Thursday, March 26, 2020

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

At the G20 coronavirus meeting today, global leaders, including President Trump, brainstormed on ways to control the coronavirus pandemic that is now ravaging dozens of nations, leaving a vast trail of human casualties in its wake. But one thing that didn’t come up was the reason why we are in this predicament in the first place: the unchecked trade, transport and consumption of wildlife.

Scientists believe that the novel coronavirus originated in bats, who are natural hosts to coronaviruses and were also linked to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002. In that case the coronavirus was transmitted to palm civets—small, slender mammals with ferretlike faces—who were then sold at a wildlife market in Shenzhen, China. It is suspected that the current pandemic, traced to a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, may have originated in a similar way.

China has since been under pressure to permanently close its wildlife markets: open-air markets where butchers slaughter wild and domestic animals on site. Last month, the nation announced a ban on buying and selling wild animals for food. That ban has not yet been codified into law, and we hope the Chinese government will do so soon. We also hope the Chinese government will extend the ban to all wildlife trade, and not just animals used for food.

But it is not just China that needs to fix this problem. Wildlife trade, transport and consumption occurs in countries around the world, including the United States, and we need our leaders to agree to end these high-risk practices if we want to prevent another pandemic from sweeping the globe. 

The United States also has a thriving exotic animal industry that often imports wild-caught species, including from China, and many facilities offer close encounters with wild animals that pose zoonotic disease risks. People buy exotic pets on a whim, then neglect the animal after they lose interest. Some unwanted exotic pets are turned loose where they pose a threat to native species. Many die prematurely due to improper care and many more die before even making it to the point of sale because of improper and grueling conditions during transport and grossly substandard conditions at dealer warehouses. Standard industry mortality rates at exotic animal wholesale facilities are as high as 70 percent due to poor sanitation, lack of food and water, improper temperatures, high stress levels, overcrowding and inhumane handling.

This is a serious animal welfare problem, by any measure. But it is also an extremely serious public health concern.

According to a 2007 article published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that examined the risks posed by the wildlife trade and exotic pet industry, an estimated 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases among humans are zoonotic—meaning they are viral, bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections that spread between animals and people.

A familiar example of this is rabies, which can be transmitted between mammals. Other zoonotic diseases that have emerged from various parts of the world include Ebola, HIV, SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), all linked to contact with bushmeat (a term that encompasses meat from a range of wild animals, including chimpanzees hunted in tropical forests), civets and camels respectively. In a smart move, just last week, Malawi banned the sale and consumption of bushmeat.

In 2003, the United States experienced a monkeypox outbreak, caused when Gambian pouched rats imported from Africa transmitted the virus to prairie dogs who in turn transmitted the virus to people who obtained the animals as pets.

And we hear almost every year about E. coli and salmonella infections associated with petting zoos and county and state fairs.

Zoonotic disease risks work both ways. Measles as well as the virus that causes cold sores in people can be deadly to some primate species. And big cats and bears can suffer from canine distemper, which could be transferred from a person with an infected dog at home. 

No matter how you look at it, plucking wild animals from their natural habitats and forcing them into lives of abuse and captivity causes more harm than good, both for animals and for people. The coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call to end all wildlife abuse wherever it exists. To truly prevent another global tragedy from ever recurring, we need our leaders to step up now and resolve to crack down on wildlife trade, transport and consumption with every tool at their disposal. 

Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.