May 2020

Photo credit: Scaly Anteater” by David Brossard is licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0, Flickr.

The zoonotic aspect of the COCID-19 virus this month pointed to several problematic human-animal intersections: the human consumption of potentially infected wild animals; the illegal wildlife trade; and the crowded conditions in which humans and animals interact within live animal markets, on the one hand, and industrialized animal agriculture on the other.

The search for the manner in which the COVID-19 virus might have transferred from animals to humans continues. Over the past few weeks, concerns surfaced that it might have been created and leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recently shot down speculation that the virus might have been created in a laboratory, or found in the wild, brought to a lab and escaped. And another report, from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, states there is “exactly zero evidence” that it came from a lab.

Calls continue for shutting down live animal markets—markets at which both domestic and wild animals are sold—worldwide. Movement in that direction may be happening. In a first, China has recently banned the sale of wild animals for food, citing the risk of diseases spreading to humans. Furthermore, in instances where exotic wild animals are farmed to sell for food, China is offering farmers in two provinces cash to quit breeding exotic animals, a practice the government had encouraged for small farmers following the industrialization of the livestock industry.

Public opinion toward wildlife markets is also changing in other Asian countries. A March 2020 study by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature surveyed people in Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to measure opinions on the potential of closing all illegal and unregulated wild animal markets, within the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The study found around 80% of respondents said that closure of these markets would be effective in preventing the spread of disease, and 93% said that they would be supportive of government measures to close wild animal markets. At the same time, much attention since last month has shifted from criticism of the markets themselves to the selling of wild animals within them. According to Thomas Lovejoy, the US biologist who coined the term “biological diversity,” simply shutting down the markets may not be a solution. “The big difficulty,” he notes, “is that if you just shut them down—which in many ways would be the ideal thing—they will be topped up with black markets, and that’s even harder to deal with because it’s clandestine.”

It is important to point out that the illegal global wildlife trade is not limited to Asia and Africa; it is present in the Global North as well. Several studies over the last decade found large amounts of illegal meat arriving regularly at airports in EU countries—over  270 tons of illegal bushmeat arrived in France  and 100 tons in the United Kingdom, annually. Nor is the United States immune. Another  four-year study  tracked confiscated meat from JFK airport in New York, finding (among other animals) dead green monkeys, baboons, and chimpanzees, some of them carrying zoonotic agents that could act as a conduit for pathogen spread to humans.

Evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod points to the wild meat (or “bushmeat”) market as the source of the next pandemic. The global nature of the situation highlights the problem with sweeping criticisms of cultural food practices, particularly when those practices are often are based upon subsistence, not culinary, choices. Because of this, Garrod notes that “social and cultural sensitivity is paramount.” In some instances, wild animals are hunted, not raised, for food. In an effort to reduce this human-wild animal juncture, he onserves that communities that rely on subsistence hunting can be assisted through community development projects and programs “aimed at developing more sustainable and safer sources of protein,” and that governments and researchers must work together with traders and consumers to foster broader-based and more extensive programs to do this.

Keying to the cultural sensitivity point and well worth the 1.5 hours (30 minute presentation with the remainder question and answer), this talk by cultural anthropologist Eben Kirksey surveys primary literature from a variety of disciplines to unpack “The Emergence of COVID19: A Multispecies Story.” He frames this presentation as follows: “Origin stories about COVID19 have circulated widely…. Outbreak narratives, about the wet animal market in Wuhan, reek of Orientalism. Media pundits, who have struggled to explain the sudden upheaval of the modern world, have reanimated old stereotypes about Asian people and exotic animals. The subjects of these multispecies stories, to reference Edward Said, share ‘in common an identity best described as lamentably alien.’ As medical doctors, virologists and epidemiologists publish new evidence, origin stories about exotic animals are starting to fall apart.” (See more from the Deakin Science and Society Network COVID-19 seminar series here .)

Rather than the closure of wet markets, some conservationists and animal welfare advocates are also shifting focus to the global trade in illegal wildlife. This is because it not only threatens human health through the risk of infectious disease, but also puts nearly 9,000 species at risk of extinction. And indeed, a recent study in  World Development found a shift in US conservation funding from 2002-2019 toward work aimed at combatting wildlife trafficking. According to the study’s co-author, Jared Margulies, this is due to narratives framing the illegal wildlife trade as threats to international health and national security.

Xaq Frohlich, a food historian at Auburn University, agrees the focus should be on the wildlife trade, and notes that “by focusing on wet markets, people ignore the extent to which there are things happening in the US that also are contributing to increased risk of zoonotic disease,” such as industrialized animal farming. As Owen Rogers explains in a recent Faunalytics post: “Animal-borne diseases are not limited to wild or exotic animals, and your average chicken or pig farm is perfectly capable of starting a deadly outbreak. While the wet markets in China might be particularly risky due to the wide variety of animals in close contact with each other, any situation in which a large number of animals are kept in cramped quarters with frequent human contact poses a threat.”

Industrialized animal farming practices have been both implicated in and impacted by this particular pandemic, and pandemics in general. As environmental historian Catherine Paulin notes in “A Reflection on Human-Animal Relations in Light of COVID-19,” “Industrial farming and intense animal density in small and restricted spaces, the destruction of habitats and of ecosystems, [and] a general increase in the consumption of meat in many industrialized countries since the 19th century” all shape relationships between humans, animals, and disease.

Slaughterhouses are hot spots for COVID-19 infections and have sickened and killed workers. This in turn causing 30-40 large US meat packing plants to shut downAround the US, 170 meat and poultry processing facilities reported coronavirus cases and, according to the CDC, at this point nearly 5,000 workers have fallen ill and at least 45 have died.Indeed, these facilities have been prime places where the virus has spread most intensely. An analysis compiled by the Associated Press,  found the 15 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita infection rates over the last three weeks are all homes to meatpacking and poultry-processing plants or state prisons.

Despite these ongoing threats to human health the US administration, concerned with meat shortages, responded with a presidential executive order mandating the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action under that section to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations….” This order effectively forces the poorly paid workers in the meatpacking plants back to work in what at this point are essentially the same conditions that have fostered the extensive infections rates. It is probable more workers will die in these hotspots. We can only imagine the ways in which the return-to-work order strains the metal well-being of these already marginalized workers who deal daily with the emotional trauma of slaughering and dismembering the animals destined for our tables.

From the animal side, this lack of processing capacity already has caused the “culling” or “depopulating” of over 10 million hens, most through suffocation by foam. And last month US authorities  confirmed the first cases of the highly pathogenic H7N3 Avian Influenza in a turkey flock in South Carolina, which killed over 1500 turkeys and caused the slaughter of another 32,000 birds. Although it is rare, this virus can infect humans. Also due to slaughterhouse closures, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has estimated that over 10 million market hogs “will need to be euthanized between the weeks ending on 25 April and 19 September 2020, resulting in a severe emotional and financial toll on hog farmers.” The NPPC press release discusses this “wrenching and tragic choice” that “goes against every farmer instinct.”

Here I will point out that language matters. The term promoted by this pork industry spokes-group euphemizes “euthanized”—which implies a humane ending—when in reality these animals will be  killed by means that include gassing, shooting, and blunt force trauma as well as  electrocution, ventilation shutdown, and poisoning by carbon monoxide. Karen Davis with United Poultry Concerns  takes sharp issue with the intentional optics endorsed by agribusiness and upheld by major news media over this situation: “With our words of commission and omission we muzzle our guilt—the condition of guilt we refuse to feel. The animals are being euthanized—put to sleep—so we can rest easy and return to normal.” Further, one wonders about the effectiveness of the NPPC’s rhetorical appeal to pathos behind the focus on the “emotional toll” of these killings on the hog farmers who might be witnessing what befalls the animals they routinely raise for customary (if unwitnessed) traumatic endings. But I won’t go there. Any more than I have, that is. Other than to recall the words of Albert Schweitzer, “Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”

This is not to say individual farmers are not adversely affected by the actions they are forced to take, now in the light of day. But as Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, comments, “It’s not always clear whether industry representatives regret the waste of life or just a waste of food.” For the broader industrialized agricultural industry, food is about money. In an ironic loop back to the relationship between factory farming and pandemics, according to one report the decline in pork availability in the US is being exacerbated by fact that the highly contagious virus African swine fever has swept through China’s hog farms over the past year. So “while pork supplies tightened [in the US] as the number of pigs slaughtered each day plunged by about 40 percent since mid-March, shipments of American pork to China more than quadrupled over the same period, according to US Department of Agriculture data.” (For another thorough discussion of the meat supply chain problems, see this analysis, “America’s meat shortage is more serious than your missing hamburgers: The meat supply chain is breaking down, but that’s only part of the story.”)

Through all of this, the demand for meatless meat has skyrocketing during the pandemic, and it is proving more ethical for animals  and  humans. This is because “while meat plants require workers to stand shoulder to shoulder as they kill and take apart animals, the facilities manufacturing plant-based products don’t need their workers to be so tightly packed together and working at warp speed. Impossible Foods said that workers are able to maintain social distancing and are provided with masks.” Investors have caught on, with $930 million invested in alternative proteins in the first quarter of 2020.

The crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 virus has both exacerbated and illuminated problems within industrialized animal agriculture. This has stimulated public critique and calls to transform the global food system, to support and encourage a shift from intensive animal agriculture to smaller farms, and to rebuild the broken meat industry—without animals. According to op-ed authors Liz Specht and Jan Dutkiewicz (in the latter article): “The most pragmatic way to start building a resilient food value chain in the wake of the pandemic is to leverage the strengths of the existing system while building alternatives to the most vulnerable and highest-risk elements. There is a very strong economic case to be made that this should start with phasing out animals from the food system. Such a transition will be much easier if the government and incumbent companies lead the change. They now face a critical choice: exacerbate our current problems and risk disruptions from future crises, including other pandemics and climate change, or be a participant in their own disruption.”

While it remains to be seen whether we might develop a global food system without meat, one move toward the end of the industrialized animal agriculture industry is in the works. US Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently signed on to a bill cosponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Ro Khanna in December, 2019, the Farm System Reform Act. While continuing to support smaller farms, the act would make new  large factory farms  illegal, and force existing farms to plan to stop expansions and operations within 20 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled the human race to pause, to suspend activity we had considered normal—or if not normal, then unalterable. There have been appeals that in this recess we might examine our more destructive relationships with animals and redefine them in new, less harmful, more considerate and compassionate ways. Animal studies scholars and advocates Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser suggest radically imagining human-animal relations after the COVID-19 pandemic: “The pandemic has shown the fragility of our systems and the folly of our practices. It is now urgent that we think about the kinds of changes in our relations with other animals that we want—need—to enact post-pandemic.”

One way we might begin to proceed, as eco-philosopher Andreas Weber remarks, is through nourishing community in pandemic times. He observes: “Humans are asked to stop their activities in the name of something, which had not been much in the focus of western—and global—policy in the last decades: Community…. The virus has temporarily changed human ecology. Instead of devouring everything that moves, we are slowed down, we grant others space (quite literally, queuing at a street kitchen in safe distances), we sit and listen. The majority of the world population thus responds to what is the most important, though often unacknowledged, problem of global western societies—namely how to relate to those who are weaker, who are more vulnerable, and, from an ecological viewpoint, even those who are not even human at all, but other living beings: Plants and animals, streams and forests, rocks and mountains.”

I would like to imagine that we as a species shall come together in community to do this—for ourselves, for the other beings with whom we share the world, and for the planet itself. As we move forward, let us try.


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