Torturing fewer animals will mean burying fewer people

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COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people, devastated the global economy and left millions jobless, homeless and hopeless. Like COVID-19, 60 percent of viruses that infect humans and 75 percent of recent infectious diseases are “zoonotic,” meaning they originate in animals. 

We’ve dealt with zoonoses in the past — SARS, avian influenza, HIV, Ebola, West Nile, to name a few. COVID-19, also a zoonotic disease, was not unexpected. As scientists race to develop vaccines for each new zoonotic event, the rest of us might well ask why we keep enabling the spread of these diseases. Avoiding future pandemics is possible but it will require an unprecedented cooperative effort to remake and enforce international animal law.

Zoonotic diseases result from human interaction with animals confined in close, unsanitary conditions. It is fashionable to blame China’s live animal markets, but the reality is far more complex. Live markets are brutally cruel, facilitate trafficking in protected species and encourage unsustainable and unhealthy eating practices. They also form a vast, criminal enterprise built on the illegal trade, slaughter and suffering of wild and endangered animals. 

International pressure following COVID-19’s spread prodded the Chinese government to adopt tentative reforms. It suspended live markets and banned the wild animal trade, and despite moving to end the sale of wild animals used in traditional medicine, China seems to have backpedaled. It continues to encourage exploiting animals for traditional remedies through international law that protects such practices. These types of half-measures undermine efforts to stop the trafficking of wild animals, which ultimately poses a risk to humans. 

Consider the Asiatic or “Moon” Bear — an animal whose plight illustrates the interrelatedness of wild animal exploitation and the ineffectiveness of international law. Moon Bear bile forms a key ingredient of Tan Re Qing, a folk remedy endorsed by China’s National Health Commission to treat COVID-19. Moon Bears are an Appendix I species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (“CITES”), which means that trade of bears or their parts is prohibited. Even if bear bile cured COVID-19 — which it does not — CITES would still prohibit its international trade. 

Ursodeoxycholic acid, the active ingredient in bear bile, has been synthesized commercially to treat gallstones and liver disease. It has no effectiveness against COVID-19. Despite the availability of the chemically identical, synthetic substitute, China nevertheless permits Moon Bear “farming,” which technically does not violate CITES because it involves no international trade. What it does involve, however, is systematic torture and the spread of false information about COVID-19 treatments.

One might suppose that bear farming would reduce demand for wild moon bears. It does not. Wild bear bile is (wrongly) thought to be more potent than bile from captive bears, and because of this, bear farming perpetuates the illegal importation of bile sourced from wild bears captured elsewhere in Asia. In addition to violating the law, bear farming to produce the coveted bile poses a significant health threat because it exacerbates the spread of disinformation about how to treat coronavirus. 

Putting aside the irony of using illegally obtained wild animal parts to make an ineffective cure for a disease — turned pandemic — whose spread was largely facilitated by the illegal trade of wild animals, there remains a larger issue to consider. Animal exploitation is a multifaceted, global problem requiring an equally multifaceted, global response. Several members of Congress recently wrote an open letter calling for an end to live animal markets. While this represents progress of a sort, we need more than letters. We also need more than just an end to live markets. 

Safeguarding global health will entail interweaving domestic and international wildlife law in ways that enable effective enforcement, education and support for local communities as they transition away from underground economies. At a minimum, it will involve strengthening CITES by making it self-enforcing. Relying on member countries to legislate and effectively protect wildlife has not worked. Truly effective reform will also require a wholesale reevaluation of all industries built on the bones of animals. 

Zoonotic diseases arise from indifference to basic precepts of biology, ecosystem management, animal welfare and human kindness. We stop pandemics by not causing them. If we learn nothing else from the COVID-19 catastrophe, let us at least understand that it is past time to align our behavior with science and ethics. Torturing fewer animals will mean we bury fewer people. It is just math. 

David N. Cassuto is professor of law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, where he is a member of the Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies and directs the Brazil-American Institute for Law & Environment.

Stephen Wells is the executive director and CEO of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose mission is to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.

Tags China CITES COVID-19 treatments Disinformation exotic animals false information illegal wildlife trade International law traditional medicine Wet Markets wildlife Wildlife trade Zoonoses zoonotic diseases zoonotics

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