COVID-19: A Wake-Up Call For Our Abuse Of Animals
A new report from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is a call to action for animals. It proposes nine policies aimed at reducing the risk of another pandemic arising from zoonotic (originating in animals) disease. The novel coronavirus, responsible for COVID-19, likely developed in bats and infected humans through an intermediate host, and it isn’t the first time this has happened. The pathogens responsible for Ebola, avian flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, and SARS all came from animals. An estimated 73% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. As for known infectious diseases, almost three in five (58%)—think rabies or salmonella– are transmitted by animals.
Human activity, and the use and misuse of animals, are frequently behind the spillover of contagions from animals to humans. In response to this now glaring threat, the HSUS and its Legislative Fund proposed nine policy recommendations to mitigate future pandemic risks:
- Multiple disease outbreaks have been traced to wildlife markets. Shut them down permanently.
In live wildlife markets, animals are often kept in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions. They are slaughtered on site and inhumanely, bodily fluids intermingle and spread to other animals, surfaces, packaging, and people. While coronavirus threw Chinese live markets in the spotlight, less well known is the extent of live wildlife markets in the U.S., where animals such as reptiles and amphibians are sold for human consumption. State legislatures should pass laws to prohibit such markets within their own borders. The federal government can also play a role by banning the importation of wild animals destined for these markets.
- End the trade of live wild animals to prevent the spread of the diseases they carry.
The U.S. is the largest importer of live wild animals, mostly for companions. Beyond the risks of escaping and becoming invasive species, these animals pose health risks to people. They can transmit fungal, bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections to their keepers. No single entity has the responsibility for the zoonotic disease risks posed by these imports. Therefore, authorities should coordinate efforts to make the keeping and importation of live wildlife illegal.
- Ban public contact between people and wild animals.
Zoos and traveling shows may offer people the chance to feed, pet, ride, swim, or otherwise interact with live, wild animals. The risks of disease transmission in these situations run both ways. And this use of wild animals, whether for entertainment or as ambassador animals is both dangerous and inhumane. These kinds of close encounters between people and wildlife should be banned.
- Animals raised for fur can carry SARS-COV type pathogens. End the fur trade.
Undomesticated mink, racoon dogs and foxes are raised and killed solely for their fur. Housed in intensive confinement systems, they easily contract and transmit disease. Indeed, mink fur farms abroad have been linked to the spread of SARS-COV-2 to humans. Fur farming should be prohibited, along with the trade in animals used for fur and products made from them.
- Factory farms create a breeding ground for disease. Move the industry towards better systems.
Bacteria and viruses can easily circulate in the crowded conditions on factory farms. Virulence can increase as organisms mutate. If a pathogen jumps from one of the animals to a human, the results could be disastrous. Avian influenza, with a 60% mortality rate, is just such an example. Governments should ban the use of intensive confinement systems and incentivize cage-free production.
- Incentivize the food industry to develop alternative proteins.
Non-animal protein sources are better for the environment, the animals, and public health than protein from factory farms. The quality of meat substitutes made from soy, peas and grains has improved dramatically, and consumer demand is growing. Cultivated, or clean meat is a new technology that will eventually produce actual meat albeit grown in a lab. Both government and the private sector should invest more in these new technologies as well as improving the visibility of and access to existing plant-based protein alternatives.
- Fund non-animal testing approaches for the development of vaccines and other medical tests.
The search for COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics has already cost millions of dollars and the lives of an unknown number of animals. But animal-based approaches have a high failure rate, particularly for drugs. Animals often aren’t a valid model for human disease. But human-relevant technologies do exist. Governments should incentivize and support further development of methods that work better and eliminate animal suffering.
- Dogs from puppy mills frequently spread disease. End the sale of dogs from puppy mills.
Poor veterinary oversight at puppy mills and through the companion animal distribution chain recently sickened people with diseases such as campylobacter and canine brucellosis. And these are just newer, publicly reported cases. If puppy mills continue to exist, they must be stringently regulated. Moreover, the sale of animals from these sources should be prohibited in retail stores.
- Expand and enforce laws to ban cockfighting.
Avian flu is a deadly threat to both humans and the commercial poultry industry. Cockfighting is a known risk factor for this disease. Cockfighters maintain flocks of hundreds or thousands of birds, often in crowded conditions. During fights, they engage in unsanitary and dangerous practices that directly expose them to the birds’ blood and bodily fluids. All U.S. states should prohibit the possession and sale of fighting birds, and federal officials need to step up enforcement of laws banning the transport and sale of these birds
This report covers a huge amount of ground. Advocates for many different animal welfare issues can use this material as yet more evidence that we need to change our relationship with other species. Done thoughtfully, we can use this global health crisis for their benefit and for ours.