Nature — by that, I mean the Earth’s crust and atmosphere, its five kingdoms of living organisms, water and fire and rock, the effects of the sun and moon, and all other interrelated parts and processes — is more than a mere backdrop for the human experience. It is, and has always been, central to life and our communities, whether nomadic pastoralists or techno-industrialists.
Ecosystem services, if we could convert its deliverables into dollars, would have a value greater than the GDP of all nations combined. All we do depends on clean water and air, photosynthesis, and abundant plant and animal life, much as a driver needs tires and a steering wheel or a home office worker needs a keyboard and Zoom account.
Nature may not have agency, but it does not absorb our pillaging and disruption without complaint. A few short months ago in Australia, fires razed forests, grasslands, and human settlements with a fury fed by our release of countless tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Plenty of economic activity went up in smoke as the conflagration scattered people and shuttered industries. The country’s massive coal industry is increasingly being viewed more as a liability than an asset.
While the smoke choked the lungs of Australia’s citizens, it was the coronavirus just a short time later that left people across the planet gasping for air and hospital administrators grasping for ventilators.
The virus jumped the species barrier, as we now know so well, at one of Wuhan’s live-animal markets. These are open-air sellers of frightened and freshly killed wildlife, where the breath and bowels and blood of many species of animals are exchanged before their droplets touch the lungs of men and women. The sales they generate are a miniscule portion of GDP for any nation, but these animal bazaars have left unimaginable wreckage, with hundreds of thousands dead, millions infected, tens of millions unemployed, and billions sheltering from the viral storm.
The dizzying effects on wildlife, wet markets, and farm animals
We have a sharper picture of the global human toll, but what of the animals? While the disease started in animals and infected people, it does not appear that the disease readily moves back into the animal community, with just a few individuals having mild symptoms and the rest spared entirely.
In terms of the collateral effects on animals, it’s been a boon for some. China has cracked down on the sale of wildlife at wet markets, but the durability of that reform is in question.
With stay-at-home orders putting limits on human transit, wild animals are relaxing and showing more of themselves in our communities. Less traffic means fewer automobile strikes — one of the most underestimated sources of death for wildlife. Ornithologists and casual nature watchers report birds singing in larger numbers throughout the world, able now to be heard by their kin over the din of automotive engines and other human machines.
But what of the animals caught up in agriculture, sport and entertainment, drug development and fashion? Has the awareness about live-animal markets had a moral spill-over effect and prompted any self-examination about the hell we put them through?
You might think that the shutdown of dozens of the nation’s biggest pig and poultry slaughter plants in the Midwest, as a response to COVID-19 outbreaks among their employees, might amount to a reprieve for millions of pigs and chickens.
Not so much. The industry was gassing them at their production facilities because they were even more overcrowded at the farms. And now President Trump has ordered workers back to the slaughter lines as an “essential business,” even though they’ve proved to be hot boxes for the contagion.
The animals will again be prodded from the off-loading areas, into the chutes, and onto the kill floors in their normal and horrifying volume. The Presidential directive is one case of government rushing in to fasten more support straps to the big safety net that already aids Big Ag. There will be cash pay-outs to farmers and ranchers. There will be insurance and disaster payments. The government will buy up surplus product, swelling the size of the “national pork reserve.”
Of all things “essential,” it is not the industrial meat and milk industries.
Factory-farmed meat and milk are an indulgence. In many respects, they’re also a menace, with the massive waste loads from 9 billion creatures polluting air and water; wasteful and inefficient use of plant crops fed to animals; pathogens stirring in factories with overcrowded, stressed animals; and the greenhouse gases emitted in atmosphere-altering volumes. This is to say nothing of the unending privation and suffering of the animals immobilized in cages and crates.
Alternatives abound in the new humane economy, from the old staples of rice, beans, and legumes to today’s staples of nut milks and meat facsimiles.
Beyond Meat and other plant-based food purveyors get crumbs from the government, and even harassment in the form of state and federal bills seeking to stop them from calling their products “meat” or “milk.” Despite the differential treatment, Beyond Meat’s stock price has surged in recent weeks. Some Americans are perhaps sampling an alternative protein source that, if more widely adopted, would have salutary effects for animals, the environment, and our health.
Companies providing animals as entertainment may not be as coddled by government as Big Ag. After Ringling Bros. left the tent in 2015, the animal-based circus industry has been reduced to a much smaller universe of misfits and contractor operations. Their prospects are dim, plague or no plague.
Greyhound racing is also in the final stretch. The greyhound track in Birmingham, Ala. announced it is closing, leaving just four dog tracks in operation throughout the nation.
Horse racing is a far more durable enterprise, with trainers and owners, farriers and blacksmiths, hay sellers and stable operators and others in the equine ecosystem expected to weather the crisis given the sport’s appeal to its hobbyists. Many tracks now feature casino-style gambling, providing an infusion of cash that allows them to keep the horse racing going even when the fans don’t show.
Spain’s bullfights are shuttered, but they have been busy during the crisis pleading for a financial bail-out. The industry is seeking $700 million to allow the picadors and matadors to wait out the pandemic, ready to resume the wounding of animals as an entertainment spectacle. The Running of the Bulls, directly tied to bullfighting, has been cancelled this year, and we’ll miss natural selection at work with the trampling of the men with the cute red sashes.
The Calgary Stampede, one of North America’s biggest rodeos and featuring a range of animal abuses (like calf roping and steer tailing), also won’t get out of the chute this year. Other rodeos are likely to suffer during this season, but they’ll probably spring back up like a tough cowboy thrown off a horse made to buck thanks to his testicles in a cinch.
The Tennessee Walking horse industry, with its trainers injuring the feet of horses to induce a “Big Lick” high-stepping gait, will see a few of its spring shows cancelled. But the heart of the season is late summer, giving them an opportunity to participate in their sport. But with a shrinking fan base, turning away because of documented abuses of the animals, this industry’s demise is all but certain if it does not radically mends its way.
Chicago is ending its carriage-horse industry, while New York’s is just stalled during the crisis. There are still some New Yorkers, apparently, with a nostalgic interest in downed horses in a heap on an asphalt street and city strolls that require tiptoeing between piles of dung and puddles of urine.
The Coronavirus crisis hit at an opportune time for trophy hunters fancying North American game. They do their stalking in autumn, but for the few who take advantage of spring bear hunting seasons in a half dozen states, where mother bears with their dependent young may come in the sights. But the game farm industry, with thousands of operations catering to the hunter who rather enjoys shooting an animal in a pen, remain open for business year-round. They’re likely to see just a brief downtick in their total annual slayings.
Though it’s autumn in the southern hemisphere, travel restrictions here and abroad are generally keeping American trophy hunters out of the African bush during the high season, giving elephants, lions, leopards, baboons, eland, and all manner of creatures at least a short stay of execution. Canned lion hunting facilities in South Africa continue to reel from a 2016 U.S. ban on importing their lion trophies. Before that restriction, Americans annually shot some 600 lions in pens.
Textiles and footwear
With so much of global retail shut down, sellers of coats, shoes, and other products with animals face a steep climb out of the crisis as well as an acceleration of their on-line businesses. Nike and Adidas offer mostly vegan shoes in their lines, but they still source kangaroo skins for many soccer cleats, driving the killing of two million kangaroos in their native habitats.
As the companies emerge from the crisis, they’ll face a fierce campaign from Animal Wellness and the Center for a Humane Economy to halt their role in the world’s largest commercial slaughter of terrestrial animals.
The outerwear company Canada Goose, offering coats lined with fur and long a target of animal advocates, says it will stop using “virgin” coyote fur in the production of its garments by 2022 and will move away from supporting coyote trapping.
There has been a collapse of sales at the Saga (world’s largest fur marketer) spring pelt auction in Finland. Canada’s seal hunt continues but is on life support with little foreign interest in seal pelts. This fall will mark one year since the 2019 ban on fur trapping for recreation or commerce in California went into effect. This is particularly significant since California has long been considered the western flank of the fur trade in North America.
Animals in laboratories and the big picture
COVID-19 is directly causing a surge in the use of animals in laboratories, with a feverish, multinational race for a vaccine. That race is framed by regulatory requirements imposed by U.S. and European government agencies with outdated “check-the-box” policies for testing the safety and efficacy of new drugs on animals. That process is too slow, overly regimented, and predictably imprecise, requiring rodents and a non-rodent species to be used in multiple generations even as the subjects fail to experience the onset of the disease or show symptoms. Vaccine developers struggle to find a suitable non-rodent animal “model,” while thousands of non-human primates are being infected with COVID-19 in experimental vaccine trials. One only has to look at the search for an AIDS vaccine a generation ago using chimpanzees as a model to understand the futility. Data shows that out of 85 potential AIDS vaccines that were tested in 197 human trials, none were successful after showing safety and efficacy in chimpanzees.
Born of our disregard for the laws of nature, COVID-19 may foster some lasting awareness about the ugliest of our dealings with animals. The crisis may scramble the fortunes of animal-use businesses already in decline. But multi-billion-dollar industries such as animal agriculture and pharma still have big bases of consumers, even if those customers recoil from hearing the details of factory farming or animal testing. These companies, led by the hand of government, will almost certainly navigate the crisis, even as they absorb their share of nicks and cuts to their brands.
No pandemic, with its scattershot effects, is going to cause a permanent realignment in our treatment of animals and nature. That must be left to the animal protection movement. By applying constant pressure through lobbying, investigations, education, and hellraising, the animal protection movement can reshape the ways of industries that have built animal exploitation into their business models. The formation of the humane economy will come when there is a robust and creative display of human agency and innovation, showing a new and better way ahead when it comes to business, lifestyle, and the satisfying of human necessities.
Wayne Pacelle is author of The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.