Wet Markets and Wild Longings


Photograph Source: Seniju – CC BY 2.0

It’s early April ― peak lockdown in the United States ― and Anthony Fauci is chastising China over wet markets. “It just boggles my mind,” Dr. Fauci said, “when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down.”

Fauci wants the rest of the world to “lean with a lot of pressure on those countries” where street markets tout dead and live animals to be eaten. Lindsey Graham urged senators to push Beijing. In a garbled tweet, Sen. Graham opined: “Bringing wild and exotic animals to open markets to interact with humans and other food supplies is both crazy and dangerous.” Notably, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation’s secretary general Jinfeng Zhou has also pressed for a wet market ban, invoking animal conservation as well as human health.

Now, what of the “human-animal interfaces” in our slaughterhouses? What of the butchers, the ranchers, the hunters dragging half-dead deer, ducks and foxes out of the woods? Absolutely, stop the wet markets. But unless you happen to be vegan, don’t forget to take the log out of your own eye.

I went to a Red Cross site to give blood this week, but was told to leave without donating. Turns out I’m in a “deferral” category, having spent more than three months in Britain between 1980 and 1996. It’s related to mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I might have eaten spinal cord or brain tissue from infected cattle. I became vegan in England, so this whole thing is richly ironic for me. If we were all vegan, mad cow disease wouldn’t be a thing. Nor, presumably, would COVID-19.

If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, Socrates thought, most people would be content to pick up that portion they originally put down, and go on with their lives. Yet we freely shift misfortune onto other animals in the effort to shrink our collective heap. The initial phase of making a vaccine for COVID-19, a zoonotic disease, involves trafficking mice to labs. Hear me out. Not only are we shifting our burdens to other beings here; we’re using the lab animal market to save us from a sickness which, we think, came from the street animal market.

Can’t we ever transcend exploitation? “But they’re only mice” is not a great argument. And they’re not only mice. In other COVID-19 laboratory news, The Daily Beast reports a $1,840,000 deal between the NIH and the traders of nonhuman primates.

Social Distancing From the Habitats of Others

Can quarantine mean ending our invasions of nature? Can social distancing mean refraining from invading the forests that still remain? Even the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest haven’t escaped COVID-19. Researchers are worried that the world’s dwindling populations of nonhuman great apes are also vulnerable, and some want to ban habituation practices for eco-tourism. Why on Earth do we feel the need to “habituate” other apes in the first place? Their land is their home — not our entertainment option.

What about the positive things we can do? Infections change as climates do. What can we do to avert the next catastrophe? Believe me, going vegan is a whole lot easier than hoarding packages of frozen food, running out of toilet paper, wearing masks, checking the death counts, canceling funerals and losing our jobs. On the positive side, vegan living is:

* Low-carbon and resource-frugal.

* A direct way to nourish ourselves with plants, rather than processing crops through the environmentally devastating, unhealthful practice of animal husbandry.

* A great way to help shrink the marine dead zones, by reducing the pollution of animal farm run-off.

Can we transcend the culture of confinement? Can the human apes find ways to stop hoarding wealth? Will we learn to share the prosperity we get at our environment’s expense — undoing incentives to extract and store? Because real “affluence” is not a reservoir; it’s something that flows. And real “resilience” in the face of health and environmental crises must involve asking deep questions about why our modern crises emerge.

So, on we go. As my friend Maggie writes from Trenton: “Scary but not unexpected times. Yes indeed, this is a warning shot.” Things will never return to a 2019 version of normalcy. We’re all going to be living differently. No time like the present to make real, root-level changes.

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