Lab animals like mice, ferrets, and monkeys are being tested on and, in many cases, needlessly killed in research facilities, while other species deemed “invasive” are at risk of injury or death because they occupy the spaces humans claim as their own. Wild animals like tigers and apes are at risk of contracting illnesses caused by humans’ exploitation and consumption of animals, and marine animals like octopuses and fish are being farmed in unnatural, crowded conditions. As we speak, elephants, rhinos, and pangolins are being poached for their tusks, horns, and scales. Why is this happening and what can we do to help?
Wild Animals Impacted by COVID-19
In recent months, we have discovered that big cats are at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Since April, eight big cats at the Bronx Zoo have tested positive for COVID-19. Zoo staff first reported that a four-year-old female Malayan tiger named Nadia had tested positive for COVID-19 and that three other tigers and three African lions were showing similar symptoms but had yet to be tested. After test samples from Nadia were collected, the zoo confirmed that the three tigers and three African lions that were exhibiting coughing symptoms all tested positive for the novel coronavirus. An additional tiger that had not shown any symptoms for COVID-19 also tested positive, bringing the total number of coronavirus-infected cats to eight—five tigers and three lions. Zookeepers around the country have been making extra efforts to not only protect their big cats, but also the great apes in their care, as great apes can easily catch respiratory illnesses from humans.
In late 2016 to early 2017, years before the current coronavirus impacted the world, a lesser-known form of coronavirus—distinct from COVID-19—known as (HCoV) OC43 infected a small community of chimpanzees in Côte d´Ivoire. After confirming that the virus was transmitted to the chimpanzees through close contact with human researchers, conservationists became concerned that future viruses could have much deadlier effects. Just as humans can spread diseases to primates, the opposite is also true. HIV is believed to have migrated from chimps to humans in the 1920s due to contact and consumption of chimpanzees in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The risk of chimpanzees and other primate communities vanishing due to a worldwide pandemic may appear unlikely to most, yet for conservationists, the likelihood of this tragedy has been a concern for quite a while. Humans are not the only species experiencing the ill effects of pandemic outbreaks, and additional protection is needed for at-risk animals like the great apes and other primates.
During quarantine, an array of wildlife have come out of hiding to explore a world they often are shooed away from. Raccoons rummage through a barren Central Park, goats and sheep graze near an airport highway in Istanbul, grey langur monkeys play in the streets of India, and wild boar feed in the neighborhoods of Corsica. As quarantine orders are lifted, wild animals that have settled into cities, parks, and neighborhoods are at risk of being injured or killed once humans occupy these spaces again.
Human activity continues to encroach on biodiverse animal habitats. We are cutting down forests to build infrastructure, grow food for farmed animals, and produce paper and palm oil. Visible deforestation isn’t the only thing forcing animals to relocate. According to Jeff Sebo and Marina Bolotnikova, “Our species is taking over more of the planet, and is also, through human-caused climate change, making more of the planet uninhabitable. It is no coincidence that pigs, camels, geese, and other “invasive” species are desperately searching for food, water, and shelter. While resource scarcity has always been a threat to nonhumans, humans are making these threats worse and creating new ones. We then punish animals for trying to cope with the problems that we create.”
As humans discuss how to cultivate a new and better “normal” after this pandemic, Alyson Fortowsky believes “the needs, rights, and preferences of animals in urban spaces need to be considered as a part of our collective conversation.” Fortowsky suggests accommodating wildlife in urban spaces while still limiting their access to high-traffic areas where they might pose safety risks to themselves and humans. “We can discourage mice, which carry diseases that make humans sick, from living in our homes and restaurants. But humans need not kill or limit the movements of mice living in the walls of abandoned and rarely-used buildings, where they pose little danger. Humans can and should limit birds’ access to airport runways, since fatalities and injuries—to both birds and humans—may result if birds fly into airplane engines. But birds deserve the right to move freely in wooded parks and wildlife corridors (both of which humans can and should create more of). Humans can consider animals’ needs when constructing new infrastructure—Banff National Park’s animal overpasses, which allow wildlife to safely cross the highway, are examples of such consideration.”
As we have gotten closer to “flattening the curve” through quarantine and social distancing measures, efforts are now focused on the development of new treatments and vaccines—which have historically relied heavily on animal research. Animals, ranging from mice to ferrets to non-human primates are being tested on in hopes of answering key questions about the disease and to fast-track potential drugs and vaccines for clinical trials. Though approximately 90 percent of clinical trials fail after success in animal models, animal-tested research is still justified due to the small 10 percent chance of success.
Few countries collect and publish data concerning their use of animals for testing and research, but it is estimated that more than 115 million animals are used and/or killed in laboratory experiments each year around the world. Since the onset of the pandemic, the death toll has gone up dramatically. Due to COVID-19-related closures, labs are being forced to conduct mass-killings of the animals deemed “expendable” by their research facilities. According to Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods at the University of Windsor in Canada, the culling of animals in laboratories isn’t an isolated practice due only to COVID-19. “All undesired rodents are culled throughout the year, as needed,” she says. “For example, when researchers create genetically modified mice or use only one sex for their studies, you cull the ones with the wrong genetic composition; you cull the other sex; you cull those who are too old; you cull the extra to reduce vivarium costs over Christmas holidays.”
Aside from animal testing for vaccine creation, animals are also tested on for cosmetics and personal care products, though it is not required in many parts of the world. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) “does not specifically require the use of animals in testing cosmetics for safety, nor does the Act subject cosmetics to FDA premarket approval. However, the agency has consistently advised cosmetic manufacturers to employ whatever testing is appropriate and effective for substantiating the safety of their products. It remains the responsibility of the manufacturer to substantiate the safety of both ingredients and finished cosmetic products prior to marketing.” Breeding programs exist that are designed specifically to produce animals for testing which range from rats, rabbits, dogs, and monkeys. The United States has dog farms dedicated to breeding dogs purely for experimentation. When working with new chemicals, testing them first before applying them to our skin makes sense, but there are more affordable and more accurate options that do not require animal testing. Labs have found success using human cells in vitro, computer modeling, and even human volunteers.
For years, efforts to cultivate octopuses for food on a large scale have attempted to develop, but have run into technological “bottlenecks” like the inability to properly rear and care for octopuses in captivity. Though evidence of octopuses’ intelligence is widely available, there is still a growing demand for their meat, particularly as a gourmet item in countries such as the U.S., Australia, and China, resulting in overfishing of wild populations. Proponents of industrialized octopus farming argue that rearing these animals in confinement would relieve pressure on wild octopuses. Adversaries of industrialized octopus farming argue that keeping these intelligent beings in unnatural, crowded conditions—similar to those “traditional” farmed animals endure—could pose severe animal welfare risks including interruption of the brooding process.
More common than octopus farming, fish farms pack tanks as full of fish as possible to ensure maximum profit—with little regard to their welfare. Beyond the potential of spreading diseases and parasites in cramped living spaces, the chances of injury increase as well. According to research by Royal Society Open Science, the living conditions on factory fish farms can lead to high levels of stress and depression in the fish. Marco Vindas, the lead author of the study, says, “fish are capable of complex behavior and their brain system has a lot of similarities with that of mammals, including humans.” Fish are excluded from most U.S. animal welfare laws, so they have virtually no protection in regard to their upbringing, transport, or slaughter. According to an investigative report by Compassion in World Farming, it was found that numerous fish “suffer slow, painful deaths by asphyxiation, crushing, or even being gutted alive.”
In some parts of the world, marine animals are still taken from the wild and kept in enclosures for people to view. It took until 2016 for SeaWorld to announce they would stop breeding orcas in captivity and eventually remove the orca shows. Until 2017 for the California location and early 2019 in Florida and Texas, orcas were still being forced to perform multiple shows per day. Wild whales and dolphins can swim up to one hundred miles in one day and dive hundreds of meters with their pods, but in captivity, they are kept in tanks where they can only swim a few strokes before hitting a wall. Most marine mammals spend only 10 to 20 percent of their day near the water’s surface in the wild, but inside marine parks, they are forced to spend most of their day performing in shallow water or above the surface. This causes cataracts and other eye issues in whales and dolphins. Signs of severe psychological distress are often found in captive marine life. They will grind their teeth on the tank walls, show signs of aggression, self-harm, and be driven into psychotic episodes. A former SeaWorld employee stated that orcas are fed a concoction of drugs including antipsychotics and benzodiazepines to reduce aggression and anxiety in their unnatural environments.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is a global business worth between $7 billion and $23 billion annually. Millions of animals are poached around the world each year—killed for food, jewelry, and traditional medicine. Some animals like birds, reptiles, and primates are captured from their native habitats and sold as exotic pets.
Poaching poses a growing threat to elephants, rhinos, monkeys, and even smaller animals like lizards and pangolins—the world’s most trafficked mammal. Elephant tusks are widdled down into trinkets and rhino horns and pangolin scales are ground into powders believed to have healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine. An estimated 2.7 million pangolins are killed by poachers each year. In addition to the “big ticket” animals killed for their body parts or sold as pets, predators like wolves, lions, and coyotes are also killed to prevent the destruction of crops or livestock.
Wildlife conservation is a “luxury” not easily afforded by the poor communities surrounding wildlife reserves, so when farmers and elephants compete for the same land, conflict inevitably arises. Farmers kill elephants who trample their crops, and those who cannot afford to own livestock will kill elephants and other wildlife for bushmeat—for their own consumption or profit. Bushmeat is considered a delicacy in many African and international markets, and for many poachers, bushmeat is the primary motivation, and ivory is simply a profitable byproduct.
Millions of animals around the world are suffering in silence, some on the brink of extinction due to human interaction. Take a stand for the animals that are often overlooked by participating in these actions.
Global Wildlife Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society, and WildAid launched a coalition to implement a joint strategy to end the commercial trade in wild terrestrial animals—especially birds and mammals—for consumption. Sign their #EndTheTrade petition here.
Sign this petition calling on world leaders to support a Global Deal for Nature that protects and restores half of the Earth’s lands and oceans.
The Body Shop and Cruelty Free International are collecting signatures to present to the United Nations asking them to adopt an international convention that will end animal testing for cosmetics products and ingredients around the world.
Rainforest Rescue is calling upon the European Union to ban the import and export of elephant ivory in the EU.
Taylor Meek is the community manager and a contributing author at Sentient Media. She oversees all social media content and strategy and manages the social media team and Social Media Fellowship program.