HONG KONG––Animals sold in the live markets of Guangdong province, China, suffered first and worst from the conditions that afflicted the world with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of the past nine months––but Asian animal defenders are hopeful that a legacy of the epidemic may be the end of live markets for animals sold as meat.
SARS by June 11, 2003 had killed at least 789 people, sickened 8,435, scared tens of millions, and dealt cities from Beijing to Hanoi staggering economic setbacks.
As recognition developed that SARS is a zoonotic disease, passed from animals to humans, pets were initially blamed. In April police killed the pets of SARS victims in Beijing, mobs killed dogs and cats in other cities, and animal abandonments overwhelmed even the Hong Kong SPCA.
The killings and abandonments markedly slowed, however, after Beijing city publicity chief Cai Fuzhou spoke out on May 24. “According to the information I got from experts, there is not a single case of pets getting SARS, and there is no evidence of pets transmitting SARS to people,” Cai said, in a statement amplified abroad by Agence France-Presse. “I would like to advise petkeepers to cherish your beloved ones, since you decided to raise them, and not to abandon your love in a casual manner.”
By then palm civets raised and sold for meat were identified as the apparent original hosts of SARS.
Even before that, Jasper Becker of The Independent reported from Beijing, “About 170,000 forestry officers raided 14,900 animal fairs and 67,800 hotels and restaurants. They found 838,500 endangered animals, including snakes, pangolins, anteaters, cranes, and turtles. More than 1,400 people were arrested. Beijing has closed the few restaurants it had that specialized in frogs, snakes, dogs, rare birds, and rare mammals.”
After the discovery of SARS in palm civets confirmed the link of the disease to live markets in Guangdong, whose residents reputedly “eat everything with legs but the table, officials searched 991 markets, 6,617 hotels and restaurants,” confiscated 30,334 animals, and canceled 2,197 permits to sell wildlife––all just in Guangdong.
Along with closing the wildlife markets, the city of Guangzhaou on June 3 banned sales of live poultry. Hong Kong was expected to soon do likewise.
Dog & cat markets
Although the Beijing live market closures were extended to the sale of dogs, in a city where cats are seldom eaten, the dog and cat meat markets of Guangdong are so far unaffected.
Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson made a game try to align all of the Hong Kong and mainland China animal advocacy organizations in joint opposition to the live marketing of any species except fish and traditional livestock.
Cheung Chi-Fai of the South China Morning Post reported on “International Day for Biodiversity” that 45 “green” groups had “signed and issued a joint statement calling for a ban on eating wild animals,” but the report was upstaged almost immediately when researchers from the World Health Organization and the University of Hong Kong announced the discovery of the SARS virus in six masked palm civets, a ferret badger, and a tanuki, also called a raccoon dog, often raised for fur. No longer commonly imported into the U.S., tanuki coats sold in the $2,000-$5,000 range circa 1988.
By June 4, the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases had also found the SARS virus in snakes, wild pigs, monkeys, and bats confiscated from live markets, where they may have been exposed either to palm civets or to infected humans.
The identification of the apparent animal hosts of the disease should have lent extra weight to the statement Robinson wanted to issue parallel to the “green” groups’ joint statement, drafted in cooperation with Lister Cheung Lai-ping, executive director of the Hong Kong Conservancy Association, and David Chu Yu-lin, a Hong Kong deputy to the National People’s Congress.
However, when Robinson’s statement was released to news media on May 29, 2003 there were only 11 co-signers, and when it was sent to the National People s Congress in Beijing two days later, three more had backed away.
Withdrawing because they “have different views on sustainable use of wildlife,” Robinson said, were the World Wildlife Fund, the WWF trade-monitoring subsidiary TRAFFIC, and Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden. The latter is a wildlife rehabilitation and nature education center in the New Territories of Hong Kong, distinguished for saving the lives of literally thousands of turtles, monkeys, and many other animals seized from wildlife smugglers.
At issue appeared to have been Robinson’s inclusion of dogs and cats in the joint statement, to make it a declaration of opposition to the live sale for human consumption of any animals other than fish, poultry, and domestic livestock. This would have contradicted the WWF and Kadoorie Farm policies of promoting sustainable use of animals, while avoiding involvement in issues not primarily concerned with biodiversity and conservation.
Kadoorie Farm executive director Manab Chakraborty said nothing about dogs and cats in his own statement, published by the South China Morning Post on June 5, but humane education is part of the Kadoorie Farm mission, and Chakraborty made clear from his first sentence that animal suffering at live markets is among his concerns, even if he is not willing to challenge dog and cat eating.
“We urge the public in Hong Kong and the mainland to stop consuming wild animals, for the sake of public health, biodiversity conservation, and animal welfare,” Chakraborty began. “During the last four years we have conducted surveys in eight marketplaces in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong where wild animals are traded for meat, medicine, and as pets. In our count of species, we recorded 39 mammals, 495 birds, 54 amphibians, and 249 reptiles for sale. More than 200 of these species are under international and national protection.
“Transport and trading are always undertaken under very unsanitary conditions that stress the animals and abet cross-transmission of diseases with humans,” Chakraborty added. “Wild animals are always poorly treated. Most found in markets are dehydrated, injured, and sick. Some traders develop cruel ways of killing them as a gimmick to attract customers seeking the new and exciting. Act now in saying no to this trade,” he pleaded.
S.F. Chinatown too
There is at least one precedent for changing the meat-buying habits of entire nations almost overnight, involving another continent where modern technology and affluence were at the time just beginning to supplant tradition. That was in the U.S., where most of the meat consumed as recently as 1920 was bought at open-air live markets. Poultry usually came home alive; pork sometimes did. Only beef, horsemeat, and mutton most often came from commercial slaughterhouses.
The typhoid epidemics that swept many cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago between 1910 and 1917 abruptly changed the public perspective on buying live meat. The turnabout in buying behavior began in 1917, when 31-year-old Clarence Birdseye discovered the technique of freezing food without precooking. Suddenly food products of every kind could be preserved without risk of typhoid contamination at a cost within the means of average citizens.
Before World War I, only the homes of the wealthy came with built-in iceboxes. Mechanical refrigeration, invented by John Gorrie in 1851 and almost immediately used by Jacob Fossel to make ice cream, remained mainly an industrial process used to cool whole sides of beef until the discovery of freon in 1930, but by 1950 few kitchens were without refrigerators, and traditional live markets, in the U.S. at least, served only a handful of ethnic neighborhoods.
Asian Week columnist Emil Guillermo, of San Francisco, and Action for Animals founder Eric Mills, of Oakland, are hopeful that the SARS outbreak might even bring the demise of the notorious live markets in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which have long resisted humane reform.
“In the past, some Asian Pacific American advocates have been willing to play the race card on the live market issue,” Guillermo observed on May 1. “Any attempt at vigorous law enforcement was seen as anti-Chinese. Politicians backed off. Now, to ignore the public health interests of all Americans, particularly Chinese Americans, is far more racist.”
Said Mills, “I visited four markets in San Francisco s Chinatown on May 8, and saw the same horrors: major overcrowding of birds and fish in very unsanitary conditions; frogs and turtles, sometimes mixed, stacked three and four deep, without water, many dead or dying; many fish slowly suffocating in cardboard boxes. I also found non-permitted turtles in three of the markets. Earlier I found frozen armadillos in an Oakland market.”
Dean E. Murphy of The New York Times reported on May 23 that Chinese-Americans themselves seemed to be avoiding Chinatown food purchases.
Since palm civets, ferret badgers, and tanukis are not often among the live fare offered in U.S. Chinatowns, the U.S. live markets may soon recover.
Epidemiologists warn, however, that as more exotic animals are offered for sale, especially as food, more exotic diseases can be expected to mutate into forms afflicting humans. The SARS epidemic was one warning. The monkeypox outbreak believed to have hit at least 33 people in Chicago and Milwaukee in early June 2003 was another. Apparently brought into the U.S. by accident with a Gambian giant pouched rat, considered a food animal in Central and West Africa, monkeypox is believed to have spread to prairie dogs at a Chicago pet store. It then hit pet prairie dog purchases.
Next time the disease could be worse than SARS, which actually killed remarkably few people, considering the high population density of the cities it attacked.
And next time the severely stressed, dehydrated, often injured and feverish cats and dogs on death row in Asian live markets could become the vector for transmitting whatever the disease, with potential to hit the consumers of as many as 10,000 cats and 30,000 to 50,000 dogs per day in Guangdong alone.