Animal Cruelty Industries Threaten Economy and Public Health

A deconstruction of the false accounting of animal exploitation industries

Some historians have long repeated that the trigger for World War I — which, by the armistice, claimed 40 million military and civilian casualties and substantially reconfigured the world map — was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That single event set off a series of bilateral declarations of war that inevitably produced global conflict, drawing the United States into it three years later in 1917.

There’s something remarkable about the asymmetry of such a small-scale incident of violence leading to a cascade of declarations and acts of aggression that produced suffering the world had never seen.

That bit of history, even with its many revisions that have produced a complex narrative about the war’s origins, came to mind when I thought about the biggest point drop ever in a key U.S. stock index yesterday. In a day, American citizens and corporations saw, at least on paper, trillions of dollars vanish from their holdings and balance sheets. And that was just one day and one measure. Stock indexes throughout the world have been in free fall all week, and with the coronavirus continuing to radiate from its zone of origin, no one knows where or when it will end. Layer on the public health costs – 3,000 dead, tens of thousands infected, and millions quarantined – and it’s clear a global crisis is aswirl. Governments are spending billions to contain the spread of the disease and to treat the infected.

And all of it appears to have started at a single live-animal market in Wuhan China.  One street vendor, with live wild animals among its offerings, may have engaged in an exchange with customers and somehow the coronavirus jumped the species barrier.  A set of seemingly inconsequential transactions involving a few yuan have produced a global catastrophe that has cost the world trillions.

It wasn’t the first time a live-animal market, or a “wet market,” had triggered a potential pandemic. In November 2002, the Guangdong province of China had an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (“SARS”). Over the following several months, 8,096 people in 26 countries contracted the new viral illness, resulting in 774 deaths. Wet markets are thought to have been the incubators of this pandemic, with civet cats and cave-dwelling horseshoe bats the vectors to pass on the deadly SARS virus to humans. 

Wet markets in Asia are hardly the only reservoirs of viruses that threaten humans. HIV is thought to have arisen from the bushmeat trade in Africa, with the butchering of a chimp a few decades ago. The spread of monkeypox traces back to the exotic pet trade; swine flu to long-distance live animal transport; and the Ebola virus, originated in bats and primates, also likely from the bushmeat trade. 

In a world with thousands of species, there are inherent risks of zoonotic diseases spreading to humans. Any prudent public health strategy would seek to reduce risks and to avoid mass loss of life from zoonotic diseases. 

China should have long ago banned live animal markets, especially after its disastrous experience with SARS earlier in the century. And the United States should ban its markets, which persist in the bustling Chinatown neighborhoods in our major cities. A dose of prevention, the adage goes, is worth a pound of cure. A policy forbidding people from collecting or breeding wild animals for human consumption is hardly a major sacrifice. We can get by without eating bats, pangolins, turtles, or civet cats. It’s a smart policy, and a humane one, to prevent the mass loss of life and capital by eliminating identified risks.

This is hardly the only example of asymmetrical risk associated with very limited reward when it comes to animal exploitation practices. Take the crisis in agriculture’s prophylactic overuse of antibiotics. Public health officials know that daily doses of antibiotics given to farm animals on factory farms may produce antibiotic-resistant bacteria and render life-saving antibiotics useless.

We know that cockfighting has the potential to spread the deadly Virulent Newcastle Disease to other birds. Right now, California is two years into a containment effort to stem this form of avian influenza brought to the Golden State by the illegal movement of fighting birds. The federal government has spent $100 million on containment. A sound policy of forbidding people from possessing fight birds, combined with robust enforcement actions, could have prevented this.

Animals have always been at the center of the human story, and they should be for all time. But too large a share of our interactions with animals are not only exploitative and barbaric, but dangerous for us. In a global economy where a zoonotic disease could hop-scotch from continent to continent in a matter of days, our fates have never been bound more tightly.

Any government strategy that depends principally on containment is foolish from an economic or public health standpoint.  The most cost-efficient strategy — and the way to build a humane economy — is to adopt policies that limit the risk of an initial outbreak. When the actions of an obscure wet market affect everyone from Wuhan to Milan to San Francisco, you know that there was a human failure of forecasting and strategic action.

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