Zoe Weil is a blogger for Psychology Today, and we share her blog posts here.
Let the pandemic be our wake-up call: if ever there was a time to transform our relationship with animals, it’s now. While the origin of COVID-19 remains uncertain, one of the likely theories is that it originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Wet markets are places where live animals—both wild and domesticated—are sold, and they have been known to transmit several diseases from wildlife to humans, including SARS. There is also terrible cruelty associated with them.
Wet markets aren’t the only places where zoonotic diseases—those that jump from nonhuman animals to humans—originate. The H5N1 bird flu originated in farmed birds. The H1N1 swine flu originated in farmed pigs. Salmonella, campylobacter, and other infectious diseases are so common in farmed animals that a recent study indicated that more than 17 percent of chickens were infected with campylobacter and a similar percentage with salmonella. In 2014, Consumer Reports found nearly all of 300 samples they studied were contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria
These and other food-borne illnesses may not cause the number of deaths as COVID-19 or influenza, but they sicken nearly 50 million people in the U.S. annually; put approximately 125,000 of them in the hospital; and kill more than 3,000. To combat bacterial infections in farmed animals, antibiotics are routinely added to feed, which is thought to be one of the primary causes of antibiotic resistance in humans, a terrifying trend.
While our relationships with dogs and cats may be, on the whole, loving and compassionate, and our relationships with songbirds and raptors full of awe and admiration, our relationships with many other animals are sick, literally and figuratively. Not only do we sicken ourselves through these relationships, we often brutalize animals as well, especially the ones we choose to eat.
It is the norm to cram farmed animals together so tightly that they cannot spread a wing, take a step, or breathe air untainted by ammonia fumes from their own built-up excrement. It is the norm to violate their basic needs and instincts—for example, by removing calves from their dairy cow mothers within 24 hours, and caging sows so that they are so immobilized while they are nursing their piglets they can’t even turn around. It is the norm to mutilate farmed animals by cutting off the tails of pigs and the sensitive beaks of birds, and by branding and dehorning cows, all without painkillers or anesthesia. These cruel, unsanitary systems have been linked to countless disease outbreaks.
Experimenting On and Hunting Animals
As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has “officially” killed nearly 3.5 million people. (The World Health Organization estimates that the real number is between 6-8 million.) Thanks to vaccine development, we can hope for an end to the terrible death toll. But nonhuman animals have paid a price for this scientific success: we developed the vaccines by experimenting on monkeys and rodents, who suffer and die in labs by the millions.
So when I found out that my home state of Maine—a state in which more than 50 percent of residents are fully vaccinated—wanted to incentivize the rest of our citizens to get their COVID vaccines by offering free hunting or fishing licenses as a prize for getting vaccinated, I found my head spinning.
First, we cause myriad health problems through the mistreatment of animals we want to eat. Then we find ways to save ourselves from these self-induced problems through our mistreatment of other animals whom we confine and experiment on in labs. And then we convince people who are reluctant to be vaccinated to get their inoculations by giving them free licenses to kill wild animals.
To be clear, I’m grateful to all those people involved in producing, disseminating, and administering the COVID-19 vaccines, and I wrote about this here. But the bigger truth is that we could be preventing many zoonotic diseases; the deaths of millions of people and the suffering of their families; the collapse of economies; and the cruelty perpetrated on billions of animals. And we certainly don’t have to promote the killing of wild animals so that people will do the right thing and get vaccinated.
Becoming Solutionaries and Repairing our Relationship with Animals
It’s time to stop this cycle of violence and suffering and learn to think and act like solutionaries . Solutionaries identify the root and systemic causes of problems; devise solutions that have the fewest unintended negative consequences; and strive to do the most good and least harm to everyone: all people, other species, and the ecosystems that sustain life.
Solutionaries are working to change our food systems so that they are sustainable, healthy, and humane. They have been creating plant-based and cultivated meat, milk, cheese, fish, and eggs, which are becoming more and more popular because they taste similar to their animal-based counterparts while being better for our health, better for the Earth, and better for animals.
Each of us can embrace these solutionary foods and in so doing:
- reduce our exposure to antibiotic and drug residues
- improve our health
- lower the incidence of pandemics, food-borne diseases, and the need for medicines and vaccines currently reliant on animal experiments that have yet to be replaced with humane non-animal alternatives
- make our relationships with animals respectful and compassionate.
And instead of providing free licenses to kill more animals as a vaccine incentive, let’s rely on initiatives that don’t cause harm, like providing saving bonds for youth (West Virginia); prepaid cards for those who help neighbors get to a vaccination site (Detroit); lottery tickets to win $1 million (Ohio); and free tickets for sports events (New York) and concerts (Chicago). It’s practically always possible to find solutions that do the most good and least harm if we’re willing to look.