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Wild animals, pets, and COVID-19

Pandemic began with animal cruelty in wet markets and continued to abuse of pets, says Victoria Shroff

Victoria Shroff

Animals are the voiceless casualties of the COVID-19 crisis. As a result of humans treating animals badly in myriad ways, animals both wild and domestic have become victims of the pandemic.

International trade in wildlife must be completely halted worldwide to prevent future cross-species of pathogens and viral outbreaks such as the novel coronavirus. Scientists believe they have traced the origins of the COVID-19 virus to the cruel and unhygienic live animal “wet markets” of China. (And these are not uniquely an Asian phenomenon; markets hawking live animals with on-the-spot slaughter exist in many countries, from East to West.)

A wet market is an outdoor market where live animals, including wildlife, are sold for human consumption. Live bats, civets, rats, chickens, snakes, cats, dogs and pigs are crammed into filthy, crowded crates or displayed on tables. Not only are wet markets cruel, but animals kept in such conditions are hugely stressed, thereby compromising their immune systems and creating the perfect vortex for interspecies mingling of genetic code, and virus-hopping between animals and humans, according to Kevin Olival, biologist and vice-president of research at EcoHealth Alliance.

I've visited a wet market, and it was a horrific sight-and-smell kaleidoscope I won't forget. Captive animals are occasionally sluiced to give them the appearance of cleanliness, but what then happens is that blood, dirt, excrement, urine and germs travel from animal to animal, causing cross-species pathogenic filth. Humans buy and eat the animals and, rarely, zoonotic illness -- a crossover illness from animals to humans -- occurs.

These wet markets demonstrate how systemic maltreatment of animals by humans for commerce and consumption can rebound on humans in the form of epidemics and pandemics. People who own and sell live animals are mostly operating within the law. It is legal to sell most of the animals that are on offer commercially, though endangered wildlife, such as the pangolin (or scaly anteater)is sold under the table for a premium price, with authorities often turning a blind eye. This may be changing, as in February China instituted a ban on wildlife consumption for food; but the ban exempts wildlife harvested for medicine.

In March, academics, scientists and politicians called for a worldwide protocol under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime to include wildlife trade. Canada’s federal wildlife enforcement directorate mandate is to fight wildlife crime such as smuggling of exotic animals into Canada; but it is perilously understaffed, with few resources for investigation and enforcement. Most jurisdictions lack exotic species legislation, both provincially and municipally, and it is not uncommon for wildlife to be smuggled into Canada. In the 20 years that I've been practising animal law in Vancouver I continue to receive and decline several “exotic pet” inquiries per year from individuals who keep exotic pets and claim to be ‘harassed’ by the government to surrender their animals.

Wildlife protection and management exists within a wider framework of the global climate emergency, as animals intersect with the environment. Canada has a key role to play in stopping the illegal wildlife trade and thereby helping to eliminate the pathogen breeding grounds that could cause future pandemics; yet a global effort is required to make effective changes.

Domestic pets and COVID-19

In addition to wild animals, domestic pets are also negatively affected by COVID-19. In February, an asymptomatic dog living with a coronavirus-infected human in Hong Kong tested weak-positive for the virus. News went viral, and folks dumped, shot, and dropped animals from towering high-rises to their deaths, all because of the fear that companion animals could pass the virus to people.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has stated, "If you are not ill with COVID-19, you can interact with your pet as you normally would... Out of an abundance of caution, it is recommended that those ill with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known ...” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and animal experts alike assured the pubic that cats and dogs were highly unlikely to spread the disease. And the World Organisation for Animal Health has asserted that "The current spread of COVID-19 is a result of human-to-human transmission. To date, there is no evidence that companion animals spread the disease. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare."

Nevertheless, panic spread as stories circulated of animals being carriers of COVID-19 and people confused information on wildlife in markets with domestic pets. At the time of writing, some shelters have animals who have been abandoned due to COVID-19 fears, while others have experienced a record number of animals adopted out or fostered during the crisis. (In the latter cases, I am concerned about animals being used as comfort buddies in the wake of the pandemic, and that once people return to work post-COVID-19 their furry companions may be dumped or returned to the shelter.)

When states of emergency in Canada were declared due to COVID-19, I wanted to do my part to ensure that veterinarians, pet stores and animal welfare agencies would be declared "essential services,” and so I wrote to British Columbia’s solicitor general asking him to consider animal welfare in making his decisions. Fortunately, many provinces -- including B.C. -- have declared vet clinics, shelters and pet stores as essential. It is imperative that animals should have continuous access to health care, medication and food, and I believe that every person who has a pet should have an emergency plan in place for food, shelter, health care and welfare for their domestic companion.

COVID-19 has underlined the fact that wild and domestic animal and human health are inextricably intertwined. Aside from the incalculable human fallout, we must remedy maltreatment of animals by human hands to avoid needless animal deaths and to help avoid future pandemics.

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