Shenzhen Bans Dog and Cat Meat. How about Shutting Wild Animal Markets Across China?


Shenzhen Bans Dog and Cat Meat. How about Shutting Wild Animal Markets Across China?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, many news reports would refer to the newly discovered disease as the Wuhan coronavirus. The coronavirus comes from the same family as SARS, the disease that caused global panic in 2003, and acquired the name due to its origin being traced to an animal-to-human transmission in December at the meat markets in Wuhan. It’s important to note that the highly contagious coronavirus, which is now being rapidly transmitted between humans, first appeared in animals. Today, news emerged that the Chinese city of Shenzhen had become the first to ban the consumption of dogs and cats, with a ban to come into effect on May 1.

It’s a long-awaited move for animal activists across the world, who frequently raise the issue of China’s massive animal consumption industry.

However, for the Chinese, for whom using wildlife in not only their food but also their traditional medicine is a way of life, this ban might take some getting used to. One thing is for certain, that the ban has been in the offing for a while, at least as far back as February this year, when the Chinese government announced it was shutting down “wet markets” and banning the trade and consumption of wild animals across the country to fight the spread of COVID-19.

These “wet markets” are where the coronavirus is thought to have first originated, and are a fixture in many Chinese towns and cities. The wet market is a place where customers can purchase either live or freshly slaughtered animals for their own consumption. But the cramped and often unhygienic conditions in which these animals are transported to and stored at the market makes the possibility of the animals catching a hitherto unknown infection and then subsequently transmitting it to a person very likely. And as for what comes after, well we’re witnessing the fallout of that exact scenario at this very moment.

China has prior history with animal-to-human disease transmission leading to an epidemic-scale outbreak – the SARS outbreak of 2003 was linked to civet cats, bred for their meat and available at these wet markets. While the Chinese government at the time banned the sale and consumption of civet cats, the species could still be spotted at meat markets and on restaurant menus in China as recently as this year. What this February’s ban on wildlife trade has done is reveal the sprawling extent of China’s wildlife industry. A report from February in The Guardian stated that as many as 20,000 wildlife farms breeding everything from rats and wild boars to exotic species like peacocks and pangolins for meat across China had to close down after the government’s ban.

While the city of Shenzhen’s move to ban the consumption of dogs and cats along with wild animals will warm the hearts of those who look at animals as companions rather than cuisine, Chinese society’s centuries-old relationship with wild animal meat might take more than a single city issuing a ban to dismantle. We can only hope it happens before another pandemic presents itself.