For communities across the world, 2020 has been a tumultuous year. The SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19) spread from a few people at a Chinese wildlife market to over 72 million people by the end of the year. Yet we were not the pandemic’s only victims.

Animals suffered both by becoming sick with the virus and from the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. The pandemic also highlighted the deadly costs of animal exploitation. Experts warn that we need to fundamentally change our relationship with animals, especially wildlife and farm animals, to prevent future pandemics.

The pandemic and wildlife

The COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have originated in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. The current pandemic is far from the only public health crisis traced back to wild animals. In 2003, SARS passed from civets to humans in a Chinese wildlife market. Ebola and HIV are believed to have been transmitted to humans from bushmeat hunting.

An October report by United Nations experts warns that wildlife trade and consumption represent one of the main risks for future pandemics. The report warns that without major changes, “pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.”

Wild animals for sale at markets are often kept in crowded conditions and slaughtered on site, which can cause the spread of bodily fluids like feces and blood. Animal advocates have called for bans on the sale of live wild animals in markets to protect human health, animal welfare and wildlife conservation. Humane Society International released a white paper detailing the connection between wildlife markets and COVID-19. The paper was sent to governments around the world, asking them to take action. In the United States, the HSUS is advocating for the passage of the Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020, which would ban the import, export and sale of certain live wildlife for human consumption.

Live animals in cages at a wet market in China
Trevor Mogg
Alamy Stock Photo

In February, China implemented a temporary ban on the hunting, trade, transport and use of terrestrial wild animals for consumption as food, but the ban has yet to be made permanent and does not include wild animals used for traditional medicine, fur, research or pets. Dr. Peter Li, China policy specialist at Humane Society International, believes that banning the consumption of wildlife is not enough, noting that the other usages “could be breeding grounds for pandemic outbreaks as well.”

Many of the captive wild animals originally bred for human consumption were culled after the ban was announced. Li believes that some of these animals ended up in the illicit meat trade: Researchers in China working with Li found wild animal meat still available in some restaurants, although sales of these products were made discreetly.

Other wild species are at risk of catching the virus. In April, four tigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, likely catching it from an asymptomatic zoo employee. Since then, three tigers at the Zoo Knoxville in Tennessee and four lions at the Barcelona Zoo in Spain tested positive for COVID-19.

Three-week old tiger cub at Tiger Safari, who passed away 14 months later after being sick and receiving little veterinary care

As scientists learned about the threat COVID-19 posed to big cats, the Netflix docuseries Tiger King became a pop culture sensation. People binge-watched the show as they quarantined and laughed at the antics of Joe Exotic, the former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park who was convicted of murder for hire and multiple wildlife crimes, including killing five tigers. Many animal advocates criticized the show for focusing on the outlandish personalities of roadside zoo operators over the animal cruelty at the heart of the story. When the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park reopened in May (after a brief hiatus due to lockdown restrictions), crowds poured in to play with tiger cubs. Visitors told National Geographic that they handled tiger cubs during cub-petting excursions, potentially exposing the young animals to the virus. 

On the other end of the spectrum, wildlife sanctuaries—including the HSUS-supported Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge Liberia and Project Chimps—implemented strict precautions to protect their animals. Wildlife sanctuaries and ecotourism operators lost revenue, and many planned conservation projects had to be canceled or postponed globally. Scientists have also expressed concerns that poaching could increase due to economic instability and the reduced presence of law enforcement and tourists. Increased poaching levels have already been seen in Africa and Asia.

The pandemic and animals raised for fur

Mink fur farms in the Netherlands, U.S., Denmark, France, Spain, Sweden, Lithuania, Greece, Poland and Italy have all experienced outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2. Thousands of mink died from the virus in the U.S. alone after infected mink were found on fur farms in Wisconsin, Utah, Michigan and Oregon.

Young fox in a wire cage at a fur farm with an injured eye
Kristo Muurimaa
Oikeutta Elaimille

Veterinary professionals with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association note that it’s not surprising that fur farms have experienced outbreaks of the virus. Similar to wildlife markets, animals in fur farms are often housed in crowded conditions where they’re exposed to bodily fluids. A Humane Society International/U.K. investigation of a Finnish fur farm in 2019 found foxes and mink suffering from gaping wounds and eye infections and dead animals lying in cages, sometimes being eaten by other animals. Inhumane living conditions can increase stress levels, in turn weakening the animals’ immune systems and making them more susceptible to the virus.

Mink farms also pose a major public health risk, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus is capable of jumping between humans and mink and also mutating, potentially impacting the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine. In Denmark, where mink outnumbered humans 3 to 1, COVID-19 was detected in mink on 289 out of 1,147 fur farms, and hundreds of human cases have stemmed from these farms.

Minks in cages at mink fur farm
Kristo Muurimaa
Oikeutta Elaimille

In November, Denmark announced it would cull all 15 million mink on fur farms after a mutated version of the virus was found in the animals. In the Netherlands, authorities also preventatively killed millions of mink, mostly pups, on fur farms affected by COVID-19. The country—the fourth largest producer of mink fur after Denmark, Poland and China—also announced it would shut down all remaining mink farms next year, before the planned phase-out of the industry by 2024. The U.S., meanwhile, has taken little action to address fur farming. The HSUS has urged U.S. lawmakers to ban the fur trade to protect animals from cruelty and curb the spread of zoonotic diseases.

As COVID-19 spreads on mink farms across the world, the fur industry has seen rapid declines in demand for fur. In November the world’s largest fur auction house in Denmark announced it would close permanently.

We all want there to be treatments and vaccines sooner and over time we’ve repeatedly shown that animal models are expensive, inaccurate and take too long. Sometimes people think we have to choose the animals or the people. Well, we can choose the animals and the people.

Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of Animal Research Issues

The pandemic and animals used in research

Scientists working to understand the virus and test vaccines use animals such as mice, ferrets and primates as research subjects. In particular, primates are used to test the efficacy of vaccines due to their genetic similarity to humans. Researchers have used so many primates for COVID-19 research that laboratories claim they are experiencing monkey shortages. But Lindsay Marshall, biomedical science adviser at the HSUS and Humane Society International, says that animal research has its limitations.

Monkey at an animal research lab
The HSUS 2013

“These are animals, they have the disease differently than us, they recover differently than us and they’re just different,” Marshall says. Most monkey species get only mildly sick from COVID-19 and do not suffer certain severe symptoms that many humans do, which hampers researchers’ ability to understand how the disease impacts human bodies.

Even vaccines that are effective for animals may not be effective for humans: An estimated 95% of drugs tested on animals fail in human patients. “We all want there to be treatments and vaccines sooner and over time we’ve repeatedly shown that animal models are expensive, inaccurate and take too long,” says Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of Animal Research Issues. “Sometimes people think we have to choose the animals or the people. Well, we can choose the animals and the people.”

Conlee notes that the pandemic can be an opportunity to pioneer changes for the future of research. To start setting the stage for change, Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States donated $20,000 to a John Hopkins grant program for nonanimal approaches to investigating and treating SARS-CoV-2. One innovative approach uses human cells from the nose to learn how the virus first attacks the body; another uses models of the lower area of the lungs to test drugs for their ability to block the virus.

I think that’s what animal care people do when they’re used to saving lives. It really doesn’t matter what the obstacle is; you are going to overcome it.

Dr. Karen Hill Sheppard, Director of Huntsville Animal Services

The pandemic and companion animals

In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first cases of SARS-CoV-2 in U.S. pets: two cats living in separate homes in New York, one of whom had an owner who had previously tested positive for the virus. In June, a dog tested positive after one of his owners was sick with COVID-19.

Kittens at a #SpayTogether clinic at Palm Valley Animal Society in Texas
Kittens at a #SpayTogether clinic at Palm Valley Animal Society in Texas.
Animal Balance

Although other cats and dogs have since tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the number of confirmed cases is extremely low compared to the number of pets in the U.S. There are an estimated 89 million pet dogs and 94 million pet cats in the U.S., but just 49 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in cats and 35 confirmed cases in dogs. Veterinarians believe companion animals are not particularly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, although cats are believed to be at a higher risk than dogs. While there is a very small risk of transmission from humans to companion animals, there is no evidence that companion animals can transmit the virus to humans. The CDC recommends COVID-19 patients avoid contact with their pets and have others care for the animals, if possible.

Caring for pets can be especially difficult when pet owners are hospitalized with COVID-19. Niki Cochran, co-founder of A Cat’s Life Rescue in Maryland, was contacted by the family of a woman who was hospitalized with COVID-19 and later died. The woman’s two cats were left in her apartment and family members were too nervous about the risk of disease transmission to enter the apartment. One person slid plates of wet food through the door; otherwise, the cats were on their own. When Cochran entered the apartment to rescue the cats, she found the water bowls licked dry.

Outdoor cats sitting outsite
Community cats who have been spayed and neutered.
Alex Rothlisberger

Shelters and rescues also had to adapt to new protocols and staff shortages. Huntsville Animal Services, a municipal shelter in Alabama, implemented safety measures, but multiple staff members still tested positive for COVID-19 in early summer. The virus never spread to their animals, but the shelter was strained while multiple staff members quarantined at home. The shelter also lost a staff member who resigned due to the stress of being an essential worker during the pandemic.

The San Diego Humane Society, located in hard-hit California, pivoted to curbside adoptions and vaccine clinics and used a mobile clinic to provide care for pets in the community. When the pandemic first hit the U.S., shelters and rescues halted non-emergency veterinary services, including spay/neuter surgeries. The San Diego Humane Society faced a backlog of almost 1,300 surgeries, which took them two months to complete once they restarted surgeries. The organization is still working at a reduced capacity, especially with regard to community cats, due to a reallocation of resources and social distancing measures.

Man gets pet food from Pets for Life, run by the HSUS
Carmen Alvarez

Community cats also experienced disruptions in their daily care. Li notes that in China many caregivers were unable to feed cats due to lockdown restrictions and, to a lesser extent, fears of cats transmitting SARS-CoV-2. Additionally, people suffered financial hardships caused by the pandemic, hampering their access to resources for community cats and pets in the home. The HSUS Pets for Life team has been working with local groups and directly with communities in Los Angeles and Philadelphia to provide veterinary care, pet food and supplies. The HSUS also created a COVID-19 emergency grant fund to provide veterinary care, pet food, horse feed and animal care supplies to pet owners, shelters and rescues.

Despite a difficult year, shelters and rescues pushed on. “I think that’s what animal care people do when they’re used to saving lives. It really doesn’t matter what the obstacle is; you are going to overcome it,” says Dr. Karen Hill Sheppard, director of Huntsville Animal Services.

In June, over 25 national organizations, including the HSUS, launched the #SpayTogether initiative to help animal shelters and veterinary clinics perform 50,000 spay/neuter surgeries by providing grants, on-the-ground assistance and trainings. Communities also helped alleviate some of the pressure on shelters and rescues. Dr. Zarah Hedge, vice president and chief medical officer at the San Diego Humane Society, noticed an increase in fosters—at one point, 70% of her organization’s animals were in foster homes—which helped keep shelter populations low and make work manageable for shelter staff.

All it takes is for one animal to get sick and all of a sudden a virus can jump to the next animal who is literally inches away and start evolving to become more and more potent: higher mortality, easier to spread.

Josh Balk, HSUS vice president of Farm Animal Protection

The pandemic and animals raised for food

As wild animal meat gained increased scrutiny during the pandemic, people also began to rethink their consumption of animals such as chickens, cows, pigs and fish. A May poll shows that 52% of respondents think the food industry should focus more on plant-based foods. Sales of plant-based meats and tofu have surged since the onset of the pandemic.

While SARS-CoV-2 has been traced to wildlife, past zoonotic disease outbreaks—such as avian influenza and swine flu—originated from farm animal operations. As in other animal industries, virtually all farm animals are confined in crowded, stressful conditions conducive to the spread of disease. The United Nations report notes that the expansion and intensification of agriculture is one of the main drivers of future pandemic risk and livestock are one of the most likely reservoirs of pathogens that could cause a future pandemic.

“All it takes is for one animal to get sick and all of a sudden a virus can jump to the next animal who is literally inches away and start evolving to become more and more potent: higher mortality, easier to spread,” says Josh Balk, HSUS vice president of Farm Animal Protection.

Cows in crowded beef feedlot

At the beginning of the pandemic, the animal production chain was disrupted when slaughterhouses across the U.S. temporarily closed and factory farm operators were left without a place to send their animals to be killed. They had a choice, says Balk: let their animals grow beyond the tiny spaces allotted to them or kill them. “And so, they decided to kill them in many of the most gruesome ways you can imagine, like overheating them to death with steam, poisoning them with carbon dioxide where they suffocate to death.”

These animals were then buried in fields and never entered the supply chain.

The HSUS and the HSVMA are both supporting a veterinary petition to end the use of these cruel methods, known as ventilation shutdown, and require that other approved, more humane methods be used for these type of mass killings.

How to help

Many people may be feeling deflated during the pandemic, but everyone can take action to help protect animals impacted by the current pandemic and help prevent future pandemics:

icon blue plantIncorporate more plant-based foods into your diet.

icon blue pawIf you're a pet owner who tests positive for COVID-19, isolate in one area of your home away from your pets. You can also seek assistance from a local animal shelter or friend to provide temporary care while you recover.

icon blue legislatureReach out to your local, state and federal legislators and ask them to make policy changes to address the current pandemic response and prevent future pandemics. You can use the HSUS COVID-19 policy plan to suggest specific actions legislators should take.

icon blue pet carrierMake a pet disaster preparedness plan.

icon blue hangerPledge to stop buying fur products.

icon blue homeShare our eviction prevention toolkit with your local shelters and rescues to help prevent people and their pets from losing their homes as the pandemic’s financial repercussions continue.

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This was written and produced by the team behind All Animals, our award-winning magazine. Each issue is packed with inspiring stories about how we are changing the world for animals together.

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