Looking at China’s Dangerous Animal-Use Practices, While Also Looking at Our Own Reckless Industries in the U.S.

“The Trump administration should consider a travel ban on China until China has verifiably shut down its exotic animal markets, at the very least,” wrote author and pundit Ben Shapiro this week. “The current crisis will cost millions of American jobs, millions more of Americans’ savings and thousands of American lives.”

He’s right. And it’s not as if China hadn’t been warned about the disease threats posed by its wet markets, given that SARS got its global launch in 2002 at one of them.

China says it’s ordered the shuttering of its 20,000 wet markets. Vietnam has done the same. But we don’t have any information yet about the level of enforcement or the permanence of the policies.

In a global economy, the spread of pathogens, intertwined with the trifling exchanges of cash for the lives of animals, can ricochet across the planet in a matter of weeks. A casual transaction in a small, open-air market in Wuhan has affected, to varying degrees, every one of our lives. It’s affected our movements, shopping volume, savings, social interactions, stress levels, and far more. For the unwilling human hosts of the virus, it’s caused emotional distress, physical malaise, and, in some cases, death.

While eliminating wet markets must be a foreign policy priority for the United States — an objective, much to our detriment, that our public officials probably never seriously considered before this public health catastrophe — let’s also be sure also to use this crisis as an opportunity for some national self-reflection. What kinds of animal exploitation policies are we failing to examine that have their own potential for creating mayhem when it comes to our public health and economic well being? 

  • We have our own live animal markets in the United States, cocooned mainly in Chinatown sections of some major American cities. These markets don’t serve up as many species for sale to customers as their analogues in China, but patrons can indeed sample the live, imported wildlife from some Asian nations by the millions. California’s lawmakers have never had the political resolve to stop the sale of imported frogs and turtles destined for these markets, but now is the time for that kind of forward-thinking leadership. Some Chinese-American business leaders have long defended these markets as a cultural prerogative, but we’ve already seen the consequences of submitting to this kind of reflexive thinking. A proper threat assessment has never been more timely.
  • Our nation’s factory farmers are dosing billions of animals with antibiotics even when the animals are not sick.  Many industrial farmers lace water and feed with antibiotics to spur fast growth of the animals and to prevent disease in overcrowded, stressful environments.  The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and others have warned that this practice has already spawned antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including MRSA.  With this practice and others that render antibiotics ineffectual, we are setting ourselves up for a scenario where pathogens that can course through the human population without us having an effective medical response. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in November 2019 that found “drug-resistant infections and deaths are on the rise, sickening more than 2.8 million people, and taking the lives of 35,000, in the United States each year.”
  • We have an exotic animal trade that also threatens to spread zoonotic diseases. Often operating in the shadows, exotic pet dealers, and even pet stores, sell snakes, reptiles, and all manner of creatures to fanciers who fancy the unfamiliar and the novel. Remember, it was a prairie dog sale that spawned the emergence of monkeypox some years ago.  What’s more, sales of exotics amount to an invasive-species problem in the making, degrading and disrupting ecosystems and creating an additional set of threats to us. It was the pet trade that delivered the Burmese python to south Florida, enabling those large constricting snakes to eat up so much of the native wildlife of south Florida.
  •  There are thousands of canned hunting and captive cervid farms in the United States, unnaturally concentrating captive wildlife and posing their own risks to native wildlife and to people.  These facilities are incubators of Chronic Wasting Disease, a brain-wasting disorder that has spread into more than a dozen states and infected free-roaming wild deer and elk populations. It’s thought that hunters who consumer infected parts of the animal may be at risk of contracting Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, which is the human variant of CWD and also Mad Cow Disease.

So, yes, point your finger at China for horrid, inhumane, and extreme practices when it comes to our food markets.  But while we’re doing so, let’s clean up our own act.

This week, a federal judge put the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule on a path to be reinstated before the end of the year. The rule, establishing a binding set of federal humane treatment standards for animals raised under the “organic” label and requiring outdoor access for animals, was proposed by the USDA at the very end of Obama’s second term, but withdrawn by USDA leaders appointed by President Trump. The legally binding standards in the rule would move us toward more extensive agriculture and ameliorate conditions for millions of animals raised under the organic label.  Organic systems are one viable alternative to the conventional intensive systems that threaten public health and animal welfare and pollute the environment and generate extensive greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a small step toward advancing a new model of more humane, sustainable, and sound agriculture.

The bush meat trade, live-animal markets, captive cervid ranches, and factory farms, among other horrors of human design, not only represent a breaking of our age-old bonds of mutualism with animals, but they pose different levels of threat to our health and well-being.  They are manifestations of a misuse of power, treating other life forms as morally perishable and as novelties or portable bags of protein.

A sensible set of government policies would not only rid the world of these practices, but embrace and invest in regenerative agriculture, biodiversity protection, and a plant-based economy for the health of us all.

Wayne Pacelle, author of The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, is president of The Center and founder of Animal Wellness Action.

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