No animals other than bats & humans are known to get COVID-19, but millions are affected by the human response
WASHINGTON D.C.––Animals and animal-related projects from Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo to National Institutes of Health-funded laboratories are feeling the impact of the international COVID-19 scare underway throughout early 2020, even without any non-human animals having yet been identified as infected.
The Democratic Republic of Congo on March 22, 2020 closed Virunga National Park to visitors until June 1, 2020, reported Rodney Muhumuza of Associated Press, “citing ‘advice from scientific experts indicating that primates, including mountain gorillas, are likely susceptible to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus.’”
National economies depend on the gorillas
Continued Muhumuza, “Neighboring Rwanda also is temporarily shutting down tourism and research activities in three national parks that are home to primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees. Uganda has not announced a shutdown of gorilla tourism, although tourist traffic from Europe and elsewhere has dwindled.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda are together home to about 1,000 highly endangered mountain gorillas. Tourists coming to see gorillas are a leading source of employment and income in all three nations. That source revenue would be lost if any deadly communicable disease raced through the gorilla population.
But neither humans nor gorillas follow safety rules
Measures meant to protect gorillas from human-transmitted diseases, for example rules requiring human visitors to stay at least 21 feet from gorillas, have proved to be almost impossible to enforce, Muhumuza wrote, citing a recent study by Ugandan conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
“What the research found is that [21-foot] rule was broken almost all the time, like 98% of the time,” Kalema-Zikusoka told Muhumuza. “But what was interesting,” Kalema-Zikusoka added, is that 60% of the time it was tourists that broke it and 40% of the time it was the gorillas who broke it.”
Pangolins vanish from Gabon markets
About 2,400 miles away, as the roads run, and about 2,000 miles away by air, Agence France Presse reported from Libreville, the capital city of the West African nation of Gabon, “Pangolins were once a prized item in the markets, but bushmeat sellers have started hiding the small, scaly mammals behind boar legs and porcupine carcasses. Trading the endangered animal, considered to be the most poached in the world, is illegal in the West African country. But that’s not why the merchants are hiding their stocks. Chinese researchers suspect the pangolin of transmitting the COVID-19 to humans. As a result, bushmeat sellers have lost some of their best customers.”
Three of the four African pangolin species, all of them recognized as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, are native to Gabon.
Will Vietnam ban wildlife markets?
Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on March 18, 2020 followed the Chinese government in calling for legislation to stop illegal trading and consumption of wildlife.
“The directive, seen as a victory for animal rights organizations, will lead to a clamping down on street-side markets dotted across the country, increase prosecutions of online traders, and ideally put pressure on thousands of farms with known links to illegal wildlife trading,” predicted Mongabay correspondent Chris Humphrey.
But a week later Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s personal web page, though full of other COVID-19 news, had nothing about the proposed wildlife trade ban.
Labs are killing mice to reduce inventory
On the far side of the world, Science magazine writer David Grimm on March 23, 2020 all but retracted his March 18, 2020 article rebutting a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals allegation that laboratories had begun killing thousands of mice in response to COVID-19, an article summarized two days later by ANIMALS 24-7.
At issue: apparently some of Grimm’s major sources changed their stories.
Grimm’s update mentioned an edict to staff from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine that “mouse/rodent users should cull their colonies as much as possible,” and a similar directive to staff issued by Oregon Health & Science University.
“Hopi Hoekstra, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, has already euthanized nearly half of her lab’s approximately 1,000 mice,” Grimm reported.
“The U.S. National Institutes of Health [NIH] banned its scientists from ordering new animals,” Grimm added, “but has not said whether it has begun to proactively cull mice.”
Lab chiefs walk back statements
Peter Smith, associate director of the Yale University Animal Resources Center, and Eric Hutchinson, director of research animal resources at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, insisted to Grimm five days earlier that animals would not be killed because of staff shortages during the COVID-19 crisis, but both changed their tunes.
“Hutchinson,” wrote Grimm, “has been assisting with much of the culling himself.
“Neither Yale nor Johns Hopkins has mandated that researchers cull their mice,” Grimm clarified. “Instead, they have asked scientists to evaluate which animals are ‘extraneous.’ In many cases, this includes mice who would have been euthanized anyway, because, for example, they weren’t born with the genetic profile the lab needed for particular experiments.
“Experimenters choosing convenience”
“At the moment, Science has not seen evidence that larger animals such as cats, dogs, or monkeys are being proactively euthanized—and PETA has not made that claim yet,” Grimm said.
“Hutchinson says he expects that to remain the case. Unlike larger animals, he says, mice breed quickly and must be used quickly. And because they comprise about 95% of all research animals, they suck up the most money and time,” Grimm concluded.
Responded PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo, “Experimenters are again choosing the path of convenience and simply killing animals who should never have been bought, bred, or experimented on in the first place.”
FDA halts routine inspections
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates production of about 77% of the U.S. food supply, meanwhile on March 18, 2020 announced that “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it “is halting all routine surveillance inspections of facilities that manufacture food and other FDA-regulated products,” Jenny G. Zhang of Eater.com reported.
“This change,” Zhang explained, “which comes a week after the FDA announced the suspension of most foreign inspections, affects domestic inspections traditionally conducted every few years based on risk analysis.”
Contaminated food vs. COVID-19
What the change means, Zhang assessed, is that “Thanks to the coronavirus and social distancing measures, there may be fewer workers in plants; those who continue to show up may be tired or stressed, which could lead to more mistakes that slip through the cracks. Internal and third-party audits may also decline due to the pandemic. Add the suspension of routine inspections to the mix, and that leaves public health infrastructure as the last failsafe, typically in the form of monitoring for outbreaks of foodborne illness. But as the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to rise, the vast majority of public health resources have been shifted to address the coronavirus crisis. How much can be left to detect foodborne illness outbreaks?”
The National Institutes of Health estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths per year in the U.S., or about 81,250 hospitalizations and 1,250 deaths per calendar quarter. Add to that many thousands of animal illnesses and deaths caused by food contamination.
COVID-19, by contrast, has at this writing caused 42,000 hospitalizations and 515 deaths of humans in just under one calendar quarter, and is not known to harm any domesticated animal species.
Stampede of cancellations
March 18, 2020 was also the day that “The Calgary Stampede has temporarily laid off close to 900 staff — around 80% of its workforce — amid uncertainty from the ongoing outbreak of the new coronavirus,” reported Sammy Hudes of the Calgary Herald.
“The majority of the staff affected are 608 casual part-time employees,” Hudes wrote, but also laid off were “282 regular part-time and regular full-time staff.
“Despite the move,” Hudes added, “the annual 10-day July event has not been called off.”
IPPL & New Harvest conferences cancelled
International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal had already cancelled the IPPL biennial conference, back on February 26, 2020. The IPPL conference was to have been held on March 27-28 at the IPPL headquarters and sanctuary for gibbons and Asian otters in Summerville, South Carolina.
New Harvest on March 17, 2020 cancelled its annual conference, the most prominent in each of the past two years focused on cell-cultured alternatives to animal products. New Harvest 2020 was to have been hosted on July 10-11, like the first two New Harvest conferences, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology media laboratory, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
HSUS Animal Care Expo goes down too
“With the country in the grip of the coronavirus for an indefinite period,” announced Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block on March 24, 2020, “we’ve decided to cancel Animal Care Expo 2020, scheduled to be held in San Antonio, Texas, this May.
“The general demand for social distancing and the local, state and federal prohibitions on large gatherings were a crucial factor in our decision,” Block explained. “But even before those emerged, the anticipated difficulties that so many individuals would face in arranging travel, securing employer permission to attend, applying for travel visas and putting themselves at risk made the decision obvious and necessary.”
Attracting several thousand participants each year, Animal Care Expo has been the biggest annual event in the humane field since 1992.
ASPCA “Relief & Recovery Initiative”
The Animal Care Expo cancellation upstaged the American SPCA announcement the preceding day of a $5 million “Relief & Recovery Initiative,” including grants of $2 million to be made available to “animal shelters in critical need of funds” and to help humane organizations to distribute pet food “to pet owners who face challenges providing food for their animals.”
Animal shelters around the U.S. have for several weeks been “taking measures to reduce the number of pets coming into the shelter,’ typically by reducing intake hours or refusing to accept animals entirely, “ while also seeking ‘on-call’ emergency fosters who can take home a pet if the shelter nears critical capacity,” as Caitlin Schmidt of Tucson.com put it when the Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson joined the list.
“Guidance from the National Animal Care & Control Association advised shelters to take extra measures to reduce intake,” Schmidt explained. “For now, shelter staff are asking owners who are not facing an immediate crisis to hold off on surrendering healthy pets for up to four weeks. Owner surrenders, which require an appointment, account for about 40% of pets that enter the Pima Animal Care Center,” a media release from the shelter said.
North Shore closes for only 3rd time in 50 years
Relatively few shelters reduced adoption hours at first, but as New York state governor Andrew Cuomo intensified pressure on “non-essential” businesses to close for the duration of the COVID-19 scare, the North Shore Animal League America on March 21, 2020 announced that “Our adoption center will be doing adoptions by appointment only and will not be open to the public.”
The North Shore Animal League America shelter is believed to have closed for adoption visits during normal operating hours only twice previously since 1969: after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
The Colorado Agriculture Commission on March 21, 2020 responded to animal shelter overcrowding amid the COVID-19 panic by adopting a temporary emergency rule exemption that allows “approved facilities to transfer pet animals to a foster care provider without first conducting a home inspection for the next 120 days,” announced media contact Mary Peck.
“The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has resulted in both an increase in pet animals being transferred to shelters, sanctuaries and rescues,” Peck said, “and a shortage of facility staff to care for those animals. The temporary emergency rule will allow approved facilities to transfer pet animals quickly and to more homes than would otherwise be possible,” but will not ensure that animals are not transferred into “rescue hoarding” situations, which is the reason for the rule normally requiring home inspections.