A comfortable retirement to an all-you-can-eat grassy field seems the least that the 250 surviving sheep from the Queen Hind disaster in the Black Sea deserve. But there is still some debate over their fate, according to animal campaign groups working in Romania.
More than 14,600 sheep were on the ship, heading to Saudi Arabia on a busy animal export route, when it overturned coming out of the harbour on Sunday afternoon. All of the crew got away safely, but most of the animals are now believed to be dead.
Rescue teams, made up of animal groups and Romanian vets and police, are still working in the ship, cutting holes through the walls to reach inaccessible sections. But conditions are getting worse and the chances of finding any surviving animals are diminishing.
“You have to climb along the dark corridors, wade through the water and clamber over the sheep bodies while you search,” says Kuki Bărbuceanu of the Animal Rescue and Care charity and the Four Paws animal welfare organisation. Bărbuceanu is a veteran disaster relief operator who specialises in animal rescue.
“And then you have to get back out, but this time you are carrying a 50–60kg sheep. It is pretty exhausting work.” The smell is getting worse, and although some crew are wearing gas masks, Bărbuceanu says that interferes with the hard physical labour of carrying out sheep.
He has been working on the ship since Tuesday, when he and his crew reached the harbour. Alongside them have been vets from the veterinarian authority ANSVSA, and Romanian emergency workers. As of Thursday afternoon, 250 sheep had been rescued from the ship.
However, the ultimate fate of the surviving sheep is still in question. They are currently in quarantine and being looked after by the export company, Maria Trading. There have been some anxieties expressed by activists that the Saudi import company that bought them will reclaim them, and that they will be put on the next export ship.
Campaign groups are seeking to take the animals and find them sanctuaries where they can munch away to a peaceful old age. A statement from Maria Trading to the Guardian confirmed that they are giving food and shelter to the rescued animals and added: “The Romanian veterinary health authority is the only concerned party which will decide when and where the rescued animals will be transferred.”
Requests for comment to the veterinary authorities have not yet been returned.
“It’s what they deserve,” says Bărbuceanu. “They survived all this, they deserve a nice old age.”
Legislation currently going through the Romanian parliament would tighten regulations around the country’s live export trade, which has grown fivefold since 2000. Romania is one of the main routes out of Europe into the Middle East.
The live export trade continues to grow both inside and out of Europe, despite continued public opposition. European live animal exports rose from a value of $1bn (£800m) in 2000 to $3.3bn in 2018.
Meanwhile, MEPs in the European parliament have agreed to debate the live export trade in December, Dutch MEP Anja Hazecamp told the Guardian.
“There has been a lot of talk so far, but not enough action,” said Gabriel Paun of Animals International.
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