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 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 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.

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.

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.

You Decide

  1. Would cats and dogs have better lives if they were not kept as pets?


  1. Paint a picture that includes every animal mentioned in this article.

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 to be eaten, the trade in them is still going on. Only two weeks ago, port officials in Malaysia uncovered an attempt to smuggle six tons of pangolin scales, for which around 15,000 of the animals were 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 will contain loopholes, such as allowing the trade in body parts for use in traditional medicine to continue. We don’t know if Western factory farmers will argue successfully that, since 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.
Here, it means to make something, such as a disagreement or worry that was disappearing, grow stronger.
Health and well-being.
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 for a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.

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