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“Any single wild animal, at any single wildlife market, in any single country, could spawn the next pandemic”

03 September 2020, at 7:20am

Wildlife markets have never been more infamous. From live invertebrates to primates, and from animals’ dried heads to their privates, some “dead or alive” wildlife markets have become the anything goes, no limits outlet for animal abuses and public health hazards.

There are “wet markets” and there are “wildlife markets”. Wet markets typically deal in domesticated species - notably dogs, cats and fowl - which can often be neglected, beaten and butchered with sickening brutality, along with seafood, which suffers much the same gruesome fate.

Wildlife markets sell just that – wild animals with frogs, turtles, tortoises, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, pangolins, bats, civets, monkeys and much, much more. These places are unforgettable sights, whether it’s the blood stains, cries of anguish or just being kept silent in miserable cages, as for fishes, amphibians and reptiles. Artist Sue Coe said that “If animals believed in God, the Devil would look like a human being” (2004 [lithograph]). Well, if animals believed in hell, I think it may look remarkably like a wildlife market.

However, whether one of these hapless victims leaves this world following inhumane husbandry and live evisceration and dismemberment, or imprisoned in a plastic terrarium in someone’s house depends entirely on the intentions of the purchaser - wildlife markets sell wildlife, what the buyer wants with it is a separate issue. Vast numbers of wild-caught and captive-bred critters and their bioproducts are shipped not just nationally, but internationally, including from recognised zoonotic hotspots to wet markets and pet markets throughout the world.

Wildlife markets hiding in plain sight

Understandably, the world’s media has run many exposés of the wet and wildlife markets, and given great emphasis to the possibility that COVID-19 originated from such an environment in Wuhan. The UK, along with numerous Western countries, quickly vented its conjoined contempt at the cultural clash, unhygienic conditions and sheer repugnancy of welfare deprivations and cruelty that accompany the treatment of animals in market conditions. And rightly so. However, China is not the only place where wildlife markets tick all the wrong boxes for animal welfare, public health and even pandemic risk – Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Congo, Mali, Nigeria and Togo also accommodate these events. As well as… Canada, the USA, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, France and - wait for it - the United Kingdom. Indeed, we have wildlife markets - wet and pet - right here in the West, right under our noses.

Wet markets - complete with live crustaceans, fish, turtles and others - lurk in many places and the end of life care for these animals is not pretty. So-called “reptile expos”, “pet fairs” and “bird shows” are “prettier” and tuck themselves away among hired halls here and abroad, where they often (illegally in the UK) peddle wild animals from plastic food containers and terraria at makeshift stalls. Some are bred within a thriving tax-dodging cottage industry and others arrive straight from Southeast Asia - and being largely reptiles, quarantine-free. The fact that the snake sitting on a table top in northern England may have eaten a coronavirus-, or worse, an Ebola-laden bat in Indonesia two days earlier may go unacknowledged.

Getting our own house in order

Sure, the “Western-style” wildlife markets may seem less ramshackle, but look beyond the plush advertising website or the clear plastic frontage of a Perspex box. The cramped, deprived, stressful conditions of captivity, along with national and international transportation in planes, vans and car boots are still there for exotic animals to endure. From a public health perspective, any single wild animal, at any single wildlife market, in any single country, could spawn the next pandemic. Until we have eliminated all wildlife markets, in all their forms, and in our own Western backyards, then not only are we unable to claim the moral high-ground, but we may be the next centre of epidemiological attention.

Consultant Biologist and Medical Scientist

Clifford Warwick, PGDip (MedSci), PhD, CBiol, CSci, EurProBiol, FRSB, is a biologist and medical scientist. He is author of around 150 scientific articles, books and book chapters on reptile biology, animal welfare and zoonoses.

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