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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet.
If 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.
Reach 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.
Make a pet disaster preparedness plan.
Pledge to stop buying fur products.
Share 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.