Large numbers of animals—many of them pregnant dairy cattle—began leaving the United States in 2010 to establish breeding herds in Turkey, Russia and Kazakhstan. Exports of live animals have increased steadily since then and are projected to remain high in the coming years. In 2012 alone, nearly 200,000 live animals were exported from the United States to countries other than Canada or Mexico.
While some exported animals are flown to their destination, most are subjected to ocean journeys that can last weeks. During transport, many stressful experiences—including inadequate ventilation, loud noises, motion sickness, and heat stress—severely impact animal welfare and make the animals more susceptible to illness and disease.
In August 2012, more than 1,000 breeding dairy cattle shipped to Russia from Galveston, Texas, died during the voyage or shortly after arrival. Another 200 animals, too ill to be offloaded, were never accounted for and are feared to have been dumped at sea. The deaths have been attributed to a breakdown in manure removal and ventilation systems, causing the animals to suffocate on ammonia fumes.
In December 2013 and January 2014, more than one dozen carcasses of U.S. cattle washed ashore in Denmark and Sweden. European law enforcement authorities investigating the incident concluded that the dead cows had been dumped in the Baltic Sea after dying during a voyage from the United States to a port in Europe.
While AWI recommends that no animals be transported such long distances and for such long periods, if they are, it is critical that only fit animals make the journey. To ensure that only healthy and fit animals are subjected to the rigors of international transport, in February 2011 AWI petitioned the USDA to adopt “fitness to travel” requirements for all farm animals exported to any foreign country except those traveling overland to Canada or Mexico. AWI is recommending that the USDA employ the fitness requirements included in the animal transport standards of the World Organisation for Animal Health (or “OIE”).
In September 2013, USDA officially responded to the petition, indicating that it is in the process of amending its current regulations "to better ensure the welfare and safety of animals during transport for export to foreign countries." Proposed changes to the regulations were published in February 2015 and include fitness to travel criteria and a requirement that any deaths be reported within 5 days of the completion of an international journey.