In a bustling meat market on a tourist island in Indonesia on 7 April, a pile of dead bats is laid out for sale on a table next to cuts of fresh pork while a butcher angrily shoos away a customer trying to take pictures of the scene on his iPhone.
Two thousand miles north and two days earlier, cats are crammed into filthy cages in a market in Guangxi province in southwest China where different species are piled haphazardly on top of each other and slaughtered side by side on a concrete floor splattered with dirt, blood and animal parts.
On 26 March, in the southern province of Guangdong neighbouring Hong Kong, a traditional medicine seller offers remedies made with bats and scorpions to treat ailments ranging from shoulder pain and rheumatism to mosquito bites.
This expanding industrial footprint has accelerated the flow of pathogens into new territories around the world. In Central Africa, the growth of bushmeat hunting—linked to a dearth of local fish due to Chinese and EU overfishing—has spread monkeypox, a smallpox-like virus, from rodents to humans. In China, the growing prosperity of the middle class has led to an increased demand for the luxury “yewei” cuisine, which revolves around the consumption of rare, exotic wild animals; live animal (or “wet”) markets, where such wild animals are sold, have grown accordingly. These wet markets facilitated the emergence of SARS-CoV-1 in bats, civet cats, and humans in 2002 and, some speculate, the novel coronavirus in 2019. And in southeast Asia, rising incomes have led to the increased consumption of pork and the growth of pig farms. The expansion of swine farming in Malaysia precipitated the transmission of Nipah virus from bats to pigs and then humans in 1998; similarly, in China, the expansion of swine farming has led to the frequent emergence of highly virulent forms of avian influenza viruses and antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Among today’s wet markets, you’ll find some that sell no live animals whatsoever, just slaughtered animals and produce; some that carry common live animals like chickens or fish; and some that sell wildlifelike bats and snakes.
While US lawmakers and other public figures talk about wanting to ban wet markets writ large, what they seem to really want to ban is the sale of wild animals — or perhaps any live animals— that sometimes occurs there. (Presumably they would have no problem with the wet markets that carry only slaughtered meat and produce; after all, the US is full of such markets.)
Which is why (can’t refrain), the most comprehensive solution would be evolution toward plant-based diets. Just saying.
Imagine a world where facts changed minds. The United Nations, governments and everyone with influence would now be saying we should abandon meat or at a minimum cut down on consumption. Perhaps my reading is not as wide as it should be, but I have heard nothing of the sort argued. Making the case would be child’s play and would not be confined to emphasising that Covid-19 probably jumped species in Wuhan’s grotesque wet markets. The Sars epidemic of 2002-04 began in Guangdong, probably in bats, and then spread to civet cats, sold in markets and eaten in restaurants. The H7N9 strain of bird flu began in China, once again, and moved to humans from diseased poultry.
The question is: can we somehow transcend the powerfully ingrained meat culture and re-invent our relationship with animals.
The Chinese government has signalled an end to the human consumption of dogs, with the agriculture ministry today releasing a draft policy that would forbid canine meat.
Citing the “progress of human civilisation” as well as growing public concern over animal welfare and prevention of disease transmission from animals to humans, China’s Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs singled out canines as forbidden in a draft “white list” of animals allowed to be raised for meat.
The ministry called dogs a “special companion animal” and one not internationally recognised as livestock.
Of course, if eating dogs is uncivilized, then eating cows, pigs, sheep, and all other sentient farmed animals is equally uncivilized. What the progress (and protection) of civilization truly requires is a massive and rapid shift to plant-based diets. But that is for another day…
And it ain’t pretty. We Animals documents Asian wet markets in photos, and if the sight of lots of butchered animals doesn’t tweak your conscience, then at least consider that you are looking at exactly the sort of close human-animal interaction that will likely give us our next pandemic if wet markets aren’t closed permanently.