Tasmanian Captain Pleads Guilty to Animal Cruelty Charge

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Published Nov 22, 2022 3:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

A long-running animal cruelty case over a disastrous cattle-transport voyage has ended in the conviction of the vessel's master, with no criminal penalties for the shipowner or beneficial cargo owner.

In January 2016, the landing craft Statesman was planning a transit from Stanley, Tasmania to Port Welshpool, Victoria. The cargo was a consignment of 207 cattle. The forecast looked rough, but Statesman got under way anyways, and conditions turned out to be even worse than predicted. Three large waves washed over the side, knocking down cattle on the weather deck and killing 10 during the journey. The conditions were too dangerous for the crew to go out on deck to help any of the livestock, and 59 more animals had to be put down due to injuries after arrival at the port. Veterinary assistance was not available until six hours after the ship arrived, potentially increasing the fatality rate for the cattle. 

In 2018, shipowner Les Dick, his operating company LD Shipping, slaugherhouse HW Greenham & Sons, Greenham employee Graeme Pretty, and Statesman's master Capt. John McGee were all charged under animal cruelty statutes (including aggravated cruelty, cruelty to animals, and using methods of management likely to result in unjustifiable pain). 

Les Dick pleaded not guilty, but before the trial could proceed, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. This led to a delay, and in 2020 Dick entered into an agreement with prosecutors to leave the livestock shipping business, ending his part in the trial. He passed away in February 2021. LD Shipping entered liquidation before it could be convicted, and its assets were sold to other operators. 

This left HW Greenham, Mr. Pretty and Capt. McGee facing trial. The defense for Greenham and Pretty petitioned for charges to be dropped and found success, leaving Capt. McGee as the sole defendant. 

Last week, McGee pleaded guilty to a single count of using methods of animal management likely to result in unjustifiable pain. His defense told the court that McGee had been under heavy commercial pressure from Les Dick to set sail, and though the captain did have the final say, external influence from the "formidable" owner influenced his decision. The lawyer emphasized that the weather was worse than forecast and that no pain or suffering for the animals had been intended. 

McGee faces sentencing in January. The charge comes with a maximum sentence of 12 months in prison. 

The same charge was levied against Tasmanian ferry operator TT-Line for a 2018 incident involving the deaths of 16 polo ponies while under way. The company was found not guilty of the charge, though the court ruled against TT-Line on 29 lesser animal welfare violations.