COVID-19 has proven to be a worldwide tragedy. Four billion people are now under orders to stay at home. As of this writing, nearly two million individuals have tested positive worldwide for COVID-19 and there are over 100,000 deaths. The United States is now leading the world in confirmed cases with over 500,000 cases identified.
Reports vary, but scientists believe that the COVID-19 outbreak originated in a bat or pangolin, in a wet animal market in Wuhan, China. Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked animal in the world and are used for traditional medicine in China and Vietnam. The “wet” animal markets in China are notorious for lack of hygiene with crates of live and dead animals stacked on top of each other with animals being slaughtered on the spot. This has led to decades of deadly viruses emerging from these markets, including MERS, SARS and Bird Flus (H5N1 and H7N9).
The trade in exotic animals has risen in recent years to accommodate the wealthier population in China who believe that consuming exotic animals, such as civet cats, can produce increased virility among other benefits. The Chinese government has supported the farming of exotic animals in attempt to provide rural farmers with the ability to earn money, but the rise of an elite class in China has driven the increased demand for these animals. Related to this, the demand for horns from rhinos and tusks from elephants in China and Vietnam for traditional medicine is pushing these species to the brink of extinction. Sadly, due to decreased tourism due to COVID-19, poaching of rhinos has reportedly increased in South Africa and Botswana.
Until recently, China had no animal welfare laws and had promoted the belief that wild animals are to be thought of solely for their benefit of humans. Even now, China has promoted the use of bear bile as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Extracting bear bile utilizes a cruel technique of draining bile from a live bear’s gallbladder, as a bear may be kept in a cage for this purpose for many years, and there have even been cases of bears paws being cut off as they are kept alive in cages only for the purpose of producing bile.
China, however, is not alone in promoting animal cruelty as we have to look no further than the popular Netflix documentary Tiger King to see how tigers are exploited nationwide for personal profit. Astonishingly, captive tigers in the United States actually outnumber tigers in the wild. Undercover footage by the Humane Society of the United States details the abysmal conditions that the tigers in Tiger King were forced to live under, in an endless cycle of breeding and mishandling that led to early death of many of the cubs. The tragic consequences of private ownership of exotic animals was most sadly highlighted in the incident in which an individual in Zanesville, Ohio released 49 exotic animals he privately owned and then killed himself. The majority of the escaped animals were killed by police for the safety of the public.
The United States is also no leader in matters related to humane slaughter of animals, but merely puts it largely out of the eye of public view in the form of large-scale factory farms. Most factory farmed animals are kept in barren cages so confining that they cannot move and live a short life of suffering. Only just this month, a bird flu emerged from a poultry processing plant in South Carolina.
Overconsumption, exploitation, and degradation of the natural world is pushing animal species to the brink of extinction with polar bears invading Russian cities in search of food; a reported decline of 100,000 orangutans due to expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia; and frequent violent exchanges between villagers and elephants throughout India as elephants no longer have places to go as human development encroaches into animal territory. There are estimates that one billion animals died Australia’s devastating wildfires last year.
Continued exploitation and disregard for the environment is also leading to displacement of human populations resulting in climate refugees, which has been seen largely due to changing weather patterns as a result of global warming. This has led to more deadly storms, increasing sea levels and greater desertification. Many climate refugees are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, but also in the United States as recently seen by the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico. Likewise, human conflict surrounding natural resources such as water and minerals is becoming more exacerbated as resources become more scarce. Pope Francis has even gone as far as to state that perhaps COVID-19 is nature’s response to the current ecological crisis.
During our current worldwide shut-down communities have noted the positive impact it has had on the environment, with individuals reporting seeing the Himalayan mountain range for the first time in decades, less pollution in cities worldwide, less noise in cities, and with the earth itself shaking less due to fewer cars and trains moving on the earth’s surface. People are even doing searches asking if birds have gotten louder, seemingly hearing them better with less noise.
There is hope moving forward—Shenzhen, China just banned the consumption of dogs and cats, which was followed by guidance from the Chinese federal government banning the farming of dogs for consumption, signaling a possible nationwide ban. Recently, there have been worldwide calls for the ban of wet markets.
COVID-19 presents us with a unique opportunity to reassess our relationship with the animals and the environment around us and to examine how we can more peacefully co-exist. If we cannot do this, it will affect our ability to improve the world around us.