GUANGZHOU, Guangdong province, China––Representing the unholy marriage of wildlife consumption with factory farming, an estimated 10,000 masked palm civets, tanukis, (also called raccoon dogs), and hog badgers were sacrificed in the first 10 days of January 2004 for the sins of the meat industry.
Mostly cage-reared from wild-caught ancestors, the civets, tanukis, and hog badgers were either drowned in disinfectant or electrocuted, still in their cages, as China tried to prevent a recurrence of the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak that killed 774 people worldwide in 2003, after killing 142 people in 2002. The animals’ remains were burned.
More than three million chickens, ducks, geese, and quail were killed elsewhere in Southeast Asia to try to contain outbreaks of H5N1, an avian flu virus that can spread directly to humans. The first known identification of the outbreak came after the Taiwan Coast Guard intercepted six ducks after they were thrown from a mainland Chinese fishing boat into the water off Kinmen island. The crew may have been disposing of sick ducks who were taken to sea as food, but rumors have identified the incident with everything from exotic animal smuggling to germ warfare.
By January 21, 2003 at least six nations were affected and 14 Vietnamese, mostly children, had died from H5N1 symptoms, with five human H5N1 deaths confirmed.
“Southern China, where poultry and pigs are raised alongside each other in high-density farms, is a reservoir of mutating viruses,” Adam Luck of the Daily Telegraph reported on January 18. “In the past, H5N1 killed only chickens, but wild birds, ducks, and geese are all dying in the fresh outbreak.”
“There is a vital need for information from mainland China,” World Health Organization virology adviser Robert Webster told Luck. “Where the hell are all these viruses coming from? What is going on in Vietnam is of very great concern. If H5N1 gets out of control it will make SARS look quite trivial like a puff of smoke.”
“A pandemic influenza is certainly much bigger than SARS,” microbiologist Malik Peiris told Jonathan Ansfield of Reuters. The three most deadly flu epidemics of the 20th centry, in 1918-19, 1957-58, and 1967-68, all originated in the farms and live markets of Guangdong. As recently as 1997-98 Hong Kong civil servants killed more than 3.5 million poultry to stop an H5N1 outbreak that apparently came from Guangdong, despite official denials.
WHO regional coordinator Peter Cordingly told Doan Bao Chu of Associated Press in Manila, Philippines, that H5N1 is “a bigger potential problem than SARS because we don t have any defense against the disease. If it latches onto human influenza virus, it could cause serious international damage.”
South Korea detected H5N1 on December 15. On December 21, after limited culling failed to keep it from spreading, Prime Minister Goh Hun ordered the slaughter of 2.5 million chickens and miscellaneous other fowl. A five-year-old boy had contracted the disease, but recovered.
The Korea Herald, not friendly toward protests against dog-and-cat-eating, on December 26, 2003 published an extensive expose of inhumane culling methods, denounced by Voice4Animals founder Park Chang-kil.
At least two million chickens had died from H5N1 in Vietnam by January 20, or were killed in containment efforts but Ministry of Agriculture deputy veterinary director Nguyen Van Thong acknowledged to Tini Tran of Associated Press that as many as 900,000 infected chickens had been sold and eaten, mostly in Long An and Tien Giang provinces.
Thailand killed more than 850,000 chickens in 20 provinces after discovering three human cases of H5N1.
Cambodia, between Vietnam and Thailand, almost certainly had been hit as well. Japan killed 6,000 chickens in one infected flock. Taiwan killed 50,000 chickens to contain a milder avian flu before it had time to mutate.
BSE found in Washington
Also sacrificed to controlling disease resulting from factory farming practices were nearly 600 cows and calves in Washington state, plus about 150 cattle in Alberta, after a test on the brain of a downed six-year-old Holstein dairy cow who was slaughtered in Washington on December 9 discovered two weeks later that she had the first known case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE for short, in the U.S.
The cattle were killed for testing, as at least 36 nations banned imports of U.S. beef and byproducts of cattle slaughter, because they were either close relatives of the infected cow, or had lived on the same farms.
BSE has been linked since 1996 to the brain-destroying and inevitably fatal new-variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. Recent studies also indicate that mad cow disease may be implicated in the older form of CJD, previously considered a condition of age, and that CJD may be spread through blood transfusions as well as through consumption of infected cattle.
Fears that SARS might once again erupt in Guangdong and spread were whetted by the discovery of three new cases, all in Guangzhou, the Guangdong capital. They were the first, other than two cases of accidental self-infection by researchers in Singapore and Taiwan, since May 23, 2003.
The first known victim was 32-year-old television producer Luo Jian, who fell ill on December 16 with the coronavirus found in civets, but swore he had never eaten or handled a civet. Describing himself to the official Xinhua news agency as “an environmentalist who is against the slaughter of living creatures,” Luo said he had recently removed a baby mouse from a bath tub with a pair of chopsticks, and had tossed the mouse outside through an open window. That was his only known contact with wildlife.
The China Daily on January 6 issued an unconfirmed report, contradicted by the WHO, that the SARS virus had been found in 30 rats trapped in Luo s apartment. WHO said the rats tested free of SARS.
The chance that rats carry SARS alarmed authorities not only because rats are ubiquitous and virtually ineradicable, but also because rats are eaten in Guangdong. Three weeks earlier the newspaper Xinxishibao reported that one restaurant in Zhuhai city serves more than 100 rat meat dishes per day.
The second known SARS victim of the new outbreak was waitress Zheng Ling, 20, who worked in a Guangzhou restaurant that served civet meat.
The third victim was a 35-year-old man.
Said Guangdong health bureau official Feng Liuxiang, “We will start a patriotic health campaign to kill rats and cockroaches in order to give every place a thorough cleaning for the Lunar New Year,” January 22, 2004, a holiday marked by public gatherings and travel to visit distant relatives.
WHO warned that the hasty killing of suspect animals could be more dangerous than letting the animals live, since the exact means by which they shed the SARS virus is still unknown. In addition, killing the animals and disposing of their remains destroyed potentially valuable medical evidence.
Beijing environmentalist Guo Geng told the Sina.com news web site that the civets, tanukis, and hog badgers should have been released into the wild, to replenish the depleted Guangdong wildlife population.
“I’d love it if Cantonese stopped eating them,” he said. “We shouldn’t be worried about these animals spreading disease, because when they see a human they turn and run.”
The new SARS outbreak came a month after an opinion poll conducted by the Shanghai #2 Medical Sciences University Public Health Institute found that among 400 Shanghai residents, 83% had eaten wildlife, 42% said they would continue to eat wildlife despite SARS, 23% said they would remain avid wildlife eaters, and only 2% agreed that wild animals deserve to be protected for their own sake.
The findings showed almost twice the level of interest in eating wildlife that the International Fund for Animal Welfare discovered in a 1998 survey of 864 residents of Shanghai and 839 residents of Beijing but the IFAW survey lumped the Shanghai and Beijing data together, apparently through lack of awareness that wild animals are not traditionally eaten in the Mandarin-speaking north of China.
Reappraising the IFAW findings on the presumption that the Shanghai residents responded comparably in 1998 and 2003 produces the inference, supported by recent observation in Beijing, that virtually all of the wildlife eaters polled by IFAW were in fact from Shanghai.
Here and there
“You can take some comfort in the knowledge that the fate the civets are now receiving is actually better than the fate that was in store for them,” offered Asian Animal Protection Network founder John Wedderburn, M.D., of Hong Kong. “Without this cull they would have been kept confined in miserable cages and then transported in wretched conditions to be slaughtered, almost certainly in a worse manner than drowning. We non-Chinese do not have the moral ground to shout at the Chinese for eating civets,” Wedderburn continued, “until our countries go vegan and we get rid of our slaughterhouses, where the methods of death are often no better.”
“If the suffering of these animals in Asia upsets you,” agreed PETA correspondent Coleen Kearon, “then you will be outraged to know that animal factory farms and slaughterhouses in our own backyards are guilty of the same heart-wrenching cruelty. Chickens, who are intelligent creatures with distinct personalities like cats and dogs, are crammed into filthy, tiny cages and left with no room to move. They, like the cats in the images you may have seen from Asian live markets, are also thrown into scalding tanks (designed to remove feathers), often while still fully conscious. We are outraged at images of dogs being strung up and having their throats slit,” Kearon said, “but we allow slaughterhouses to dangle a cow by one leg and do the same thing, while she writhes and screams.”
Intensive national coverage of the BSE discovery in Washington state often reinforced Kearon’s point––though the emphasis was on human health, not animal welfare.
“The news cracked open a door on the industrial kitchen where America’s meat is prepared, and what we glimpsed was enough to send even the heartiest diner to the vegetarian entré,” opined New York Times Magazine contributing writer Michael Pollan. “We learned, for example, that the beef we have been eating might consist of meat from a cow so sick and hobbled that she must be dragged to the slaughterhouse…Then her carcass is often subjected to an Advanced Meat Recovery System so efficient at stripping flesh from spinal cord that the chances are good (35% in one study) that the resultant frankfurter contains central nervous system tissue,” precisely the tissue most likely to contain the infectious prions thought to communicate BSE.
Culled from a dairy herd in Mabton, Washington, the infected downer was slaughtered at Vern’s Moses Lake Meat Co., and deboned at Midway Meats in Chehalis. By the time she was found to have had BSE, her meat had reportedly been sold to as many as eight western states plus Guam.
The USDA screening program for BSE had not tested any cattle from Washington since 2001, according to records obtained by Steve Mitchell of United Press International.
“We have been eating downers and really picking their bones clean,” Pollan continued. “And what did these animals eat? Many of us were surprised to learn that despite the FDA s August 1997 ban on feeding cattle cattle meat and bone meal, feedlots continue to rear these herbivores as cannibals. When young, they routinely receive milk replacer made from bovine blood; later, their daily ration is apt to contain rendered cattle fat as well as feed made from ground-up pigs and chickens. But the grossest feedlot dish has to be chicken litter, the nasty stuff shoveled out of chicken houses: bedding, feathers and overlooked feed, which may contain the same bovine meat and bone meal that FDA rules prohibit in cattle feed.”
The BSE-carrying Washington downer was fed meat-and-bone meal in Alberta in 1997, investigators learned.
Only one day before the case was discovered, the USDA trumpeted the highest beef prices on record.
Beef industry lobbying clout had killed the most recent of a decade of attempts by Farm Sanctuary to pass a federal anti-downer amendment criticized by the Humane Farming Association as too weak to actually keep sick and injured animals from being sold to slaughter even if enacted. The 2003 version of the amendment just barely missed passage in July by the House of Representatives, 202-199, and cleared the Senate on a voice vote in November, but was not included in the final reconciled version of the legislation to which it was attached.
Farm Sanctuary has also pursued litigation against the USDA for allegedly failing to protect public health by not regulating against the slaughter of downers. A federal court trial judge dismissed a 1998 Farm Sanctuary lawsuit contending that the lack of regulation exposed member Michael Baur to the risk of contracting CJD. Just after the Washington downed cow was slaughtered, but a week before she was sfound to have BSE, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the case, agreeing that Baur had successfully alleged a credible threat of harm from downed cattle.
The case may now be moot, since on December 30 the USDA banned the slaughter for human consumption of any nonambulatory bovines but the ban does not cover other species, and does not stop slaughtering downers for pet food.
The American Veterinary Medical Association on January 1, 2004 approved a statement intended to improve the treatment of downed pigs, but stopped short of recommending that they not be slaughtered for human consumption.
Except for one extensive report by Melody Petersen, syndicated by the New York Times on November 15, 2003, the discovery of mad cow disease in the U.S. usurped media notice of a petition filed the day before by the Humane Farming Association, asking South Dakota attorney general Lawrence E. Long to enforce animal cruelty laws at the Sun Prairie pig complex on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
HFA has been helping Sioux opponents of factory hog farming since 1998. In February 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an April 2002 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals verdict that may evict Sun Prairie from the reservation if Sun Prairie loses a crossfiled case still underway.
Meanwhile, Sun Prairie began pig production at 24 barns on two sites in 1999, with combined output of 96,000 pigs per year. The HFA petition to Long was accompanied by 65 pages of employee interviews and photos gathered by HFA chief investigator Gail Eisnitz. The materials detail conditions falling short of even the rudimentary animal welfare and sanitation standards that factory pig farms usually claim to meet.
Much of the cruelty may be attributable to poorly trained staff, frequent turnover, and high absenteeism, but those are management responsibilities. Until basic animal welfare and sanitation standards are met, the Eisnitz report indicates that––as PETA charges of the entire U.S. pig industry––the major difference between the conditions for pigs on the Rosebud reservation and for animals in the live markets of Guangdong may be only that the Sun Prairie barns have walls and roofs that hide the filth and misery.
(See also “SARS spread from live markets, but when?,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-oa.)