Sentencing delayed in polo ponies Spirit of Tasmania animal cruelty case as magistrate considers vet report

A magistrate says she cannot sentence the operator of the Spirit of Tasmania or former Australian polo captain Andrew Williams over the 2018 deaths of 16 polo ponies until fresh evidence of them “whinnying in distress” is considered.

Key points:

  • Former captain of the Australian polo team Andrew Williams was sailing back to NSW with polo ponies following an event in Tasmania’s north in January 2018
  • After disembarking and driving some distance, Mr Williams discovered 16 dead ponies and two fighting for their lives
  • A report by an experienced veterinary surgeon found the atmospheric conditions on the voyage would have had the horses panicking and trying to escape

The ponies had been competing at a polo event in Barnbougle in Tasmania’s north in January 2018 and were travelling back to New South Wales on the Spirit of Tasmania. 

Sixteen of the 18 horses were found dead inside the converted refrigerator trailer they were travelling in after the ship docked in Melbourne.

Magistrate Leanne Topher was due to sentence ferry operator TT-Line and Mr Williams on Wednesday. 

Mr Williams pleaded guilty to 17 counts of breaching the animal welfare act in July, while TT-Line was found guilty of 29 charges in October. 

But in the Burnie Magistrates Court, Magistrate Topfer said she would not proceed with the sentence because a significant issue had arisen from a report provided by Mr Williams’ lawyers.

The court heard the report from a veterinary surgeon with more than 40 years’ experience, which stated the truck’s ramp should have been lowered to allow for greater ventilation.

Andrew Williams.
Andrew Williams is a former captain of the Australian polo team.(Facebook: Willo Polo)

The report said the horses would have been exposed to a “vicious cycle” of rising air temperature and deteriorating air quality, which would have led to them panicking and trying to escape.

It said there would have been “violent movement of the vehicle, [and] kicking against walls of the vehicle”.

“It would have been apparent to anyone hearing them that this was an emergency situation,” Magistrate Topfer read.

Horse transport truck parked on Spirit Of Tasmania ferry.
One of two Willo Polo trucks drives on to the Spirit Of Tasmania for the voyage to Melbourne, January 28, 2018.(Instagram: chelcroz)

The report said because TT-Line had a policy of not allowing passengers access to the decks, it was responsible for ensuring the horses were inspected at regular intervals.

It found lowering the ramp of the vehicle on the deck could have “saved these horses lives”.

Magistrate Topfer said the extent of the pain and suffering endured by the horses was relevant to sentencing and may have made a difference to her finding in October.

At the time, she said she was “not satisfied that the aspect of TT-Line’s method of management so far as it involved a failure to inspect the horses either by the passengers or TT-Line during the voyage exposed the horses to any further risk of pain and suffering”.

“There is insufficient evidence that it would have made any difference to the outcome.”

She said she could not sentence TT-Line and Mr Williams based on different facts.

A red boat docked at a wharf.
The Spirit of Tasmania operator TT-Line has changed protocols for livestock travel in the wake of the incident.(ABC News: Luke Bowden )

TT-Line defence lawyer David Neal said the company would consider its next move.

“We would want to consider the position, look at the report and then give a considered response,” he said.

The matter is scheduled to appear before the court later this month.

The ferry operator had already lodged an appeal in the Supreme Court of Tasmania over the guilty finding.

Mr Williams also launched actions against TT-Line in the Supreme Court of Victoria, with a trial set for March.

In October last year, TT-Line caught horse transporters by surprise when it banned livestock transport days out from the Melbourne Cup Carnival commencing, in the wake of the court finding it having breached animal welfare laws.

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