When will we learn? Now that monkeypox has been detected in Canada, Portugal, Spain, the UK, and the US, we should accept that our toxic relationship with animals is sleepwalking us into disaster. If we continue to use and abuse animals, we risk triggering another global pandemic.
Like Sars, swine flu, and Covid-19, monkeypox is a zoonotic disease that jumped to humans from other species. This has happened with three-quarters of infectious diseases that have recently emerged in humans.
The monkeypox virus was first seen outside Africa in 2003, when it spread to humans in six US states, from exotic animals exported to be kept as pets. All 47 infected people had contracted it directly from infected animals. It can also be caught by eating or preparing the flesh of infected animals.
In the current outbreak, we are now seeing human-to-human transmission on several continents. The threat from monkeypox “should not be underestimated”, according to a peer-reviewed scientific report in February. The virus, a close relative of smallpox, has an incubation period of up to 21 days after infection, and symptoms can be grim. It can cause thousands of lesions all over the body, and in Africa it killed as many as one in 10 humans who caught it.
It’s time we accepted that snatching animals from their natural homes, confining them to filthy cages in close proximity to each another (at markets or farms), and killing and eating them will lead to more zoonotic diseases like monkeypox. These diseases will also have unpredictable mutations and potentially deadly outcomes. Scientists were able to develop a vaccine to help protect against Covid-19, but next time they may not be able to.
We need to stop thinking of animals as commodities, and instead as communities with whom we share the planet. Until then we will be subject to more deadly pandemics. And horrific cruelty to animals will continue.
Every person who eats or wears animal-derived products plays a part in this abuse. The root of the problem lies in a worldview that regards other animals as inferior. We call this “speciesism”. This prejudice has led to the use of animals for food, clothes, entertainment, home furnishings, and even spare body parts. David Bennett Sr, the first human to undergo a pig heart transplant earlier this year, died soon afterwards. Despite extensive screening of the genetically modified organ, a post-mortem suggested he may have become infected with a porcine virus.
Speciesism is the reason why animals are subjected to horrific experiments in laboratories and why exotic animals are caged as “pets”. Our treatment of animals is coming back to haunt us now. These deadly outbreaks of diseases are a result of our insistence on using and abusing them. Mink farms showed how easily Covid-19 could jump from animals to humans.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has warned that the world is not ready to cope with future pandemics, saying, “Political focus to prepare for more waves is flagging”, with “weak links at every point in the chain”. Disaster seems inevitable. Factory farms and wet markets, such as the one where Covid-19 likely originated, are breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases. Slaughterhouses are awash with bodily fluids and filth, animals – including those from “free-range” farms – are transported to them on dirty trucks, and pathogens spread rapidly between species.
In the UK, a human has already been infected with bird flu and experts warn it’s only a matter of time before there is a widespread human outbreak. Bird flu can be caught by touching infected birds or even eggshells, eating undercooked meat or eggs, or consuming food prepared on the same surface as infected food.
And it’s not just pandemics that we are risking. To keep animals alive and accelerate their growth, farm workers often pump them full of antibiotics, leading to the emergence of resistant “superbugs”, one of the greatest threats to human health. Without effective antibiotics, even simple surgeries could become fatal. Experts warn that by 2050, more people could die of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria than of cancer. As more and more aggressive superbugs emerge, the death toll could reach 10 million human deaths per year unless we take action now.
So, what can be done?
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We can each decide what (or whom) we want to put on our plates, which clothes we wear, furnishings we choose and toiletries we buy. As long as people continue to use and abuse animals, we will be running the risk of triggering outbreaks of disease and pandemics for which there are no effective vaccines.
We will also be supporting cruelty to animals and remaining complicit in the mass slaughter of sentient beings. The solution is simple: follow a plant-based lifestyle. Leave animals in peace. Behave in a way that shows compassion for all. For the sake of all animals, including humans, take action now.
Dr Julia Baines serves as science policy adviser for PETA UK. She has a PhD from the University of Liverpool with a background in animal behaviour and welfare