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Ordeal Of Stranded Sheep Ends With Secret Deal

by Sherry Morse and Patricia Collier

The Australian press is calling it 'The Red Solution' and its mission has now been accomplished: to rescue more than 50,000 sheep who have been stuck on a ship in the Middle East since August 5.

The Australian-conceived 'Solution' was a top secret operation carried out with help from sources in Egypt and Libya. The Australian government has agreed to pay the African country of Eritrea the equivalent of $915,000 to take the sheep.

Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries. The long-suffering sheep are to be slaughtered and distributed to the country's citizens.

Details of the plan were announced at a news conference October 25 by Warren Truss, Australia's Agriculture Minister, shortly after the sheep had begun unloading at the Eritrean port of Massawa.

"It was imperative that details of the negotiations and movement of the ship over the past few days remained confidential in order to secure a satisfactory outcome for the negotiations," said Truss.

Australians had been told the sheep were on their way back to Australia.

The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Australian RSPCA), appalled by the suffering of the sheep, had been calling for the surviving sheep to be killed at sea to end their cruel ordeal, after almost three months of enduring cramped quarters and temperatures ranging from 113 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

Prior to the secret deal with Eritrea, the Australian government had considered dumping the sheep at eight Australian ports and offshore islands for slaughter.

Farm groups in Australia had protested the return of the sheep, saying they could threaten their existing livestock.

Upon hearing the sheep had gone to Eritrea, Australia's National Farmers Federation announced satisfaction, even though they will have to pay back the $10 million spent on the sheep while at sea.

The animals had been originally bred and sold to Saudi Arabia for slaughter for the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. But when the animals arrived in the Middle East aboard the 'Cormo Express', they were refused by the Saudi government for import because the Saudis said six percent of the sheep - one percent more than their regulations allowed - were suffering from scabby mouth disease.

Veterinarians on board disputed the high percentage cited by the Saudis.

After failing to find another buyer, the Saudi importer offered to give away the sheep to another country. By that time, the sheep could not be returned to Australia because of quarantine rules.

Exporters of live sheep from Australia to Saudi Arabia make about $195 million a year, but the trade is often criticized for inhumane treatment of animals.

It is estimated that each year, approximately 78,000 sheep die on their way from Australia to slaughter in the Middle East.

Live animals who are exported are particularly likely to contract scabby mouth disease because they typically undergo their journey in closely packed, cramped conditions which makes it easy for the viral infection to spread between them.

Scabby mouth disease is not fatal, and usually heals after several weeks.

2003 Animal News Center, Inc.

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