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.
Maybe the world–forced into social-distancing lockdown and economic pain–is finally waking up to the many dangers of zoonotic viruses that can pass back and forth between humans and animals, and how close contact between humans and animals in factory farming, the bushmeat economy, and the wildlife trade and its “wet markets,” sharply elevates the risks.
And we have also seen how zoo animals, like a tiger at the Bronx zoo, can “catch” a virus from a human. Now the Voice Of San Diego notes that Sea World’s Shamu, and two other killer whales, were also likely infected by a flu virus passed from a trainer:
SeaWorld’s founding veterinarian was named Dr. David Kenney, a young man in the 1960s “who took credit for naming Shamu … and then figured out how to fly her to Sea World from Seattle,” according to his 2012 obituary in the Wall Street Journal.
In January 1969, Kenney noticed that Shamu and two other killer whales named Ramu and Kilroy seemed out of sorts. According to The San Diego Union, they had “bad cases of the sniffles, poor appetite, weakness and that all-over aching feeling.” Shamu, the paper reported, had been “moaning all day” and was “lethargic and irritable.”
The killer whales got a lighter schedule (although they apparently didn’t get to sit around and do nothing), and Kenney wondered whether they’d come down with the human flu. “We can’t be certain that they have human influenza,” he told the paper, “but the symptomology correlates, and blood tests indicate their infection is viral in nature.”
That killer whales in captivity can be victim to viruses they likely would not pick up in the wild, has already been established. And now Ingrid Visser and 20 scientists have published a detailed review of novel viruses in captive marine mammals and issued a call for killer whales and other marine mammals to be added to a permanent ban on the import of wildlife into China. They note that dozens of captive orcas have died from respiratory infections over the years, but that we don’t really know the extent of the problem because so many necropsies are kept confidential. It’s an eye-opening review, and you can read it here (and below):
Factory farms and wildlife markets are no doubt the most worrisome vectors for zoonotic viruses. But the fact that captive marine mammals and other zoo animals have also been infected by viruses that likely were passed from humans, and could themselves be the source of viruses that pass to humans, is just one more urgent reminder that humanity needs to dramatically change its relationship with animals–especially the degree to which they are commoditized and industrialized, and brought into the human economy.
…you should definitely listen to Jane Goodall, who argues that if we want to reduce the threat of pandemics we also need to change our relationship with wildlife:
We are now feeling the true cost of wildlife trafficking and the destruction of the natural world that brings us into closer contact with wildlife. My own work has shown me how thousands of great apes are stolen from the wild every year. They are hunted for bush meat and for their body parts, and infants are captured alive to be sold overseas illegally as pets, or for zoos, entertainment, and tourist attractions. This market is distressing for any lover of these wonderful creatures, but it also threatens their very existence. Many other species are in danger too, including elephants, rhinos, the big cats, giraffes, reptiles, and more. Pangolins are the most trafficked animals on Earth. As we mourn the affect this trade has on the individuals that suffer it, we must also see that this global demand and tragedy created the circumstances that have likely resulted in the current pandemic. The risk it poses to humans is certainly another reason to stand up against this behavior.
In the current COVID pandemic there are an increasing number of bans on wildlife trade, and “wet” markets. The real question, though, is whether those bans will remain in place. I hope so, but in the past bans have eventually been lifted. Until the next pandemic.