decided a motor coupling problem needed to be fixed and the vessel returned to Fremantle for repairs. That's made the RSPCA nervous.

HEATHER NEIL: Unfortunately when mechanical problems occur, it's animals who actually can pay the price.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: The organisation's chief executive Heather Neil says the Pearl of Para was involved in a major animal welfare incident last year.

Nearly 200 head of cattle died on the ship during transport from the United States to Russia: they suffocated on ammonia fumes.

Heather Neil again.

HEATHER NEIL: In this particular incident it's not the same issues, but what it points out is these are large ships that have very large engines and they have mechanical issues from time to time. And when they do have those mechanical issues, it does put at risk the welfare of the animals aboard.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: The exporter AHR Schmidt says the ship is now safe. The company's managing director is Alan Schmidt.

ALAN SCHMIDT: This was prior to the vessel entering Australian waters and prior to it being accredited by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to operate in Australian waters. Yes, they did have an incident where cattle were lost, but it wasn't due to any systemic failure on the vessel.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: What was the reason behind that?

ALAN SCHMIDT: The bedding used was not up to the right specification for the pumps that were on board: the pumps jammed up so that led to the build-up of ammonia and some cattle did die.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: Did your company own the boat at the time?

ALAN SCHMIDT: No, my company didn't own the boat at the time; it doesn't own it now. We work in partnership with the ship owner.

Straight after that incident, the owners of the vessel took it to a ship yard. It remained there for some four months where major renovations and rebuilding of all the pumping systems were installed. Since that time, it has now completed two successful voyages.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: So you're completely confident that this ship is safe?

ALAN SCHMIDT: Yes, absolutely safe.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: Mr Schmidt hopes repairs will be completed by early next week and he plans for the cattle to stay on the ship in the meantime.

ALAN SCHMIDT: That would be my preferred option, and the reason for that is that it is the best environment that they could be standing in.

If you look outside at the moment, it's very wet and miserable. We would have to move the livestock out and we'd have to put them on trucks, pack them elsewhere - I'd rather not put the livestock through that.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: Couldn't it effectively mean as well though that the cattle would actually be on board this ship two weeks longer than they would have if the boat had gone straight to Israel?

ALAN SCHMIDT: There is a delay, but I'm working and have already worked through the program: the livestock won't be on the vessel for an extraordinarily long period of time at this point.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: So if the RSPCA says it's worried that the cattle will be subjected to extra stress because they are going to be on this boat for longer than originally planned, you disagree with that?

ALAN SCHMIDT: I would say I've got 20 years' experience in this industry of exporting cattle to many different destinations in the world. I don't see that it will place them under any particular stress.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: But the RSPCA's Heather Neil says the animals will endure stress by being on the ship longer than originally planned.

HEATHER NEIL: We do know that as journey length increases, risks to animals also increases.

CAITLYN GRIBBIN: What risks are you referring to?

HEATHER NEIL: With journey length, you have climatic changes differences, ability to manage the feed, sea sickness, a lot of animals in close consignment, the risks just generally of injury getting on and off - statistically that's what mortality data shows, is that the longer the journey, the higher the risks.

MARK COLVIN: The RSPCA's Heather Neil ending Caitlyn Gribbin's report.