Nature bats last

The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to reflect on animal welfare — domestically and abroad

In 2009, the H1N1 flu originated in swine farms in the United States.

The coronavirus pandemic has made humans think a lot about animals. Take, for instance, the deluge of foster home applications that hit animal shelters across the nation, particularly in hard-hit places like Seattle and New York City, once stay-at-home orders took effect in early March. Animal lovers in Boulder County similarly flooded shelter inboxes with applications in the last half of the month. 

Then there was the tiger who tested positive for coronavirus at the Bronx Zoo, which made the world collectively wonder just how out of control this could get. 

But all this thinking started with bats, the animal scientists think acted as the bridge between coronavirus and humans. Pangolins may have played an intermediary role in transmission as well, and once we all learned what a pangolin was, we quickly learned it’s the most trafficked animal in the world and inching closer to extinction because of it. 

“If any good could come out of [the coronavirus pandemic] it could be that we recognize the importance of other animals,” says Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

“One of my favorite slogans is ‘nature bats last,’ and that’s basically what has happened and is happening and will happen.”

While the exact location of the interspecies jump is still something of an unsolved mystery, a “wet” market — where wild animals are sold, some legally, some not — in the Hubei province of  China became an early suspect.

Bekoff has seen these markets first-hand while conducting research on bear bile farming. According to Animals Asia (an organization Bekoff has worked with), more than 20,000 bears — mainly Asian black bears (sometimes called moon bears) but also sun bears and brown bears — are held in captivity on farms in Asia to have bile extracted from their gall bladders on a regular basis. The bears are kept in deplorable conditions, unable to turn around or stand on all fours, often for the entirety of their lives. Their bile is said to treat practically everything, from hemorrhoids to sore throats to sprains to epilepsy. The only thing research can prove is that bear bile has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and hepatoprotective (liver protecting) effects because it contains ursodeoxycholic acid — which can be manufactured synthetically. 

But Bekoff — and other conservationists — warn against pointing fingers.

“When people criticize China, they’ve got to be pretty careful because the factory farm situation here in many instances isn’t much better than the situation with the wet markets in China,” Bekoff says. 

In 2009, the H1N1 flu originated in swine farms in the United States, where animals are more often than not held in extreme confinement. 

“Here in the U.S., most people seem to believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to slaughter and eat cows, but it’s considered taboo for people to eat horses, which are considered to be more noble and companionable,” wrote conservationist Jonathan Kolby for NBC News. “And yet, the U.S. has been exporting tens of thousands of live horses annually to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico for human and animal consumption overseas. Even though we’ve been supplying horses for people to eat elsewhere, we continue to publicly shame this culinary practice in the U.S. Adjusting our standards of morally acceptable behaviors based on economic profit is elitist hypocrisy.”

Kolby points out that the U.S., like China, is also a large importer of global wildlife with no disease screening or biosecurity measures. This has led to the spread of a deadly pathogen, amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which is causing catastrophic losses in biodiversity.

Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarians.”

“People typically don’t see the millions upon millions of chickens who are tortured and killed for meat and eggs in the U.S.,” Bekoff says. “But these wet markets are often outdoors, or partially outdoors — it’s almost like their slaughterhouses have glass walls for the world to see through.”

Americans tend to struggle with moral inconsistency where animal rights are concerned. This has been a foundational component of Harold Herzog’s research for decades. The Western Carolina University professor wrote a book on the subject called Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals.

During a phone conversation, he points to a 2002 research study in which 41% of vegetarians admitted that they sometimes consumed fish. 

“And these are smart people,” Herzog says. “When Bill Clinton became a vegan, he was doing an interview and he was talking about how great veganism was and how he was feeling better than ever, and then he slipped in, ‘Well, I try to eat salmon once a week.’”

The problem, oddly enough, is that many of these people did not think fish were made of meat. And that’s the crux of Herzog’s research, delving into the ways that humans rationalize the absurdly contradictory relationships we have with animals. This moral inconsistency bleeds into the way we label wet markets as evil while still consuming bacon that comes from an intensive swine farm where animals are forced to live in conditions that no one would accept for their household pet.

“I am concerned to see environmentalism and conservationism building on racist narratives,” Kolby wrote of the xenophobia that developed in the early days of the coronavirus spread. “It’s a culturally sensitive problem that extends further than this current coronavirus crisis, and it needs to stop.” 


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