A wet market in Hong Kong
A wet market in Hong Kong. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the 1918 flu pandemic.

The likely source of the virus were the piggeries and poultry farms that surrounded the encampments of British and German soldiers in France during World War I.

Next is AIDS, which probably began in New York City (as the “junkie fever”) in 1977, spread by shared needles, later, by sexual contact.

The likely source was animals hunted in the West Central African forests. Whether bitten by the prey or during butchering, hunters contracted via cross-species transmission a simian immunodeficiency virus, then passed it on, often during sexual contact.

Similar origin and spread typified the 1976 and 2014-2016 country-confined outbreaks of Ebola, named for the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The likely source there, besides people in direct contact with wildlife and their waste, was “bushmeat consumption,” that is, primarily the ingestion of nonhuman primates—chimps, gorillas, and monkeys.

Onto SARS, a coronavirus-like disease, with outbreaks in 2002-2003 and 2012-2013. Here the source were civets (a small, catlike animal) and cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province. The meat of the civet is considered a culinary delicacy to the Chinese.

Can you guess the viral sources of Swine Flu in the 1970s and Mad Cow Disease (bovine encephalopathy) in the 1990s?

And now, the latest grim reaper, coronavirus, whose purveyors were first, bats, civets, and pangolins, a scaly anteater, and second, tribal traditions that dictate the hunting and eating of wild animals is an unchallengeable right, belonging to ethnic groups, which preserves the group’s cultural integrity.

Scientists and journalists like to say viruses “leap” from animal to human, implying that a virus is its own agent, bounding, willy-nilly, from species to species. In fact, such leaping originates in one of two inseparable ways—trafficking and consuming wildlife. Transmission (the hands-to-face kind) occurs when traders cram these “delicacies” into cages where they are raised and transported, often stacking animals on top of each other, allowing them to contaminate one another.

Consumption is an obvious source, though, you would think that cooking the meat at cell-killing temperatures would stop transmission. Despite the heat, I doubt in any market where pangolin is served for dinner, that cutting boards, plastic bowls, and chopsticks are sterilized and, therefore, safe before the locals dig in.

As I say, deep in our species, the omnivores, is a cultural proclivity to ritualize killing the bison, eating its raw heart, roasting and feasting on its shanks, and salting the meat for winter. But that arises in our early speciation. Today that “tradition” is manufactured by international trafficking in wildlife and by the jet-set devourers, that is, the romantic food hunts of the MSNBC foodie, Andrew Zimmern, or the late Anthony Bourdain, who in his books, but not his CNN show, sampled a good deal of illegal game.

I understand that precautions can be taken with animal slaughter whether local or industrial. In America, corporate meat is mostly safe, so my healthy meatatarian friends tell me; it’s protected by stiff inspection protocols and antibiotics and hormonal additives, though I counter that meat-eaters are unaware how safe these products are nor how much animals suffer in their feedlot concentrations, despite the organic, “grass-fed” movement for healthy beef.

We live now in a human-hazardous world of international trade, exotic travel, million-dollar safaris, and food tourism—not to mention the rights big- and small-game hunters ascribe for themselves to hunt and kill what they like or, in lieu of such rights, violate anti-poaching laws and are never prosecuted.

The food markets of the world where wild animals are traded and eaten must be banned by every government and by every wildlife-consuming ethnicity. Yet so deep in us is the habit of human dominion over animals that I don’t see this holocaust (worldwide, 70 billion animals a year are killed for food) ever changing. Despite a century of animal-borne viruses, people have decided eating meat and the industries that support it are irrevocably supercharged into our DNA and essential to our economy.

Thus, only vaccines can bulwark viruses. Only vaccines will save us.

But, while the researchers find a vaccine, here’s a way to consider ending wildlife exploitation and letting animals enjoy what we enjoy in most societies—the simple right to exist, free of, or protected from, human predation.

We grant ourselves personhood. This protects us from harm whether in the womb, with life-saving inoculations, with legal and property rights, with rights of assembly and speech, with government assistance, even with the right-to-die.

Contrarily, we regard animals as things—zoo acts, cageable sideshows, slaughter-ready service beasts—over which we hold live-or-die control, deeming them essential our food-chain.

Why can’t our sentient brothers and sisters be afforded the same basic right to live free from harm, not all harm (many animals are meat-eaters themselves), but, at least, from our ingesting their flesh? If not, another day, like today, the virus-carrying chickens will come home to roost.

Thomas Larson, a vegetarian, is a San Diego writer.