The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, revealing the devastating impact of zoonotic diseases. While many believe these diseases were ignited by the chains of animal commerce, the focus has often been on other countries. However, a deeper analysis shows that the United States is not exempt from these risks. From wet markets to exotic pet trade, the scale and diversity of animal use in the U.S. make the country uniquely vulnerable to zoonotic outbreaks. This article delves into the hidden risks associated with animal use within the United States and the urgent need for prevention.
The United States not only processed a staggering 10 billion livestock animals for food in 2022 but also holds the title of being the largest importer of wildlife globally. This includes hundreds of millions of wild animals annually, many of which enter the country without proper health and safety checks. The presence of “wet markets,” with 84 of them in New York City alone, is also cause for concern. These markets involve keeping different species alive in cages and slaughtering them on-site. Moreover, the consumption of “bushmeat,” referred to as “game” in the U.S., reaches an estimated 1 billion pounds annually.
While large-scale industries pose significant risks, there is a vast array of smaller ones that carry their own constellation of dangers. These industries often operate under the radar, unacknowledged by the public. From camel farms to backyard bird production, bat guano harvesting to wholesale wildlife dealers, each of these industries contributes to the potential for zoonotic outbreaks. Moreover, the lack of regulation and documentation in these sectors makes it difficult to gauge the number of animals involved, their locations, and the diseases they may carry.
Zoonotic outbreaks are not isolated historical events; they are living threats that continue to evolve. For instance, the research conducted on wildlife farming uncovered the contraction of COVID-19 by minks on fur farms in Utah. These animals then transmitted a new variant of the virus back to humans in Michigan. Shockingly, some states do not even require licenses for these operations, despite their combination of risk factors. Additionally, the emergence of new outbreaks, such as cases of mpox in Massachusetts, reminds us of past deadly viruses that originated in animals, such as HIV.
As the research unfolded, the largest avian influenza outbreak in history occurred, leaving over 58 million birds dead on U.S. poultry farms. This outbreak also affected mammals and a man in Colorado, raising concerns about the transmission of the virus across different species. It became evident that backyard chicken coops, zoos, petting zoos, live bird markets, commercial game farms, and hunting ranches were all potential breeding grounds for pandemic strains. However, the lack of documentation and regulation within these industries makes it impossible to assess the true risks they pose.
The question that looms over us is whether the risks associated with these industries are worth the potential repercussions. As individuals, we must acknowledge the gravity of these issues and consider the long-term consequences. The sacrifices made by frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic call upon all of us to act responsibly. With the knowledge gained from their expertise and experience, there is an inherent obligation for everyone to advocate for prevention measures that can safeguard us from future pandemic threats.
The United States cannot afford to overlook the hidden risks of animal use within its borders. The scale and diversity of these industries make the country exceptionally vulnerable to zoonotic outbreaks. It is crucial to address the poorly regulated practices, such as wet markets and exotic pet trade, and implement stricter measures to prevent future pandemics. By taking proactive steps and advocating for change, we can work towards a safer future for all. The lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic must serve as a catalyst for action and a commitment to prevent similar crises in the future.