Time to Act Now – Why Compassion Counts

As the number of people tragically succumbing to Covid-19 grows across the world, we are left reeling with the terrible consequences of our actions; our crime of animal cruelty and consistent disregard.

Joining a chorus of names and references, US National Health Advisor, Dr Anthony Fauci, has pointed the finger at live wild animal markets as the source of diseases such as Covid-19, the pandemic that has both crippled and paralysed the world. With statistics showing that approximately 75% of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are zoonotic (animal based), accounting for billions of cases of illness and millions of deaths each year, our treatment of animals must now surely be under the spotlight and held to full and final account.

From SARS to Covid-19, from Ebola to MERS, to HIV – the global wildlife trade has its roots in every one of these infections and the whole world must take responsibility for the tragic consequences we are seeing today.

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Live animal market

For over 34 years Animals Asia team members and I have visited and documented the live animal markets of Asia. Breathing in the dust baked bacteria emerging from every cage stacked high of miserable species within. This melting pot of disease sees the worst abuse of wild, domestic and endangered species – from farming, husbandry, transport, sanitation and welfare – as row upon row of sick and dying animals stare miserably out from chicken wire and bars, shedding the consequential diseases of their stress and cruel treatment.

Fetuses that are aborted by stressed mothers are tossed to starving animals in the next cage. Dogs lying prone with parvo-virus; blood drenched slime running from their back ends, or noses running green with the mucus of distemper, side by side next to sneezing ferret badgers, shivering masked palm civets, flu stricken cats, flea ridden bamboo rats, snakes, turtles, donkeys, and bloodied three legged victims of illegal trapping in the wild who hobble painfully away from humans brandishing wooden clubs and knives.

The disbelief and frustration reading today of armchair experts abroad who now attempt to justify the wildlife trade. The greatest injustice to both humans and animals are those who argue against the closure of these foul and unhygienic markets, undermining the efforts of those who have been calling a halt on them all. The arguments maintain that, if closed, there would be an increased risk of trade being controlled by organised crime.The trade is already controlled by organised crime. Far better to spend millions or even billions on defeating and ending this crime and ending the trade now, rather than spending the trillions in the next pandemic caused by the very same dysfunctional and largely corrupt components of the wildlife trade.

dogs in cages - market 3 Cage after cage, packed with dogs trucked to market

An even more astonishing call highlights improving regulation of wildlife markets to consider animal welfare concerns. One only has to see undercover video of legal animal slaughterhouses worldwide to understand that even regulated practices surrounding live animals are woefully under-policed. Why do videos need to be undercover, and why do these places criminalise the taking of pictures if they don't have anything to hide? To now believe that those who supply and run the wildlife markets will conform to "improved regulations" when it is clear that all attempts have failed immediately following SARS until now, is deeply naive and concerning, and fails to recognise that animal welfare and mitigating the risk of disease will always fall substantially short of economic gain.

Yes, there are people who will be horribly affected with the outcome of closing these terrible places down but, already, responsible governments are providing compensation and encouraging the growth of alternative livelihoods, acknowledging that viruses never distinguish between legal and illegal trade.

Our bear rescue centres and staff running them in China and Vietnam have thankfully remained safe during this virus simply because of the good management and strict biosecurity protocols that have always been in place. The millions we struggle to raise every year to ensure that rescued bile farm bears are now healthy and happy (both pre-requisites in fighting disease) are nothing less than insurance for the animals and staff in our care.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand that such millions are not going to be spent in ensuring proper sanitation and welfare raising wild animals for slaughter, in countries where animal welfare legislation is either lacking or non-existent. It's time to give these animals the benefit of the doubt – not put the onus, once again, on people who cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Regulations mean nothing to the millions of stressed and compromised animals caged in rank, disgusting conditions, as they continue shedding disease.

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Masked palm civet caged in a live animal market

Today, according to the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the China wildlife trade is valued at US$74 billion (including the fur industry that accounts for 74%). These wild animal markets must close, for good, acknowledging the truly dreadful social and financial repercussions, far surpassing that figure, should another pandemic emerge. We can no longer live in fear of being bullied by economic gain – a lust for the dollar that has for too long hijacked our health, and our respect and compassion for life, seeing an increasingly suffocating environment whose lungs are blackened by the pollution of our own making.

To sneer too at NGO's for using both words and practices surrounding "compassion" is both alarming and dangerous in this current climate of surely now recognising that welfare matters, and that our duty of care to our children and generations ahead is to live harmoniously, responsibly, healthily and kindly with the creatures who share our earth.

As we heed the stark warning of Covid-19 we must consider our own lifestyle once and for all. No continent, no country, no city is immune or without blame as we reflect on the changes we know have to be made, or risk the next punishment for our behaviour that is already waiting in the wings.

Change is possible if we look at our habits, the lives that we live, and start the ripple of that change in our own back yard.

A signal for hope is the news that China is closing down these wild animal markets, and announcing a ban in the consumption of all wildlife. However, as a drug called Tanreqing, containing bear bile, is being used to treat seriously ill coronavirus patients, jaws are dropping in China and across the world with this use of a wildlife product as the solution to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated from wildlife itself.

As a direct result of this news from a conservation level, considering that farmed bears are CITES Appendix 1, the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) in Malaysia has now stated "the threat of illegal hunting towards sun bears is facing a drastic increase".

Traditional Chinese Medicine has thousands of years of rich history and knowledge to draw upon, together with a philosophy of being at peace with the environment – a philosophy that now comes directly from the President himself, advocating "humans must live in harmony with nature and pollution must be fought." President Xi also spoke prophetically two years ago in May 2018, paraphrasing Marx and fellow Marxist, Friedrich Engels: "If mankind conquers nature with science and creativity, nature will take revenge on mankind".

Medicines should heal without harm. As the "mirror image", synthetic bile product is currently being researched in Shanghai by the same company producing Tanreqing, we ask for the urgent escalation of responsibly and ethically sourced alternatives that will take the place of bear bile, to release captive bears from their suffering and protect all species of bears in the wild.

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Moon bears Ricky and Joey - rescued from a bile farm, now safe at Animals Asia's Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre

The Chinese authorities are now also inviting public comment to end the trade of dogs as meat too. Our Cat and Dog Welfare team and I have also spent decades working with and encouraging the authorities to come down hard on the "black industry" of dog thefts for the table, knowing that the majority of such meat eaten comes from the terrible sources of family companions or strays in the street. Today, surveys show that a large percentage of the population in China is celebrating and supporting this news and reflects the Shenzhen government action in swiftly banning the consumption of dogs and cats, in the belief that this decision underlines the "universal civilisation requirement for a modern society".

This modern society has made nature our enemy and yet tragically we are blaming the animals, when we should be blaming ourselves. We need to do things differently now.

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