As I write, the Covid-19 pandemic is still ravaging the world. Doctors, nurses and other care givers on the front lines are at risk every day – and too often they are losing their lives as countries struggle to provide sufficient protective gear to keep them safe. And patients are dying for lack of sufficient ventilators. The pandemic is not only causing terrible suffering for the victims and their families, it is also wreaking havoc on world economies and has led to the loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of future stability and loss of hope for millions.
The tragedy is that we have brought this pandemic on ourselves – a nightmare of this sort has long been predicted by those studying zoonotic diseases, those that, like Covid-19, spill over from animals into humans. (And some 80 per cent of all new human diseases originate in this way). It is almost certain that Covid-19 spilled over from a wild animal in China’s Wuhan Seafood market, which sold terrestrial wildlife for meat along with chickens and fish. When wild animals are sold in such markets, often illegally, they are typically kept in small cages, crowded together, and are frequently slaughtered on the spot. Humans, both vendors and customers, may thus be contaminated with the faecal material, urine, blood and other bodily fluids of a large variety of species – such as bats, civets, pangolins, racoon dogs, rats and snakes. This provides a perfect environment for viruses to spill over from their animal hosts into humans. SARS originated in another wildlife market in Guangdong – it probably spilled over from a civet which had likely been infected by a bat. There are wildlife meat markets of this sort in many Asian countries, and then there are the bushmeat markets of Africa where live and dead animals are sold for food.
But it’s not just in markets that zoonotic diseases can spread. As we destroy more and more of the natural world, many animals are forced into ever closer contact with each other and with humans. This gives viruses and bacteria the opportunity of crossing species barriers, spilling over from ‘reservoir species’ (with which they have lived harmoniously for hundreds of years) into other species and creating new diseases – both in animals and humans. The HIV-AIDS pandemic originated in two parts of central Africa when humans slaughtered chimpanzees, infected with SIV, for food. The deadly Ebola is a zoonotic bacterial disease which crosses from animal reservoirs into apes and humans in different parts of Africa.
Another major concern is the trafficking of wild animals and their body parts around the world, which has become a multi-billion-dollar business often run by criminal cartels. Not only is this very cruel, and definitely contributing to the terrifying extinction of species, but it may also lead to conditions suitable for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. Wild animals exported, often illegally, from one country to another take their viruses and bacteria with them. The shocking pet trade in young wild monkeys and apes, birds, reptiles and other wild animals is another area of concern. Take Parrot Fever – or Psittacosis – which was first identified in Paris in 1892. The bacteria responsible arrived with a shipment of 500 wild parrots from South America, destined for the pet trade. The disease then spread to other European countries, and also to New York and a few American cities. Its next appearance on the global stage was in 1929, when a woman was given a parrot from a shipment of wild parrots again from South America. The parrot died, and a few days later the woman got sick. She eventually recovered, but many other people were infected, and the disease spread to different parts of America and eventually to Europe. A bite or scratch from a wild animal taken into the home can lead to something much more serious than a mild infection.
Historically, one of the most impactful zoonotic diseases is the Bubonic Plague, which is delivered to humans through bites from the fleas carried by rats. And it is because our cities with their sewers and food waste provide ideal conditions for rats to multiply mightily that humans have been forced into close relations with them. It seems probable that the bacteria that causes Bubonic Plague was responsible for the Black Death that swept across medieval Europe, causing widespread terror and killing about a third of Europe’s population.
There are also many cases of zoonotic diseases that have crossed over to us from domestic animals. MERS leapt the species barrier from domestic dromedary camels in the Middle East, perhaps from people eating undercooked camel meat or drinking their milk. And an early disastrous outbreak of a bacterial disease labelled Q-fever first appeared in men working in a cattle and sheep abattoir in Brisbane, Australia. In fact, the inhumane and crowded conditions of the great factory farms that have sprung up around the world have provided ideal conditions for pathogens to jump into the human population. The terrifying Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–1919 spilled over from wild birds into a commercial duck farm in China and into an industrial pig farm in Iowa, USA. Globally, the pandemic killed some thirty-million people. Another coronavirus that is thought to have a reservoir in bats spilled over into a pig farm in Malaysia, and spread rapidly from pig to pig before spilling over into humans and leading to the disease known as the Nipah virus.
The inhumane crowded and stressful conditions of modern intensive animal farming provide ideal opportunities for pathogens to spill over into humans. Fortunately for us, only a few have lead to major epidemics, and even fewer to pandemics such as the one we are going through today. I do not intend to write about all the zoonotic diseases with which we have been inflicted over the years – anyone interested should read Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen.
It is our disrespect for the natural world and the other animals with whom we share the planet that have led to many of these diseases. We have destroyed so much of nature, and this is particularly disastrous when considering tropical forests, because they support such rich biodiversity. And not only of plants, trees and wildlife, but also bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. People move into animal habitats to expand their villages, grow crops and graze their livestock. Forests are clear-cut, often by foreign corporations. Roads are constructed allowing hunters to move ever deeper into the forests. Dams are built, mining and logging camps spring up, and as animal habitats shrink they lose more and more of their traditional forest foods, and some are forced to raid crops.
And so it goes on, only getting worse. We kill, traffic, sell and breed wild and domestic animals for food, fur and medicine. We exploit them in circuses and for entertainment. Just for a moment pause to reflect that each of these animals is not just one of a species, a statistic in a research paper or the annual report of the meat industry: no – he or she is an individual. When I went to Cambridge university in 1961 to work for a PhD in ethology, the discussion of individuality in animals was an almost taboo subject. I was told I should not talk about animals having personalities, minds or emotions as those were unique to humans. And that there was a difference of kind between us and the rest of the animal kingdom. I had learned the absurdity of this as a child, from my dog. And it was so obvious in the chimpanzees I had been studying. And so, though I was somewhat scared of the professors (I had not been to college for an undergraduate degree), I refused to bow down to the reductionist, arrogant assumption of human superiority. I had a good role model in Darwin, and luckily I had a wonderful supervisor in Professor Robert Hinde, one of the most eminent ethologists. He was originally my sternest critic – but a visit to Gombe helped to open his mind to the truth of what my dog and the chimpanzees of Gombe had already taught me!
Gradually, science came to admit that we are part of, and not separated from, the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet many people, even today, believe – or want to believe – that animals were put into this world for us to use, and that to attribute to them human-like feelings is anthropomorphic sentimentality. But while it may be convenient for those working in research laboratories and stockyards to feel that way, it is increasingly clear that animals – including octopuses and fish – have personalities and emotion such as fear, distress and despair, similar to our own. Many are highly intelligent. And they all feel pain.
This Covid-19 pandemic has led to so much human suffering and fear. But pause to think of the almost unimaginable suffering endured by the billions of sentient, sapient animals – including rodents, guinea pigs, dogs, cats, monkeys and chimpanzees – that have been sacrificed by scientists searching for cures and vaccines for our diseases.
The most frequently used animals in medical research are rats and mice. There is research showing that rats have empathy, and will go without food to allow a starving rat in a neighbouring cage to eat. And research showing how mice can understand when a companion mouse is in pain by his or her facial expressions. And a great deal of research demonstrates the almost uncanny intelligence of rats. Those of us who know dogs understand the extent to which they are capable of suffering, yet they too may be most cruelly treated in medical research. The sooner we use our amazing intellects to find ways of research into our human diseases without what amounts to the torture of innocent animal victims, each one an individual, the better human beings we shall become. For it is only when head and heart work in harmony that we can attain our true human potential.
All around the world, as governments and scientists try to control the spread of Covid-19, millions of people are being forced to stay at home. And all around the world this is so often bringing out the best in human nature. Communities are coming together to help. Close to my home in Bournemouth, in the UK, one business is making hundreds of extra pizzas daily to provide fresh food to health workers. This is possible because of the many people who have donated money and who offer to deliver. Once a week people call out their thanks to those battling on the front line. In China, during the lockdown, many volunteers were caring for the pets that had been left behind as citizen were ordered to leave for testing, and sometimes kept for days in isolation. In Italy, people went out onto their balconies and sang opera together. A man gave free yoga lessons in an empty square to those watching from their windows. People were putting their phone numbers out on social media in case lonely and frightened people needed someone to talk to. Other were delivering food to those who could not get out, or walking their dogs. Celebrities are reading books for children on social media, to entertain those not allowed to go to school. So many examples of community solidarity and acts of kindness.
And hundreds of people who live in big cities around the world have breathed clean air and seen the stars in a clear night sky, and heard the singing of birds loud and clear, no longer drowned by the roar of passing traffic. Marine life is experiencing the joy of a world no longer contaminated by the constant noise of shipping and man-made sonar technology.
There are political and business leaders around the world who only want to get back to business as usual, and the pollution and destruction and cruelty will probably continue. But I truly believe that thousands and thousands of people have been given the time to think about our place in the natural world, re-evaluate our relationship with each other, the natural world and other animals. They will not want to go back to a life of polluted air and water and noise. We can only hope that eventually there will be so many of us clamouring for change that governments and corporations will have to rethink the way they do business. And that this will happen before it is too late.
Image © The Jane Goodall Institute / Shawn Sweeney