We are what we eat – and what we mistreat

Hidden danger: Scientists believe wild animals carry 1.6 million undiscovered viruses.

Did our cruel treatment of animals lead to the coronavirus? Experts tell us that the conditions leading to new infectious diseases are the same ones that inflict horrific harms on animals.

The battery hen felt bewildered as she emerged. She had spent her entire life in an enormous shed, surrounded by hundreds of other hens, all kept in cramped cages. Some had gone mad with frustration. But she was one of the lucky ones: too old to be of use to the farmer, she had been handed over to an animal-rescue charity. At last, she could live a natural life.

The coronavirus pandemic – believed to have originated in an animal market in Wuhan, with a pangolin infected by a bat – has reignited the debate about how we treat animals.

Some say that our disregard for their welfare made the present crisis entirely predictable. Indeed, in 2007, researchers in Hong Kong wrote: “The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

Wet markets, like the one in Wuhan, are horribly cruel and unhygienic. All kinds of animals, from dogs to porcupines, are crammed into cages piled on top of each other. Most are destined to be eaten, or chopped up so that their body parts can be used in traditional medicine.

Many are slaughtered on the spot, leaving pools of blood on the ground. These conditions make it easy for diseases to take root, especially zoonotic diseases – ones that jump from animals to humans, and then spread from one person to another.

Scientists estimate that 70% of emerging infectious diseases are of this type. Those that have proved fatal in the past include Sars, Ebola, and HIV.

It is not just in wet markets that animals are kept in bad conditions. Even in countries which would not tolerate such a trade, they often suffer severe stress from being packed together for transport, or reared intensively in “factory” farms.

A further worry is that the antibiotics, which protect us from many diseases, may cease to be effective. This is largely because they are used to make animals grow faster, and stop infections spreading in factory farms. The more they are used, the more that bacteria resistance to them can develop in the animals, and eventually be passed on to us.

Is our cruelty to animals the reason why we are in such a mess now?

Superhighway code

Some say that we have only ourselves to blame for the current crisis. If we had more consideration for animals – or better still, did not eat them – the wet markets, which one expert calls a “superhighway” for spreading disease, would not exist. We would also be less at risk if we showed more respect for wild animals’s habitats: the more we invade them, the more likely we are to encounter new diseases.

Others argue that, awful though wet markets and factory farms are, animals are generally much better treated than they were the past, with laws, inspectors, and charities to protect their welfare. Many would not survive without humans to breed them, feed them, and protect them from predators. With hundreds of thousands of viruses out there that could be transmitted to humans, some are bound to get through, however we behave.

You Decide

  1. Would cats and dogs have better lives if they were not kept as pets?
  2. If you were a government minister drafting a new law about animal welfare, which six things would you prioritise?


  1. Paint a picture that includes every animal mentioned in this article.
  2. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift imagines creatures called Houyhnhnms (highly intelligent horses that are much more civilised than humans). Write a two-page diary entry about being interviewed for your dream job by a Houyhnhnm.

Some People Say...

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Despite the pandemic, and a newly introduced Chinese ban on selling wild animals as food, the trade in them still continues. Only two weeks ago, port officials in Malaysia uncovered an attempt to smuggle six tons of pangolin scales, for which 15,000 of the animals are estimated to have been killed. Wet markets are still operating in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia.
What do we not know?
How much difference the Chinese ban will make: there are worries that the law enshrining it will contain loopholes, such as allowing the trading of body parts for use in traditional medicine to continue. We don’t know whether Western factory farmers will argue successfully that, because their animals live in less shocking conditions, they shouldn’t be seen as part of the same problem.

Word Watch

A city in eastern China, with a population of 11 million.
A small tree-dwelling creature whose meat is considered a delicacy in Asia, and whose scales are used in Chinese medicine.
Set fire to something again; to make something, such as a disagreement or worry that was disappearing, grow stronger.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, another type of coronavirus.
From the Greek zōon (animal) and nosos (disease).
A highly infectious disease causing internal and external bleeding. A vaccine against it has recently been developed.
Human immunodeficiency virus, which leaves sufferers vulnerable to infection and disease. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the name used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.