Volatile Live Animal Markets

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Volatile Live Animal Markets

By Michelle Jacmenovic, HSUS
May 2010

The stories coming out of Southern China where researchers have found a SARS-like virus in civet cats, which are regularly sold in wild-animal markets in the region, tend to give Americans a false sense of security. As long as we control our borders and ban potentially virus-laden wildlife, we're safe. Right?

Not necessarily.

Live markets, where consumers can purchase animals (wild or domestic) and have them slaughtered on the premises (or take them home) to ensure the meat is fresh, can be found all over the world, notably throughout California. The most famous live markets, of course, are in China. The Southern Chinese have a long tradition of eating wild game, including civet cats and snakes and turtles. People in the region believe eating wild animals promotes health and vitality or some admirable trait associated with a particular animal.

But whether in Southern China or Chinatown in San Francisco, live animal markets tend to share the same problems: Not only can they sell diseased animals for human consumption, but they can perpetuate a wide variety of animal cruelties, from inadequate housing to inhumane slaughtering. (Read Richard Farinato's modest proposal to stop marketing food that can kill us.)

The Conservation Threat

The ever-growing demand for wildlife is creating serious conservation concerns for many species. Turtles are perhaps the most dramatic case: Nearly two tons of turtles are sold daily in Asian live animal markets. The demand for turtles for use as food has decimated wild turtle populations across China. In recent years, Asian dealers have turned to other countries, in particular the United States, in order to meet the Asian appetite for freshwater turtles.

In 2002, 23,000 turtles were collected in North Carolina alone, up from just 460 in 2000. The majority of these turtles were shipped to Asian markets. In response to this growing demand, several states including North Carolina, South Carolina and Minnesota enacted legislation to protect wild freshwater turtles from over-collection for trade.

But turtles are not the only animal whose wild populations are at risk from live markets. An estimated 10,000 tons of snakes are eaten in China every year. In recent years, the over-collection of snakes across Asia has resulted in rodent population explosions in several areas, which in turn have caused severe crop damage and economic losses for many farmers.

The most profound problem associated with wildlife consumption in China has been the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), believed to have originated at live animal food markets in China's Guangdong Province, where it may have passed from animals to humans working in food preparation. SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. The illness quickly spread across 30 countries in East Asia, North America, South America, and Europe. Before being declared contained in July 2003, the SARS outbreak claimed the lives of 813 people and caused 8, 347 cases human illness.

Chinese Live Animal Markets

Animals at Chinese live markets are kept in deplorable, over-crowded conditions. Mammals and birds are crammed in wire cages where they can hardly move. Fish flail helplessly in a thin layer of filthy water. Live turtles and frogs are kept crammed in crates where animals on the bottom are frequently crushed by the weight of the animals above. None of the animals are fed, watered, sheltered from the elements or, least of all, have any opportunity to exercise due to severe overcrowding.

As a result, market animals are frequently in seriously compromised health because of these conditions. Animals taken from markets have been found to be carrying Salmonella, E coli, Pasturella, Giardia, and a variety of parasites.

What's more, slaughter methods employed by shop merchants show a complete disregard for the animals suffering or for maintaining sanitary conditions. Frogs are frequently skinned alive; turtles have their shells ripped from their backs and have their intestines removed while conscious; live birds are placed in plastic bags for sale.

Unsanitary and inhumane slaughter methods allow blood, intestinal contents, feces and urine to contaminate the market environment. Market alleys are periodically sprayed down with high-powered pressure hoses to clear the streets of blood and excrement from slaughtered animals. Health researchers believe that such practices create conditions conducive to cross infection between animals and humans, as is the case with the SARS virus. The SARS Outbreak

SARS is caused by an unknown member of the corona family of viruses, which is responsible for the common cold. It is believed that the most common route for SARS transmission between humans is by inhalation of contaminated airborne respiratory droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person, or by contact with surfaces contaminated by the virus that is passed to mucous membranes of the mouth, eyes or nose.

In May 2003, researchers announced that a corona virus, one that's 99% similar to SARS in humans, was isolated from civet cats and raccoon dogs taken from the live animal markets of Guangzhou City. A study conducted in Guangdong also indicated that more than 30% of the early SARS cases in Guangdong occurred among food handlers. That same month, May 2003, authorities in Guangdong banned all trade in wildlife, cancelled traveling animal shows; they also forced restaurants specializing in game to surrender any live animals.

In mid-August 2003, four months after suspending wildlife sales, the China State Forestry Administration—under pressure from wildlife merchants—reauthorized the sale of 54 species of wildlife, including the civet cat (a relative of the mongoose), provided that the animals were farm-raised. However, in November 2003, wild-caught animals were still found at the live markets in Guangzhou, including many reptiles, mammals, amphibians and birds in severely over-crowded conditions.

Nearly five months after the wildlife trade ban was lifted, the Chinese government confirmed a new case of SARS on January 5, 2004—in the Guangdong Province, where the first outbreak originated. The Chinese government immediately responded by announcing a massive eradication of the civet cats sold at markets and restaurants in Guangzhou City, even though the SARS victim reportedly had never eaten civet cat.

Wildlife markets were also shut down, and clean-up efforts included restaurants and food outlets. The government aimed to kill 10,000 civet cats from live markets by, among other methods, drowning them in vats of antiseptic solution and then incinerating their remains or boiling the animals into vapor.

The World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern about the eradication effort, saying that the hasty mass slaughter may actually increase the likelihood of spreading any disease. WHO officials also pointed out that although civet cats were found to carry a virus very similar to the one in human SARS victims, there is no evidence to suggest the cats are the original or only source of the disease. Researchers have found a SARS-like virus in a wide range of birds, reptiles, and mammals sold in markets and farms in south China. It is not yet known how the SARS virus jumped from wildlife to humans.

Live Markets in the United States

While the U.S. media report on the SARS epidemic and the conditions of live animal markets in China, many similar markets exist in Chinatowns across the United States, each with the same potential for a zoonotic disease outbreak such as SARS.

Live animal food markets exist throughout California, especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland as well as several large cities, including New York. Each year, California markets sell hundreds of thousands of turtles, frogs, fish, chickens, crustaceans, and many mammal species. Conditions at U.S. live animal markets can be no better than those in China. These markets have been the center of heated debates among market merchants, animal welfare advocates, and health agencies for many years.

To cite but one example: In an attempt to rescue animals from the cruelty of live markets, animal advocates purchase live critters (especially turtles and frogs) from the markets with the intention of releasing them back to the wild. However, live market animals may be carrying diseases that could be detrimental to local wildlife populations.

What's more, many non-native species of turtles and frogs are found for sale at the markets; if released into the wild, these imported species will compete with native wildlife species for food and habitat, thereby threatening their survival. For example, markets often feature American bullfrogs that are commercially raised in Taiwan. When released into the California ecosystem, these bullfrogs will eat native reptile and amphibian species such as garter snakes, and smaller frogs, possibly driving these species to extinction.

San Francisco's Live Markets

The ongoing battle over live markets has centered on San Francisco, home to the largest Chinatown in the United States. Attempts by animal welfare groups to improve conditions at the markets, or shut them down, have been met with charges of racism from the Asian-American community. Asian merchants claim that eating wild animals is an important tradition, and that attacking the live animal markets is an attack on Asian culture. Animal protection groups respond that the racism charge simply clouds the real issue of animal cruelty, and that live animal merchants should be held accountable for violating animal cruelty laws and health codes. They point out that California animal cruelty laws and health codes are routinely violated at the markets. At the same, they charge that because of the volatile political climate, local legislators and authorities are not willing to enforce existing legislation, which protects market animals from the inhumane conditions, cruel slaughter methods, and unsanitary environments that create a public health threat.

After market owners abandoned a voluntary agreement to adopt more humane slaughter methods and improve living conditions for their animals, animal advocate groups successfully pushed legislation. In 2000, AB 2479 was signed into law; it allowed frogs, turtles and birds, which make up the majority of animals sold at live markets, to be protected under California animal cruelty statutes. The cruelty statute prohibits stores from storing and displaying animals in ways likely to result in injury, starvation, or suffocation. It also prohibits stores from skinning and dismembering live animals.

It's a start. But only that.

What You Can Do

If you are concerned about live animal markets in the United States, there are several actions you can take:

  1. Contact your federal legislators and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and ask that they protect U.S. citizens by banning the import and sale of wild animals for the food and pet trade.
  2. If wildlife is being sold for food in a live market in your state, contact your local and state legislators, asking that they ban this practice.
  3. Contact state and local health departments regarding the unsanitary conditions at live animal markets.
  4. Contact state wildlife agencies about the dangers that non-native and diseased market animals may pose to local wildlife if released.

Here are some points you can make when communicating with local, state, and federal officials:

Public health concerns: Veterinary studies have shown that animals in live markets may be in compromised health, and may carry a variety of parasites and bacteria that could cause illness in humans who handle or eat them. Health organizations have warned that the filthy conditions and unsanitary slaughter methods common at live animal markets create the potential for human disease outbreaks such as SARS.

Environmental concerns: Animals released from the markets may be carrying diseases that could be devastating to local wild animal populations. Non-native species released from markets could also jeopardize native wildlife by competing for food and habitat.

Animal welfare law violations: Depending on the state and the location, animal cruelty laws may apply to some of the animals sold in live animal markets. If market vendors violate those laws, they should be held accountable.