WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, April 18, 2020 — Fears surrounding the novel coronavirus are rampant and will only continue to grow as we see continued wide-spread cases and, tragically, ever-increasing death-tolls across the country. Slowing the spread of this virulent disease is paramount as is ensuring our first-responders and hospitals have the tools and resources needed to help those most at risk.
While we are focused on addressing the current crisis, we cannot ignore the root cause of the spread of the virus or those ultimately responsible. Our global approach to animal welfare, safety and ethics (or lack thereof) is the root cause of the situation we find ourselves in and unless we work together as a global community, we will continue to find ourselves thrown into a malodorous cauldron of death and disease.
Mankind’s history, fabled and otherwise, is intrinsically linked to animals. From the snake tempting Eve, to Noah’s ark of survival, to evolutionary theory that we developed from a quadri-ped mammal to a bi-ped mammal with opposable thumbs. Somehow or other, no matter your personal or religious doctrine, those opposable thumbs allowed us to separate ourselves from the pack. In some ways, we have enriched animals lives but in others we have treated them in ways that have led to extinction, abuse and conditions that have led to great suffering for both animals and people.
The worst pandemics the world has ever seen, notably smallpox, bubonic plague, cholera and flu drastically changed human history and combined resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths. The Black Death in the 13th century is attributed to 75 to 200 million lives lost and the Antonine Plague, thought to have been smallpox or the measles, in 165 AD wiped out ancient Roman armies. Interestingly, smallpox existed in some form and with other names for some 3,000 years before its eradication began in the 19th century when an English doctor observed that milkmaids were not succumbing to “cowpox” which was ravaging populations. This observation led to the first of many vaccines that would ultimately put an end to this deadly pestilence.
In more recent times, we have seen other coronaviruses emerge, notably MERS and SARS. MERS originated in camels and SARS probably originated from a corona strain found in bats that jumped to the Civet cat. Both of these viruses were then transferred to humans who consumed these exotic animals. From there, the virus mutated and began to spread from human to human. It is important to note that neither of these diseases were directly linked to the spread of the virus from animals to people. While MERS and SARS got our attention, the viruses weren’t taken as seriously as they warranted. Wet markets where domestic and exotic animals are slaughtered, sold and consumed, continued to thrive. As did the poaching and trafficking of exotic wildlife which keeps the markets in business of fueling mythical cures for everything from hair loss to old age. At some point we must ask whether cultural sensitivities and traditions are worth the cost of not only our own health and well-being but that of rare and endangered animals whose consumption will not cure anything much less boost one’s sex drive.
Global leaders and governments turned a blind eye to these markets and poachers, all but encouraging these cultural and generational traditions to stay the course. As a result, today we as a global community are all experiencing the novel coronavirus derived from bats in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Irrespective of the origination, we know this much to be true, these occurrences will continue to increase as we bring exotic wildlife and wildlife trade into urban centers.
When humans, who proudly sit atop the evolutionary ladder, fail to take action to protect animals from unethical treatments, fail to have biosecurity procedures, fail to have independent oversight from animal welfare and fail to change societal norms for the better of all animal kind, this is exactly the disaster we invite. It has happened time and time again for centuries, the question is: When will it stop? What trigger point will make people wake-up to the realities we face.
Animals are not to blame, whether they be wild bats or domesticated cats. The same sadly cannot be said for the actions (or inaction) of people and governments who have broken the social contract with animals we share the world with but who have no voice.
As the largest certifier of animal welfare in the world, American Humane steadfastly believes in independent audits of animal operations and standards set by the world’s leading scientists and welfare experts to govern long overdue and needed biosecurity procedures to ensure human and animal safety.
We are fortunate here in the United States that we are well ahead of the rest of the world in protecting and ensuring the humane treatment animals in the wild and on our farms. We see, however, that failing animals in even the most remote parts of the world exposes our entire species to risk, illness and economic collapse. The U.S. should be exporting humane practices, our process of independent oversight and our values of compassion to the rest of the world lest we risk an even larger, more deadly pandemic in the years to come.
Tom Edling, DVM, is American Humane’s Chief Veterinary Advisory for the Humane Hollywood program. Robin Ganzert, Ph.D, is the president and CEO of American Humane.