Probe into animal cruelty footage that shocked TV viewers ends with no charges

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The West Australian Government says it won’t be prosecuting any of the parties pictured in disturbing footage covertly filmed on Kimberley cattle stations and aired on Israeli television.

The footage, shot by International activist group Sentient between July and August 2018, depicted stock being hit in the face by workers, dehorned without painkillers, and shot multiple times without being killed.

Animal welfare key points

Key points:

  • An investigation into footage depicting alleged animal cruelty has been closed
  • It might have been too late for authorities to prosecute under the Act because they received the footage too late
  • A group representing Kimberley cattlemen has called for greater industry transparency

The Department of Primary Industries confirmed in a statement to the ABC, that the investigation into the footage had been closed.

“As part of an investigation, DPIRD has assessed all footage and determined that there is no case under Western Australia’s Animal Welfare Act 2002 to proceed to prosecution,” a spokesperson said.

The ABC understands that by the time the footage came to the attention of investigators when it was aired in Israel in December last year, it might have already been too late for authorities to prosecute under the Act.

The footage, released in Israel on Wednesday, details a number of incidences of alleged cruel treatment, including the dehorning of cattle without painkillers.

Why timing is important?

The Statute of Limitations in WA is two years for litigation under animal cruelty legislation, while in other jurisdictions around the country it varies between 12-24 months.

A spokesperson from DPIRD said this was a relevant consideration in the Israeli footage investigation.

“Any prosecution action relating to animal welfare offences under the Act must be commenced within two years of the date of the alleged offence,” the spokesperson said.

“The Department promotes the timely reporting of animal welfare complaints to assist investigators, as the immediate provision of information can assist in the investigation in a number of ways.

“The WA Government is working towards the adoption of Australian animal welfare standards and guidelines for cattle, which will help to assure the humane treatment of cattle and define acceptable cattle management practice within Western Australia.”

West Australian authorities are now investigating the incidents shown in the footage.

The WA Animal Welfare Act was amended in late 2018 to allow National Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines to be implemented in WA for the first time.

The Government has also brought together an independent panel chaired by regulatory law specialist Linda Black, to oversee a public review of the operation and effectiveness of the Animal Welfare Act.

In a submission to the panel, the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association said industry would also like to see animal welfare groups and activists compelled to report evidence of animal cruelty as soon as possible, rather than “sitting on the footage for political gain”.

Industry calls for more transparency

KPCA chief executive Emma White said industry would like to see more transparency around animal welfare investigations in WA.

“If it’s down to the footage not being made known in a more timely fashion, then that’s a really important thing that needs to be understood,” she said.

“It’s important, given we’re in the midst of a review of the WA Animal Welfare Act, that both the broader community and industry understand the findings and outcome of the investigation.

“Similarly, we’d like to see reports on the outcomes of other investigations — similar to what the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture does with live export incidents.”

Ms White said the outcomes of other investigations relating to alleged animal welfare incidents at Noonkanbah and Yandeyarra were not yet publicly known.

The RSPCA has not commented on the outcome of the investigation.

RSPCA has gone quiet

RSPCA WA and RSPCA Australia have both declined to comment on the outcome of the Israeli footage investigation, staying tight-lipped since coming under fire from industry for not reporting the vision to authorities before it was aired.

“RSPCA does not comment on cases handled by other agencies,” a spokesperson said.

“We will also be making a submission to the review of the Animal Welfare (Livestock) Regulations 2019.”

It emerged in December, that RSPCA Australia viewed the footage a year ago, when the activists were trying to get the vision screened on Australian television.

The animal organisation briefed RSPCA WA about the contents of the footage, but did not notify the State Government’s Livestock Compliance Unit.

RSPCAAustralia is a separate entity to RSPCA WA, which is the body that has powers in WA to enforce the Animal Welfare Act.

The RSPCA’s Dr Jed Goodfellow.

In an interview late last year, RSPCA Australia’s policy officer Jed Goodfellow defended not acting sooner on footage shot in the Kimberley last year.

He told the ABC the Israeli animal rights activist that shot the footage refused to lodge a formal report, making it difficult for RSPCA to launch a formal investigation.

But a State Government spokesperson disputed that claim, saying the RSPCA had the legal right to investigate animal welfare issues no matter how the information was obtained, or refer concerns to DPIRD.

At the time this came to light, Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the case highlighted issues with the reporting process, which would be examined as part of the Government’s review of the Animal Welfare Act.

In its submission to the WA Animal Welfare Act review panel, the KPCA said industry would like to the RSPCA’s authority over animal welfare limited to companion animals.

The group said it was more appropriate for DPIRD to oversee the compliance, inspection and prosecution of livestock.

Alannah MacTiernan is the Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development in Western Australia.

Yeeda not pursuing staff involved

After Sentient’s vision was aired in December 2019, Yeeda Pastoral Company confirmed Kilto Station, about 50 kilometres from Broome, was one of the sites in the footage.

Kimberley cattle producer Jack Burton was managing director at the time the undercover footage was obtained, although he is no longer involved in Yeeda Pastoral Company.

Mr Burton defended his staff in a statement, saying the footage had been carefully crafted and edited to make his workers “look like barbarians”, while they were in the midst of dealing with a disease outbreak on the property.

The other three stations pictured in the footage have never been publicly identified.

Former Yeeda managing director Jack Burton says the footage has been selectively edited.

New CEO Anthony Wilkes, who started after the incident occurred, said the company’s other stakeholders were unaware of the cruelty depicted at Kilto.

But he said the company had since had its own independent investigation carried out by Ausvet and decided against pursuing former staff.

“Instead, our focus is on further improving our processes and practices to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare; this includes taking on board recommendations made by Ausvet,” Mr Wilkes said.

“All staff identified as being cruel towards cattle in the footage no longer work with the company and haven’t been working for the company for some time.

Sentient responds to investigation

Sentient’s chief executive Ronen Bar said Sentient was motivated to launch the undercover operation because of Israel’s status as a significant live-export market for Australian cattle.

“This was never about making individual workers scapegoats,” Mr Bar said.

“This was about exposing practices, such as dehorning without pain relief, that were having negative impacts on both animals and the employees tasked with inflicting them.

The International activist group Sentient is lobbying the Israeli Government to ban live-cattle exports from Australia.

“It remains our hope that the Australian cattle industry will choose to make pain relief mandatory for all painful procedures, regardless of the age of the animal, and regardless of what regulations require.

Mr Bar said the group was lobbying the Israeli Government to end live-animal export from Australia.

Ms MacTiernan said after the distressing footage was aired in December that regulations would be fast-tracked to make it an offence to dehorn cattle without pain relief.

The animal welfare Act Review has recently concluded a series of public consultation meetings around the state.

The panel is set to deliver its findings to the Minister of Agriculture before the middle of this year.