US coronavirus hotspots linked to meat processing plants

A billboard advertises job hiring at Agri Beef’s plant in Toppenish, Washington. Donald Trump last month declared such plants to be critical to the US economy.
A billboard advertises job hiring at Agri Beef’s plant in Toppenish, Washington. Donald Trump last month declared such plants to be critical to the US economy. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP
Published onFri 15 May 2020 07.45 EDT

Almost half the current Covid-19 hotspots in the US are linked to meat processing plants where poultry, pigs and cattle are slaughtered and packaged, which has led to the virus spiking in many small towns and prompted calls for urgent reforms to an industry beset by health and safety problems.

At least 12 of the 25 hotspots in the US – counties with the highest per-capita infection rates – originated in meat factories where employees work side by side in cramped conditions, according to an analysis by the Guardian.

In Nebraska, five counties have outbreaks linked to meat plants including Dakota county, where about one of every 14 residents has tested positive – the second-highest per capita infection rate in the US. As of Thursday, the Nebraska counties of Dakota, Hall, Dawson, Saline, and Colfax accounted for almost half the state’s 9,075 positive cases, according to data tracking by the New York Times.

Meat processing plants seem to have emerged as incubators for the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly among workers unable to perform physical distancing.

The virus spreads among people in close contact for a prolonged period. It is mostly transmitted through tiny droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth when they cough, sneeze or talk.

On Wednesday, a fourth US agriculture department (USDA) food safety inspector died, this time in Dodge City, Kansas. The city is located in Ford county, where one in 28 residents is infected – the 11th-highest rate in the US. In Kansas, outbreaks in four of the hardest-hit counties are linked to large meatpacking plants.

Almost 300 inspectors, who have struggled to get access to adequate protective gear, are off sick with Covid-19 or under self-quarantine due to exposure, said the USDA, which regulates about 6,500 plants, including 300 or so factories with more than 500 employees.

The deregulation of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants over the past two decades has increased output and profits at the cost of health and safety, according to advocates .

Even before the pandemic, the industry was riddled with “serious safety and health hazards … including dangerous equipment, musculoskeletal disorders, and hazardous chemicals,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the meat industry where for years workers have been exploited in these plants including being penalized for not showing up even when they are sick or injured. Even now, it’s taken plants to be shut down for companies to provide protective gear for workers,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at the not-for-profit Food & Water Watch.

At least 30 plants have suspended operations over the past two months, and scores more have reduced operations amid a growing public outcry about working conditions for mostly migrant workers.

But many are now starting to reopen – a move encouraged by Donald Trump, who, in an attempt to fend off unrest about meat shortages in supermarkets, last month declared meat processing plants to be critical infrastructure.

In Nobles county, Minnesota, almost 500 workers at a large Brazilian-owned JBS pork plant have tested positive. The outbreak rapidly spread through the county, with 1,291 confirmed cases as of Wednesday compared with just a handful in mid-April. About one in 17 people in the county have now tested positive, though the infection is now slowing.

The Nobles plant reopened last week after two weeks closed. It has reportedly introduced a host of safety measures, including face shields for those working in close proximity.

Congress will vote on Friday on another Covid-19 rescue package, which includes mandatory health and safety regulations for all essential workers, including meat processing and care-home staff.

COVID-19 kills Roy Horn, 75, of Siegfried & Roy, role model for “Joe Exotic”

COVID-19 kills Roy Horn, 75, of Siegfried & Roy, role model for “Joe Exotic”

Roy Horn & white tiger Mantecore.
(Beth Clifton collage)

Manicured image as “positive reinforcement” trainer & conservationist was,  like the Siegfried & Roy show,  largely illusory

            LAS VEGAS––Entertainer Roy Horn,  75,  whose illusion acts with longtime partner Siegfried Fischbacher famously featured white tigers,  pythons,  and elephants,  died on May 8,  2020 in Las Vegas,  his home for nearly 50 years,  from complications of COVID-19.

Siegfried & Roy show publicist Dave Kirvin told media that Horn died at the Mountain View Hospital in Las Vegas about a week after testing positive for COVID-19 infection.

Performing together since 1959,  Siegfried & Roy were the evident inspirations for a generation of white tiger breeders,  exhibitors,  and would-be media stars,  including “Joe Exotic” and “Doc” Antle,  featured in the six-part March/April 2020 Netflix “reality” series Tiger King:  Murder,  Mayhem,  & Madness,  directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin.

Roy Horn and Siegfried Fischbacher

Tiger act bought $10 million home in Las Vegas

Siegfried & Roy “toured Europe,  Japan and other venues,”  recalled New York Times obituarist Robert D. McFadden,  “ and were featured in a 1999 3D Imax movie, a 1994 television special,  and at Radio City Music Hall in New York.  They broke records for the longest-running act in Las Vegas,  and were among the most popular and highest paid performers on the Strip. They also wrote a book,  Siegfried & Roy: Mastering the Impossible (1992).

“Horn and Fischbacher,”  McFadden wrote,  “who were domestic as well as professional partners,  kept their menageries,  including dozens of exotic cats,  at a glass-enclosed tropically forested habitat at the Mirage [hotel and casino];  at Jungle Paradise,  their 88-acre estate outside of town;  and at Jungle Palace,  their $10 million Spanish-style home in Las Vegas.”

McFadden recalled that Horn and Fischbacher,  “acknowledging that their acts depended on some endangered species,  were prominent in various animal conservation efforts,  particularly for the white tiger,  native to Asia,  and the white lion of Timbavati,  in South Africa.  They raised many of their show animals from birth,  and said they were not exploited and were never tranquilized.”

Exhibit A for banning white tiger & lion breeding

But animal advocates,  while conceding that Horn and Fischbacher may have treated their animals much more kindly than most animal-using entertainers,  tend to have viewed those “conservation efforts” as mostly eyewash,  meant to burnish the Siegfried & Roy show image.

A nine-member coalition,  headed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,  on May 19,  2017 formally petitioned the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to initiate the federal rulemaking process to make breeding either white tigers or lion/tiger hybrids,  as Siegfried & Roy did to maintain their menagerie,  a violation of the Animal Health Protection Act of 2002 and the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.

Charged the petitioners to the USDA,  which has yet to act in response,  “Despite the known risks and lack of conservation value associated with breeding to create white tigers,  exhibitors like Siegfried & Roy continue to mislead the public into believing that they are a rare subspecies rather than a genetic anomaly.  Siegfried & Roy have had as many as 58 white tigers in their inventory at one time.  The pair continue to breed to create white tigers for exhibition at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden at the Mirage in Las Vegas.”

(Beth Clifton collage)

Petition spotlighted “Joe Exotic” years before Netflix

The PETA-led petition to the USDA also described the activities of many other white tiger and lion/tiger hybrid breeders.

“In Oklahoma,  exhibitor Joe Schreibvogel,”  also known as Joseph Maldonado and now as Tiger King star ‘Joe Exotic,’  “sells white tigers,  ligers,  liligers,  and tiligers to private owners and exhibitors all over the country,”  the petition to the USDA alleged.

U.S. District Court Judge Scott Palk on January 23,  2020 sentenced “Joe Exotic” to serve 22 years in prison for having solicited the murder of Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin in 2018.

Convicted of the murder plot in April 2019,  “Joe Exotic” was convicted at the same time of nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act,  by shotgunning five tigers in October 2017 and by illegally offering tiger cubs for sale between November 2016 and March 2018.

The PETA-led petition also spotlighted “Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle,  also featured in The Tiger King,  whose South Carolina roadside zoo,  like the facilities formerly owned by “Joe Exotic,”  has a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations.

“Antle takes his experiments to a whole new level,”  the petitioners charged,  “by breeding to create hybrid white ligers.”

Roy Horn & his mother, circa 1950.

Siegfried & Roy act originated in post-World War II Germany

Horn and Fischbacher,  by contrast,  have been widely credited with helping to popularize “positive reinforcement” animal training,  but may also have done more to popularize and promote traffic in white tigers,  developing the market served by “Joe Exotic,”  Antle,  and others,  than all previous white tiger breeders combined.

Wrote McFadden,  “Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn was born on October 3,  1944,  in  Nordenham,  Germany,  near Bremen.  Like Fischbacher,  who was five years older and raised in Rosenheim,  a village in Bavaria,  Horn grew up in the turmoil of wartime and postwar Germany. While Fischbacher was drawn to magic,  Horn was taken with animals,  including his wolf-dog Hexe, and a cheetah,  Chico,  at a zoo in Bremen where the boy took an after-school job feeding animals and cleaning cages.”

Horn,  at age 13,  in 1957 became a cabin boy on a German cruise ship.

Roy Horn (left) with Chico the cheetah and Siegfried Fischbacher, 1966.

Cheetah named Chico

Continued McFadden,  “Fischbacher,  a steward,  was entertaining passengers with magic tricks,  and Horn caught his act.”

Recalled Horn to interviewers many years later,  “I told Siegfried if he could make rabbits come out of a hat,  why couldn’t he make cheetahs appear?”

Horn eventually smuggled the cheetah Chico aboard the ship in a laundry bag.  Siegfried developed an illusion routine featuring Chico,  performed at a variety of venues in Germany and Switzerland before mostly small crowds until in 1966 Princess Grace of Monaco saw them at a charity performance in Monte Carlo “and gave them a rave notice,”  recounted McFadden.

“A rush of publicity ensued.  Adding animals and tricks,  they were soon playing nightclubs in Paris and other European cities.  They made their Las Vegas debut at the Tropicana in 1967,”  McFadden continued,  “and by the early 1970s,  having made Las Vegas their base,  they were under contract at the MGM Grand.”

Money made the tigers go around

Moving to the Frontier Hotel in 1981, Siegfried & Roy during the next seven years performed before three million people there.

“In 1987,”  McFadden summarized,  “they signed a five-year $57.5 million contract with Steve Wynn,  owner of the planned $640 million Mirage casino-hotel,  a deal Variety called the largest in show business history.  It included $40 million more for a new theater for the show,”  plus the $18 million Secret Garden animal habitat.

Headliners at the Mirage from 1990 to 2003,  adding white tigers to the act in 1995 after purchasing a pair from the Cincinnati Zoo,  Siegfried & Roy at peak performed before 400,000 people a year,  generating $44 million in revenue.

Former Siegfried & Roy trainer Chris Lawrence was onstage with Roy Horn during 2003 attack.  (NBC News photo)

Birthday attack stopped the show

That ended abruptly on Horn’s 59th birthday in 2003.  Midway through a solo show with a seven-year-old white tiger named Mantecore,  the tiger refused to lie down on command.  Horn rapped Mantecore on the nose with his microphone.  Mantecore swiped at Horn’s arm.  Horn stumbled.  Mantecore seized Horn by the neck,  crushing his windpipe,  and dragged Horn off stage as Horn tried to beat him away with the microphone.

Forced to suspend the Siegfried & Roy shows,  the Mirage laid off 267 workers,  but continued to house the Siegfried & Roy animals,  including Mantecore,  at the Secret Garden.

Horn and Fischbacher contended that Mantecore “had been unhinged by a woman in the front row with a beehive hairdo,”  McFadden recalled,  and after Horn tripped,  “picked him up by the neck,  as a tigress might a cub,  attempting to carry him to safety.”

The USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service,  however,  “discounted all such theories and called it a simple attack by the tiger,”  McFadden noted.

A white tiger at Big Cat Rescue.  (Beth Clifton photo)

“Treating the cats like props”

Former Siegfried & Roy trainer Chris Lawrence,  46,  in March 2019 gave a different explanation to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Many of the handlers thought that Roy was treating the cats more like props than he was respecting them for who they were,”  Lawrence told The Hollywood Reporter.

Lawrence claimed that he himself “actually talked Roy into using the tiger that would ultimately maul him and end the most successful stage show in the history of Las Vegas.”

Said Lawrence,  “What Roy did was,  instead of walking Mantecore in a circle,  as was usually done,  he just used his arm to steer him right back into his body,  in a pirouette motion.  Mantecore’s face was right in (Horn’s) midsection.  Roy not following the correct procedure fed into confusion and rebellion.”

Lawrence tried unsuccessfully to lure Mantecore away from Roy with raw meat,  but was knocked down,  along with Roy.

Bengali the tiger keeps on coming, with a red rubber ball rising like the morning sun behind him.  (Carole Baskin photo)

Oldest Siegfried & Roy tiger died at Big Cat Rescue

Siegfried & Roy,  with Mantecore,  performed only once more together,  for a cancer charity benefit in 2009.

Wrote Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Mike Weatherford then,  “Siegfried Fischbacher and Horn were trying to figure out when and how to bow out gracefully even before the accident that put an abrupt end to their show.  The Mirage hit had been running for thirteen and a half years and 5,750 performances.  Horn had just celebrated his 59th birthday. Fischbacher had already passed 60.”

Mantecore died on March 19,  2014,  at age 17––old for a tiger,  but not nearly the oldest of the tigers Siegfried & Roy bred.

That tiger,  21 or 22 years of age,  either way one of the half dozen oldest tigers on record,  and one of two tigers within that elite half dozen to share the name Bengali,  died on May 31,  2016 at Big Cat Rescue on the outskirts of Tampa,  Florida.  Siegfried & Roy had sold him to a circus.  The circus retired him to Big Cat Rescue in 2000.  

(Beth Clifton collage)

Another former Siegfried & Roy tiger,  Sarmoti,  acquired at the same time,  died at Big Cat Rescue at age 20 in 2013.

Sarmoti,  Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin told ANIMALS 24-7,  “is an acronym for Siegfried And Roy, Masters Of The Impossible.”

         (See A tale of two of the world’s oldest tigers, both named Bengali.)

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Is COVID-19 The Beginning Of The End For McDonald’s?

McDonald’s has temporarily closed. Is this a sign of things to come for the fast food giant?
Are McDonald's famous golden arches on the way out? (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Are McDonald’s famous golden arches on the way out? (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

From the time the UK saw its first set of golden arches go up in 1974, our nation had never experienced a widespread closure of McDonald’s restaurants… until COVID-19 crossed our shores.

As of 7pm on March 23, each of the 1,270+ McDonald’s locations across the UK closed their doors, with no set date for their reopening. These are unprecedented times.

A bad thing

For the first time in decades, people no longer have access to the American company’s signature burgers and chicken nuggets. But is this such a bad thing for customers? And how will this impact animals?

With growing concerns about food safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and estimates that three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, it’s about time that food companies ramped up their efforts to prevent the spread of such diseases.

It’s been proven that the immune systems of animals raised on lower welfare factory farms are far weaker than any other; couple this with the immense overcrowding seen on these intensive farms – where some 90 percent of farmed animals are raised – and the risk of contracting and spreading dangerous diseases is worryingly high.

McDonald’s contribution

That being said, how is McDonald’s contributing to this issue? In part due to their size, chickens are the land animals raised in the greatest numbers by far. Every single year, approximately 25 million chickens are bred and slaughtered for McDonald’s UK alone.

That’s nearly one chicken for every two Brits, before even factoring in the many other animals that suffer immensely in order to maximise the company’s profits.

But maybe these birds are raised to high welfare standards and meet a relatively painless end…? Sadly not. Despite key competitor KFC adopting a robust set of chicken welfare standards in July 2019, known as the Better Chicken Commitment, McDonald’s is still yet to follow suit.

Chickens in a factory farm

Every single year, approximately 25 million chickens are bred and slaughtered for McDonald’s UK alone

Welfare issues

Among other issues, the company has failed to make a commitment to end the use of fast-growing chickens, meaning that the millions of birds in its supply chain grow so big, so fast, that their legs and organs are pushed to the absolute limit.

Some become unable to walk, while others die of heart attacks in just the first few weeks of their short lives. To make matters worse, these enormous birds are shockingly packed into sheds by the tens of thousands, each having as little space as an A4 piece of paper.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the miserable, pain-ridden lives of these animals couldn’t get any worse, but sadly that’s not the case. At just five weeks old, they will experience a distressing journey to the slaughterhouse, where they will face a terrifying end. Because of the current stunning methods permitted by companies like McDonald’s, there’s no guarantee that every bird will be rendered unconscious before having their throats slit and bodies dunked in scalding hot water. The thought alone is too much to bear.

Do the animal-loving people of the UK really want chickens to be raised in such a horrific way? No.

Do they want companies like McDonald’s to put the public’s health at risk by continuing these potentially dangerous practices? Absolutely not.

The fast-food giant has failed to keep up with its competitors when it comes to offering meat alternatives (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

The fast-food giant has failed to keep up with its competitors when it comes to offering meat alternatives (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Meat alternatives

Could it be that McDonald’s has instead focused its efforts on reducing the sale of meat to tackle these issues? Unfortunately not.

While KFC has spared no time in introducing its first plant-based burger, and Burger King following suit with its veggie Rebel Whopper, McDonald’s has failed to satisfy the public’s growing appetite for good quality meat-alternatives. The company’s meagre offering of veggie dippers earlier this year certainly did not get its customers’ heart’s racing.

During this challenging period, we have a great opportunity to take stock of what’s going on in the food industry and reevaluate which companies are acting in the best interests of people and animals. Likewise, companies like McDonald’s have the chance to restrategize and start making meaningful changes that benefit society.

There has never been a better time for McDonald’s to step out of the dark ages of food production and into the modern day. 2020 is a dangerous time for food companies to ignore the growing demand for high animal welfare standards and delicious plant-based food. If these issues aren’t addressed soon, we could be looking at the beginning of the end for McDonald’s.

2 million chickens will be killed in Delaware and Maryland because of lack of employees at processing plants

By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, CNN

(CNN)Two million chickens on several farms in Delaware and Maryland will be “depopulated” — meaning humanely killed — due to a lack of employees at chicken processing plants, according to a statement from Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.

The reduced employee attendance at the company’s plants is a result of “additional community cases of COVID-19, additional testing, and people practicing the ‘stay home if you’re sick’ social distancing guidance from public health officials,” the statement reads.
The chickens will be depopulated “using approved, humane methods” that are accepted by the American Veterinary Medical Association and all state and local guidelines, the company said.
CNN has reached out to the Delaware Department of Agriculture but has not yet received a response.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture says it learned of the company’s plans on April 9 and “continues to monitor for any developments.”
“MDA is only involved in depopulations when it is done in response to animal health concerns,” the department said in a statement. “This particular case was a private decision made by an individual business.”
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Delmarva says it made the “difficult but necessary” decision after exhausting “the study of other alternatives, including allowing another chicken company to transport and process the chickens and taking a partially processed product to rendering facilities to utilize for other animal feed.”
“If no action were taken, the birds would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them,” the company said, adding that they are not closing any processing plants and will continue to compensate the affected chicken growers.

China continues to exploit wild animals by promoting bear bile for coronavirus cure

China continues to exploit wild animals by promoting bear bile for coronavirus cureImage: FuFioCat /

China has approved traditional medicines which include bear bile and goat horn as remedies for the COVID-19 infection.

In a bid to control the spread of coronavirus and treat infected patients, China’s National Health Commission published a list of recommended traditional and Western treatments for the virus last month.

And one of the six traditional Chinese treatments included in the guidelines is Tan re Qing- which is made from bear bile, goat horn powder and herbs.


The medicine prepared by a Shanghai pharmaceutical company following traditional Chinese medicine protocols is claimed to treat patients with respiratory diseases, including pneumonia, acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.

Even President Xi Jinping has been actively promoting traditional medicine calling it “treasure of Chinese civilisation” and stressing that it should be given equal importance as other treatments.

This recommendation comes after imposing a ban on sale of wild animals for food amid the coronavirus outbreak, which is thought to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan that sells and harbors live and dead wild animals.

China finally implements a permanent ban on wildlife meat to stop virus spread
Image: mimohe /

‘Both tragic and ironic’

A number of wildlife campaigners and animal rights activists have condemned the Chinese government and branded the news as ‘both tragic and ironic’ because it defeats the purpose of the ban implemented to stop the illegal animal trade.

“Across Asia, bear bile trade is widespread, although it is illegal in most countries,” said Richard Thomas of animal rights non-governmental organization Traffic.

“The active ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, is readily synthesized in laboratories — so even if it did prove to be popular, there should be no need for bear bile to be included (in medicines).”

‘Hugely irresponsible’

In a statement, Aron White, EIA Wildlife Campaigner and China Specialist, said: “Restricting the eating of wildlife while promoting medicines containing wildlife parts exemplifies the mixed messages being sent by the Chinese authorities on wildlife trade.

“Aside from the irony of promoting a wildlife product for treatment of a disease which the scientific community has overwhelmingly concluded originated in wildlife, the continued promotion of the use of threatened wildlife in medicine is hugely irresponsible in an era of unprecedented biodiversity loss, including illegal and unsustainable trade.

“At this moment in history, as the world is crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, there could be no better time to end the use of the parts of threatened wildlife in medicine, especially as recent surveys conducted in China showed the vast majority of respondents were opposed to use of wildlife in medicine.”

‘Medicines should heal without harm’

Wildlife advocates also voiced their concerns that approving bear bile would in turn increase bear bile farms and justify animal abuse.

According to The Independent, bear bile farms in China and Vietnam account for nearly 12,000 bears held in captivity for their bile.

Highlighting the cruelty, Animals Asia, a nonprofit dedicated to ending bear bile farming said that  bear bile farms in China and across Southeast Asia keep bears in small cages for decades. The tiny cages restrict bear movements to such an extent that they are not even able to stand on all fours and most of these bears “are starved, dehydrated and suffering from multiple diseases and malignant tumours that not only contaminate their bile but ultimately kill them.”

In a statement on bear bile usage to treat COVID-19, the group said: “Animals Asia believes we shouldn’t be relying on wildlife products like bear bile as the solution to combat a deadly virus that appears to have originated from wildlife. It is accurate to assert the active ingredient in bear bile, UDCA, is effective in treating some conditions.


“This is the reason it has been produced synthetically (not using bile from bears) for decades and sold by the tonne across the world.

“Additionally, we understand according to the National Health Commission, Tanreqing has been used to successfully treat respiratory conditions like pneumonia and similar illnesses to COVID-19 for several years with success.

“However, traditional Chinese medicine has thousands of years of practical application and knowledge to draw upon, together with a philosophy of balancing harmony and peace with the environment. Such medicines should heal without harm.”

Brian Daly, a spokesman for the Animals Asia Foundation added: “Promotion of bear bile has the propensity to increase the amount used, affecting not only captive bears, but also those in the wild, potentially compromising an already endangered species in Asia and across the world.”

Share this story to reveal the truth behind bear bile farming and traditional medicines using animal ingredients.


As habitat and biodiversity loss increase globally, the novel coronavirus outbreak may be just the beginning of mass pandemics
Intro imageIllicit Endangered Wildlife Trade in Möng La, Shan, Myanmar Photo courtesy of Dan Bennett from Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Mayibout 2 is not a healthy place. The 150 or so people who live in the village, which sits on the south bank of the Ivindo River, deep in the great Minkebe forest in northern Gabon, are used to occasional bouts of diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever and sleeping sickness. Mostly they shrug them off.

But in January 1996, Ebola, a deadly virus then barely known to humans, unexpectedly spilled out of the forest in a wave of small epidemics. The disease killed 21 of 37 villagers who were reported to have been infected, including a number who had carried, skinned, chopped or eaten a chimpanzee from the nearby forest.

I traveled to Mayibout 2 in 2004 to investigate why deadly diseases new to humans were emerging from biodiversity “hot spots” like tropical rainforests and bushmeat markets in African and Asian cities.

It took a day by canoe and then many hours down degraded forest logging roads passing Baka villages and a small gold mine to reach the village. There, I found traumatized people still fearful that the deadly virus, which kills up to 90% of the people it infects, would return.

Villagers told me how children had gone into the forest with dogs that had killed a chimp. They said that everyone who cooked or ate it got a terrible fever within a few hours. Some died immediately, while others were taken down the river to hospital. A few, like Nesto Bematsick, recovered. “We used to love the forest, now we fear it,” he told me. Many of Bematsick’s family members died.

Only a decade or two ago it was widely thought that tropical forests and intact natural environments teeming with exotic wildlife threatened humans by harboring the viruses and pathogens that lead to new diseases in humans like Ebola, HIV and dengue.

travelers at airport wearing face masks to prevent disease transmission

Logging and other habitat disruption creates new opportunities for disease organisms to move from non-human animals to people. Photo courtesy of euflegtredd from Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, planetary health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.

Is it possible, then, that it was human activity, such as road building, mining, hunting and logging, that triggered the Ebola epidemics in Mayibout 2 and elsewhere in the 1990s and that is unleashing new terrors today?

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemicrecently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Increasing Threat

Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases like Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are now able to spread quickly to new places. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of “new or emerging” diseases that infect humans originate in nonhuman animals.

Some, like rabies and plague, crossed from animals centuries ago. Others, like Marburg, which is thought to be transmitted by bats, are still rare. A few, like COVID-19, which emerged last year in Wuhan, China, and MERS, which is linked to camels in the Middle East, are new to humans and spreading globally.

Other diseases that have crossed into humans include Lassa fever, which was first identified in 1969 in Nigeria; Nipah from Malaysia; and SARS from China, which killed more than 700 people and traveled to 30 countries in 2002–03. Some, like Zika and West Nile virus, which emerged in Africa, have mutated and become established on other continents.

travelers at airport wearing face masks to prevent disease transmission

The emergence of COVID-19 as a global threat is drawing attention to the important connections between human and ecosystem well-being. Photo courtesy of Chad Davis from Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, calls emerging animal-borne infectious diseases an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.”

Amplification Effect

In 2008, Jones and a team of researchers identified 335 diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from non-human animals.

Increasingly, says Jones, these zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behavior. The disruption of pristine forests driven by logging, mining, road building through remote places, rapid urbanization and population growth is bringing people into closer contact with animal species they may never have been near before, she says.

The resulting transmission of disease from wildlife to humans, she says, is now “a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

Jones studies how land use change contributes to the risk. “We are researching how species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans,” she says. “Simpler systems get an amplification effect. Destroy landscapes, and the species you are left with are the ones humans get the diseases from.”

UCL biodiversity expert Kate Jones calls the spread of disease from wildlife to humans “a hidden cost of human economic development.” Photo courtesy of Kate Jones

“There are countless pathogens out there continuing to evolve which at some point could pose a threat to humans,” says Eric Fevre, chair of veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health. “The risk [of pathogens jumping from animals to humans] has always been there.”

The difference between now and a few decades ago, Fevre says, is that diseases are likely to spring up in both urban and natural environments. “We have created densely packed populations where alongside us are bats and rodents and birds, pets and other living things. That creates intense interaction and opportunities for things to move from species to species,” he says.

Tip of the Iceberg

“Pathogens do not respect species boundaries,” says disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences who studies how shrinking natural habitats and changing behavior add to the risks of diseases spilling over from animals to humans.

“I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” he says. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”

Humans, says Gillespie, are creating the conditions for the spread of diseases by reducing the natural barriers between virus host animals — in which the virus is naturally circulating — and themselves. “We fully expect the arrival of pandemic influenza; we can expect large-scale human mortalities; we can expect other pathogens with other impacts. A disease like Ebola is not easily spread. But something with a mortality rate of Ebola spread by something like measles would be catastrophic,” Gillespie says.

Wildlife everywhere is being put under more stress, he says. “Major landscape changes are causing animals to lose habitats, which means species become crowded together and also come into greater contact with humans. Species that survive change are now moving and mixing with different animals and with humans.”

Gillespie sees this in the U.S., where suburbs fragmenting forests raise the risk of humans contracting Lyme disease. “Altering the ecosystem affects the complex cycle of the Lyme pathogen. People living close by are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying Lyme bacteria,” he says.

Yet human health research seldom considers the surrounding natural ecosystems, says Richard Ostfeld, distinguished senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. He and others are developing the emerging discipline of planetary health, which looks at the links between human and ecosystem health.

Disease ecologist Richard Ostfeld is one of a growing number of researchers looking at the human health impacts of ecosystem changes through a “planetary health” lens. Photo courtesy of Robin Moore © Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

“There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves. It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it,” he says.

Ostfeld points to rats and bats, which are strongly linked with the direct and indirect spread of zoonotic diseases. “Rodents and some bats thrive when we disrupt natural habitats. They are the most likely to promote transmissions [of pathogens]. The more we disturb the forests and habitats the more danger we are in,” he says.

Felicia Keesing, professor of biology at Bard College, New York, studies how environmental changes influence the probability that humans will be exposed to infectious diseases. “When we erode biodiversity, we see a proliferation of the species most likely to transmit new diseases to us, but there’s also good evidence that those same species are the best hosts for existing diseases,” she wrote in an email to Ensia.

The Market Connection

Disease ecologists argue that viruses and other pathogens are also likely to move from animals to humans in the many informal markets that have sprung up to provide fresh meat to fast-growing urban populations around the world. Here animals are slaughtered, cut up and sold on the spot.

The “wet market” (one that sells fresh produce and meat) in Wuhan, thought by the Chinese government to be the starting point of the current COVID-19 pandemic, was known to sell numerous wild animals, including live wolf pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles.

Equally, urban markets in west and central Africa see monkeys, bats, rats and dozens of species of bird, mammal, insect and rodent slaughtered and sold close to open refuse dumps and with no drainage.

“Wet markets make a perfect storm for cross-species transmission of pathogens,” says Gillespie. “Whenever you have novel interactions with a range of species in one place, whether that is in a natural environment like a forest or a wet market, you can have a spillover event.”

dead animals hanging from a pole

Bushmeat is one channel through which viruses can travel from wild animals to humans. Photo courtesy of Karsing Megu & Victor Meyer-Rochow.

The Wuhan market, along with others that sell live animals, has been shut by the Chinese authorities, and the government in February outlawed trading and eating wild animals except for fish and seafood. But bans on live animals being sold in urban areas or informal markets are not the answer, say some scientists.

“The wet market in Lagos is notorious. It’s like a nuclear bomb waiting to happen. But it’s not fair to demonize places which do not have fridges. These traditional markets provide much of the food for Africa and Asia,” says Jones.

“These markets are essential sources of food for hundreds of millions of poor people, and getting rid of them is impossible,” says Delia Grace, a senior epidemiologist and veterinarian with the International Livestock Research Institute, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. She argues that bans force traders underground, where they may pay less attention to hygiene.

Fevre and Cecilia Tacoli, principal researcher in the human settlements research group at the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), argue in a blog post that “rather than pointing the finger at wet markets,” we should look at the burgeoning trade in wild animals.

“[I]t is wild animals rather than farmed animals that are the natural hosts of many viruses,” they write. “Wet markets are considered part of the informal food trade that is often blamed for contributing to spreading disease. But … evidence shows the link between informal markets and disease is not always so clear cut.”

Changing Behavior

So what, if anything, can we do about all of this?

Jones says that change must come from both rich and poor societies. Demand for wood, minerals and resources from the Global North leads to the degraded landscapes and ecological disruption that drives disease, she says. “We must think about global biosecurity, find the weak points and bolster the provision of health care in developing countries. Otherwise we can expect more of the same,” she says.

“The risks are greater now. They were always present and have been there for generations. It is our interactions with that risk which must be changed,” says Brian Bird, a research virologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute, where he leads Ebola-related surveillance activities in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

“We are in an era now of chronic emergency,” Bird says. “Diseases are more likely to travel further and faster than before, which means we must be faster in our responses. It needs investments, change in human behavior, and it means we must listen to people at community levels.”

Getting the message about pathogens and disease to hunters, loggers, market traders and consumers is key, Bird says. “These spillovers start with one or two people. The solutions start with education and awareness. We must make people aware things are different now. I have learned from working in Sierra Leone with Ebola-affected people that local communities have the hunger and desire to have information,” he says. “They want to know what to do. They want to learn.”

Fevre and Tacoli advocate rethinking urban infrastructure, particularly within low-income and informal settlements. “Short-term efforts are focused on containing the spread of infection,” they write. “The longer term — given that new infectious diseases will likely continue to spread rapidly into and within cities — calls for an overhaul of current approaches to urban planning and development.”

The bottom line, Bird says, is to be prepared. “We can’t predict where the next pandemic will come from, so we need mitigation plans to take into account the worst possible scenarios,” he says. “The only certain thing is that the next one will certainly come.”

Dr. Fauci: ‘It Boggles My Mind’ China Allows Wet Markets Linked to Viral Outbreaks – Should They Close Permanently?

Article Hero Image

Should countries with “wet markets” be pressured to permanently close them to prevent viral outbreaks?


Firsthand Look Inside Asia’s Busiest Wet Markets

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Also see:

Unpacking COVID-19’s Visual Narrative 

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center studyover half of American adults consume the majority of their news from social media. Sentient Media analyzed the social media presence of three major news organizations to better understand how they’re portraying Asia’s wet markets to their followers. Here is what we found:

  • The New York Times has over 70 million followers across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. NYT has covered wet markets on its website, but its social media platforms are lacking in photos that show Asia’s wet markets and more specifically, photos of the animals being bought and sold at these markets. In 2006, NYT actually suggested visiting wet markets as a tourist destination.
  • The Washington Post has 23 million followers across the same three platforms. Not only are images of wet markets neglected on WashPo’s social channels, but the website’s overall coverage of wet markets is thin. One article mentions the plummeting chicken prices in India, as many consumers are no longer purchasing meat from wet markets, but not a single photo of wet markets is present. An article about the Chinese food system’s role in pandemic prevention seemed promising, but instead of gruesome wet market photos, the article displays three grinning men holding live goats in their arms. This image far from captures the fear, confusion, and pain animals endure inside wet markets.
  • HuffPost has over 11 million followers on Twitter alone and more than 23 million across all three major platforms. Unsurprisingly, on HuffPost’s social media channels, there is a severe lack of multimedia reporting on wet markets. If you search “wet markets” on HuffPost’s website, the lack of search results is also concerning. One article mentions wet markets, and even provides a photo of seafood being sold—which is commendable—but the image does not fully capture the disarray of Asia’s wildlife markets.
These three news outlets have the combined potential to reach over 116 million people—around two-thirds of the U.S. population—across three social media channels. Why aren’t news outlets using their online reach to report the truth about the live animal markets behind COVID-19?

Mainstream media can reach millions, even billions of people around the globe each day through print and online articles, blogs, and social media. Viewers trust these outlets to report the whole truth and operate in their best interests, but that is not always the case. Sentient Media believes in reporting the truth and being accountable—values we expect to share with major media outlets.

As we have seen with COVID-19 coverage, mainstream media outlets are neglecting to show a main component of why we are in the midst of a pandemic in the first place. It is time to lift the veil on Asia’s wet markets and report the uncomfortable truth.

View the photo essay here

Covering COVID-19
With the worst global pandemic we’ve seen in over a century, it’s more important than ever to make sure the truth is reported in its entirety, not just what’s convenient.

Help us share the facts during these uncertain times and make sure the world knows our species cannot survive if we continue our exploitation of the planet and nonhuman animals.

Don’t go crying, “Where’s the justice?”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all it’s “karma” or “Divine justice” on you here, but this whole Coronavirus pandemic is just what humans deserve for the sick, domineering, heartless ways they’ve treated animals over the centuries. Somehow they’ve convinced themselves (or worse yet, maybe they’ve never really thought about it) that they’re entitled to acts of extreme abuse on their fellow sentient beings. How else did they justify digging pits for mammoths or running herds of bison off cliffs only to be butchered en masse later? Oh yeah, they were hungry. Well, so were the animals they destroyed but they never stooped to making humans their slaves for flesh.

Even given humans’ long history of animal abuse, it’s hard to fathom them coming up with intrinsically evil, karma-defying traditions like factory farming and “wet” markets, both of which involve intensive warehousing of animals as though their rights or well-being were of no consequence. And like a bunch of spoiled, self-centered serial killers, their wants and desires are all that matters.

Over time, after the hairless, fleshy mutant hominid serial-killers-of-other-animals had driven the largest herbivores off the planet or at least to the most extreme rugged corners, they decided to give “animal husbandry” a go. Nowadays, they’ve gone so postal with that misadventure, they must have convinced themselves (or never really thought about it) that animals somehow enjoy being their servants and meat and secretion providers: that cows enjoy giving up their babies’ milk to demonic little primates who rush them through the mechanical milking process like the spear-wielding jabber-walkies who herded their ancestors over cliffs; that birds enjoy being crammed into cages so small they can’t even raise their wings so their precious eggs can be squirreled away by some self-important deity-wanna-bes; that pigs enjoy living their lives out as nothing more than bacon-on the hoof or that pangolins like being dragged from the wild and stuffed into tiny cages and displayed in a crowded, noisy, open-slaughter market next to fruit bats, secretive snakes, fish or untold other beings forced to serve their self-appointed masters.

As much as we might feel sorry for the people who are subjected to this pandemic like victims of some undeserved plague wrought by a punishing divinity, perhaps when this is all over they should stop and think seriously about changing their hedonistic, carnivoristic ways. And I’m sure it’s a challenge to keep one’s social distance for a species that’s let their population surge to almost EIGHT BILLION (and forces their “food animals” into tiny, over-crowded cells for life), but if humans want to continue their reign over this wonderfully vibrant planet, it’s time to back off a bit—and don’t go crying “Where’s the justice?” to anyone out there who might be keeping score.

What are the ‘wet markets’ linked to the coronavirus outbreak?

As medical professionals around the world are searching for ways to stop the coronavirus outbreak, greater scrutiny is being cast on the “wet markets” suspected to have played a role in the initial spread of the sickness.

While rumors have swirled that the virus originated in bats and then infected another animal that passed it onto people at a market in the southeastern Chinese city of Wuhan, scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus infected people. But these kinds of markets are known to operate in not the most sanitary conditions.

“You’ve got live animals, so there’s feces everywhere. There’s blood because of people chopping them up,” Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, which works to protect wildlife and public health from emerging diseases, told the Associated Press last month.

Residents wearing face masks purchase seafood at a wet market on Jan. 28 in Macau, China.

Residents wearing face masks purchase seafood at a wet market on Jan. 28 in Macau, China. (Getty Images)


“Wet markets,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, are places “for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce.” They also sell an array of exotic animals.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, before its closure, advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed, according to the Associated Press.

And like many other “wet markets” in Asia and elsewhere, the animals at the Wuhan market lived in close proximity as they were tied up or stacked in cages.

Animals in “wet markets” are often killed on-site to ensure freshness — yet the messy mix raises the odds that a new virus will jump to people handling the animals and start to spread, experts say.

A vendor sells meat to customers at a market in Beijing on Jan. 15.

A vendor sells meat to customers at a market in Beijing on Jan. 15. (Getty Images)


“I visited the Tai Po wet market in Hong Kong, and it’s quite obvious why the term ‘wet’ is used,” an NPR reporter wrote about them earlier this year.

“Live fish in open tubs splash water all over the floor. The countertops of the stalls are red with blood as fish are gutted and filleted right in front of the customers’ eyes. Live turtles and crustaceans climb over each other in boxes,” he described. “Melting ice adds to the slush on the floor. There’s lots of water, blood, fish scales and chicken guts. Things are wet.”

COVID-19, like SARS, is a disease that has been traced back to animals. But it’s not the only recent one.

The killing and sale of what is known as bushmeat in Africa is thought to be a source for Ebola. Bird flu likely came from chickens at a market in Hong Kong in 1997. Measles is also believed to have evolved from a virus that infected cattle.


There are signs following the outbreak of the coronavirus that the Chinese government may make more lasting changes to how exotic species are raised and sold. Last month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the country should “resolutely outlaw and harshly crackdown” on the illegal wildlife trade because of the public health risks it poses.

Before the outbreak began, it was legal in China to sell 54 species of animals, like pangolins and civets — as long as they were raised on farms. But that made it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal wildlife in “wet markets”, and enforcement was lax, Jinfeng Zhou of China Biodiversity, Conservation and Green Development Foundation, an environmental group based in Beijing, told the AP.

All told, officials say about 1.5 million markets and online operators nationwide have been inspected since the coronavirus outbreak began. About 3,700 have been shut down, and around 16,000 breeding sites have been cordoned off.

However, even if China successfully regulates or bans it, the wildlife trade is likely to continue elsewhere.

Recent visits to wet markets on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and in the coastal city of Doula in Cameroon revealed similar conditions to “wet markets” in China, the Associated Press reported. Vendors were slaughtering and grilling bats, dogs, rats, crocodiles and snakes, and sanitary measures were scant.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.