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Opinion Editorial

Canada needs to take the threat of disease from wildlife seriously

Article originally published in The Province.

Despite calls from experts to take action against the global wildlife trade, which scientists believe is a likely source of COVID-19, the response from national governments has been muted and mixed, with virtual silence from Canada. That’s a shame, as there is plenty Canada could do to improve our own safeguards against diseases from imported wildlife.

Whatever the precise source of COVID-19 might be, the science has been clear for years that zoonotic disease (disease transmitted from animals to humans) from wildlife is a serious threat, accounting for at least 70 per cent of all emerging diseases. And that threat is not just from the much-discussed wet markets in Asia. It’s from a legal global trade worth US$300 billion and an illegal trade worth US$23 billion, both of which involve and affect Canada. Yet there are questions about the coherence and effectiveness of Canada’s defences against disease from imported wildlife.

Currently, responsibility for keeping Canadians safe from foreign zoonotic diseases is spread across several government agencies, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which are in turn networked with a myriad of other bodies, such as the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

A 2016 study criticized this system, stating: “Canada lacks a coherent and effective regulatory framework to address emerging zoonotic diseases,” arguing that “there are gaps in disease surveillance, wildlife health concerns are not given due priority, risk assessment processes do not explicitly consider the impact of human action on wildlife health, and there is insufficient collaboration between government sectors.”

There also appear to be loopholes in the CFIA’s system for controlling which animals are allowed into the country. For example, the agency does not inspect reptiles (except turtles and tortoises) imported into Canada. As its website states, “there is no Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requirement to obtain an import permit, nor a health certificate. Under normal circumstances, there are no border inspections. Imports are permitted from any country, for any use, to any destination in Canada.”

Yet, reptiles are known to carry zoonotic diseases. Snakes were an early suspect in the research into the source of COVID-19, although they’ve since been ruled out.

The CFIA also says rodents (with some exceptions) can be imported into Canada without an import permit, health certificate, or inspection. So, for example, someone could import capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, into Canada, despite the fact they are known to carry dangerous ticks and have been known to shed coronaviruses. They are also sold online as pets.

The CFIA’s surveillance system is reactive rather than preventative, relying on prior intelligence indicating that a specific animal is a disease carrier. The system’s weakness was demonstrated when Canada prohibited pet Gambian rats from entering the country four months after they caused an outbreak of Monkeypox in the United States in 2003. Before the outbreak became manifest, the CFIA would have allowed the rats into Canada. Use of the precautionary principle, in the form of a ban on exotic pet imports, would be a far better safeguard.

Another concern is the lack of resources Canada devotes to fighting the illegal wildlife trade, one of a number of tasks given to the federal Wildlife Enforcement Directorate. According to a 2017 article in Canadian Geographic, the directorate had only 75 field officers nationwide. The article quotes the head of the directorate on the continued rise in wildlife crime: “And when you couple that with downward trends in government spending, that means more work for us and fewer resources to do it.” A 2017 survey of the directorate’s employees found that 65 per cent felt the quality of their work suffered because of “having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources.”

Clearly, Canada must take the threat of disease from the wildlife trade more seriously. It needs a coherent regulatory framework to address the threat from zoonotic diseases. It needs to ban the import of wild and exotic animals and it needs to devote more resources to stop wildlife smuggling.

In July 2003, the medical journal The Lancet described the wild animal trade as “a disaster ignored” and called for its end. The warning went unheeded and that disaster is now upon us. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

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Opinion Editorial

COVID-19 exposes another dark side of Canada’s meat industry

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

COVID-19 has created a crisis for the meat industry, with workers falling ill, slaughterhouses shutting down, and fears of meat shortages emerging. The virus has also exposed the industry’s deep flaws, including an ethical vacuum at its core.

Disturbing reports that meat companies failed to protect employees and allowed them to work while sick with the virus offer the most likely explanation for COVID-19 outbreaks in meat plants across North America.

In BC, Vancouver Coastal Health was critical of one Vancouver plant’s safety measures after 28 workers tested positive for the virus, finding that “the plans that were in place were inadequate or were not appropriately executed.” Outbreaks have since occurred in three more local poultry operations.

In Alberta, a slaughterhouse operated by meat giant Cargill is now the largest single-site outbreak of coronavirus in Canada, with more than 900 cases. The company is facing criticism that it failed to put in place appropriate physical distancing measures and provide personal protective equipment to its employees. Meat industry workers in several US states have protested against slaughterhouses staying open over safety fears. There have also been outbreaks in meat plants in Ontario and Quebec.

The meat and livestock industry’s apparent lack of concern for the welfare of its employees is no surprise to animal advocates who have long decried the appalling treatment of animals in intensive agriculture. Despite an endless parade of undercover investigations and media exposés revealing cruel practices and animal suffering, the industry has resisted change. Instead, it has lobbied for “Ag-gag” laws to keep its operations hidden from public view.

The industry’s exploitation of animals and workers has been ruthlessly efficient, providing cheap meat while squeezing every last penny of profit from its industrialized feeding, confining, transporting and slaughtering of billions of cows, pigs and chickens. That same concentration on profit and efficiency has also squeezed the humanity out of the industry. It is no wonder that renowned historian and author Yuval Noah Harari has described industrial animal agriculture as one of the worst crimes in history.

But it doesn’t end there. Beyond the cruelty of factory farming are the equally well-documented harms it inflicts on the environment and our health.

The United Nations Environment Agency has said “meat production is known to be a major contributor to climate change and environmental destruction…” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to call for a reduction in global meat consumption to protect the planet. A 2019 study by the World Resources Institute found that: “For every food calorie generated, animal-based foods — and ruminant meats in particular — require many times more feed and land inputs, and emit far more greenhouse gases, than plant-based foods.”  And, in the irony of ironies, factory farming risks causing future pandemics — just like the one currently shutting down its slaughterhouses — by confining thousands of stressed, genetically-uniform animals into crowded barns.

Despite endless debates in the media about meat consumption and health, major studies continue to show links between meat consumption and higher risks of heart diseasecancer, and diabetes.

With modern animal agriculture clearly unsustainable, it is no accident that the plant-based protein industry has grown in recent years.  Now, the coronavirus crisis may have provided it with an opportunity to demonstrate its advantages, with US sales of plant-based meat substitutes recently jumping 200%.

Those advantages are significant. There is strong evidence that a plant-based diet is healthy, beneficial to the environment, and, of course, good for animals. And, because it is more automated and less reliant on labour, the plant-based protein industry is less vulnerable to staff shortages caused by the pandemic.

The development of plant-based protein offers the world a chance to turn away from an industry that has demonstrated little concern for the welfare of animals, the planet or the people it employs. With the coronavirus exposing the vulnerability of this unsustainable sector, it calls into question our individual food choices. If we can eat well without cruelty, slaughter, environmental degradation and needless risks to our health, why wouldn’t we?

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Media Release

Invite elephants and gorillas into your living room

Vancouver – Finding things to do for kids can be a challenge for parents in these days of social distancing. The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is offering help with a new wildlife resource guide that allows families to visit gorillas in the jungle and whales at the bottom of the sea with just a click of a mouse.

The guide, available on the society’s website, offers kids a chance to see and learn about wild animals in their natural habitats through live webcams, phone apps, quizzes and lesson plans – all without going to a zoo or aquarium.

“We’ve put the best wildlife viewing and learning resources we could find in one easy-to-use guide,” says VHS executive director Amy Morris. “Kids can learn much more about animals by seeing them in the wild instead of in cages or tanks, where their ability to engage in natural behaviours is severely limited.”

The guide has links to Canadian and international wildlife resources, allowing kids to see baby eagles hatch, orcas rub along the bottom of the sea or elephants being cared for in a sanctuary.

“We hope families using the guide will see that it’s a better and more ethical way to learn about wildlife than visiting zoos and aquariums where wild animals are bred into captivity and never released,” says Morris. “The best part of these resources is that the animals get all the enrichment they need – social time, foraging for food and so much more.”

-ends-

Categories
Opinion Editorial

We can’t afford to ignore the deadly wildlife trade

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

While the world is understandably preoccupied with the disastrous consequences of COVID-19, the global wildlife trade – the likely cause of the pandemic – is getting less attention. Scientists have raised concerns about the issue for years, but they were ignored. It’s an inescapable fact: we were warned.

Back in 2004, the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) published a report titled A Disaster Ignored? The report, a review of scientific studies concerning the risks of disease from the wildlife trade, concluded: “There is a strong consensus of scientific opinion that the international movement of animals through the global trade in wild and exotic species poses a significant threat of spreading infectious disease to humans and other animals, both domestic and wild.”

Sixteen years later that scientific consensus is even stronger. It is estimated that at least 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife. Yet, as COVID-19 has tragically proven, the opportunities to prevent a disaster have indeed been ignored.

While the precise source of COVID-19 has yet to be established, scientists who study zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) believe it originated from wildlife sold at a wet market in Wuhan, where the pandemic began.

Unregulated wet markets, where wild and domestic animals are slaughtered and sold on the spot in unsanitary conditions, are common in Asia and much of the developing world. They are supplied by the global wildlife trade (both legal and illegal), which also involves the sale of exotic pets and animal parts for use in so-called traditional medicines or in-fashion items (skins, ivory).

Scientists, conservationists and animal welfare groups have long called for the wildlife trade to be banned or at least restricted and for stronger enforcement of legislation against the trade. Their reasons are clear: the trade spreads zoonotic disease, drives species toward extinction, and is extremely cruel.

VHS, which has long campaigned against the sale and keeping of exotic pets, recently launched a petition calling on the BC government to strengthen regulation of the trade and ownership of wild animals in the province. The petition urges the government to review its regulations to ensure species that could pose a risk of spreading zoonotic disease be prohibited. VHS has also joined with more than 200 conservation and animal welfare organizations in signing an open letter to the World Health Organization, urging action against the wildlife trade.

Action to curtail the wildlife trade is needed at every level – globally, locally, and nationally. There have been calls for Canada to do more on the issue, including a suggestion by former federal minister James Moore that “Canada should table a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for the immediate closure of the deadly and irresponsible wild animal and wet markets in China; enforced by international inspections and economic sanctions for non-compliance.”

The federal government can take this critical opportunity to work with the international community to curtail the wildlife trade, devote more enforcement resources to stopping the illegal import of wildlife into Canada, and develop a coordinated plan among relevant federal agencies and the provinces to eliminate or restrict the sale and ownership of exotic and wild animals. The Vancouver Humane Society is working alongside World Animal Protection Canada and other groups to press the government to do just that.

The scientific evidence is clear: unless we end the wildlife trade, we will see species disappear, millions of animals will suffer, and there will be more pandemics in the future. These are all disasters we cannot afford to ignore.

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Ask the BC government to do more to combat the cruel and dangerous wildlife trade

VHS is shifting the focus of our campaigns and communications to include the wildlife and exotic pet trade, which has been implicated in the emergence of COVID-19.

The emergence of new zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread from animals to humans) has been ignored for far too long, especially its connection to the international wildlife trade (explained in our recent op-ed). It’s time the international community and all levels of government in Canada took action to put and end to the illegal wildlife trade, which is not only inhumane but also is a threat to biodiversity and public health.

Here in B.C., the provincial government’s Controlled Alien Species Regulation governs “the possession, breeding, shipping, and releasing of alien animals that pose a risk to the health or safety of people, property, wildlife, or wildlife habitat.”

We’re calling on the government to review the regulation to ensure it addresses the threat of zoonotic disease from the trade in wild and exotic animals.

Please send a message to the provincial government’s Wildlife and Habitat Branch, asking them to take action to address this important issue.

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Opinion Editorial

GM Canada should stop sponsoring the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The death of six horses in last year’s Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race may have marked a turning point in public support for the event, with even die-hard chuckwagon fans calling for change.

The key question, however, is whether corporate sponsors of the race will continue to support an event that attracts negative headlines and public outrage virtually every year.

More than 70 horses have died in the event since 1986 and none of the much-publicized safety initiatives, rule changes, and reforms announced by the Stampede has made any difference.

The horses keep on dying.

Yet, on March 19, Calgary will again host the annual GMC Rangeland Derby canvas auction, in which companies will bid to advertise on the tarps covering the chuckwagons that will compete in July’s races at the Stampede.

The bidding companies tend to be local, with many involved in construction or the oil and gas industry. With relatively strong local support for chuckwagon racing, the companies are unlikely to face consumer pressure to distance themselves from the event, despite the annual horse carnage.

But General Motors Canada, which is the title sponsor for the chuckwagon race, is a national and international brand. While associating that brand with the macho “half-mile of hell” might have made sense 30 year ago, does it still?

There have been clear signs that society is growing uncomfortable with the use of animals in entertainment: Ringling Bros. Circus has gone out of business, SeaWorld no longer features orca whale shows, and Canada has banned whale and dolphin captivity. And, according to a 2019 poll by Research Co., a majority of Canadians (59%) are opposed to rodeos.

Meanwhile, General Motors seems to be adopting a more progressive brand. In 2017, the company announced that “General Motors believes the future is all-electric,” ending its century-long relationship with gasoline and diesel. In addition, GM has launched a major “diversity and inclusion” initiative to increase the number of women and minorities it employs. If that’s a brand that’s looking to the future and aiming to broaden its appeal, where do chuckwagon races and dead horses fit?

Yet GM Canada continues to sponsor not only the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon race, but also a number of other races organized by the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA). Although media attention has focused on horse deaths at the Stampede, horses have also been killed at WPCA races in several prairie towns, including one in Medicine Hat in 2017, two in Bonnyville in 2012, and four in Grand Prairie in 2009.

Perhaps GM Canada believes the rugged machismo of chuckwagon racing will still resonate with some of its customers, making it worth associating with the event. But, brand values aside, there remains an ethical question: How can the company support an event that every year puts animals at undue risk of injury and death just to amuse a crowd?

While the Calgary Stampede and its supporters have ignored the arguments made by animal advocates against the chuckwagon race for decades, it is harder to ignore independent academic research that examines animal welfare in the race.

A 2017 study of the Stampede’s chuckwagon race by Professor Kevin Young at the University of Calgary concluded that “there are obvious and acknowledged examples of harm/abuse toward the animals involved.”

Professor Young also addressed the Stampede’s program of safety and rule changes, describing it as being “as much about marketing and public image as it is about animal safety, especially in the face of ongoing harm to horses.”

The study simply confirms what facts and common sense tells us: The chuckwagon race kills and injures horses for the sake of entertainment and the Stampede has failed to stop it.

There are good branding and marketing reasons for GM Canada to reconsider its sponsorship of chuckwagon racing, but the ethical case is even stronger.

They should do the right thing and stop supporting this gruesome spectacle.

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Emergency plans must include animals

VHS letter calls for legislation to require local authorities to include animals in emergency plans

VHS has submitted a letter to a provincial government consultation on modernizing B.C.’s Emergency Program Act (EPA), calling for the Act to ensure animals are not forgotten in emergency planning.

Current legislation does not require local officials to include domestic animals as part of their plans, which we believe puts not only animals at risk but also their guardians.

Our letter also points out that animals held in establishments such as zoos, aquariums, kennels, sanctuaries and breeding facilities are also at risk during emergencies. The letter states: “The EPA should ensure local authorities include these facilities in their emergency plans and provide them with guidance and support in implementing them.”

The consultation ends January 31st, but there is still time to submit your views.

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Give your views on bird welfare at the Bloedel Conservatory

The City of Vancouver is asking for public comment on the future of the Bloedel Conservatory, which houses more than 120 exotic birds. The Talk Vancouver survey (for which you need to register) provides an opportunity to ask the conservatory to ensure that the birds’ welfare is a priority in future plans. (The Vancouver Park Board and the Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association are collaborating to develop a joint strategic plan for VanDusen Garden and Bloedel Conservatory.) The survey closes February 10.

Specifically, you can ask that when birds are caged (as some birds are when introduced to the conservatory) they are provided with an enriched environment that meets their species-specific needs (e.g toys, puzzles, novel items, opportunity to bathe) to enhance their psychological welfare during this stressful transition time. Your views can help make sure exotic bird welfare is not forgotten in the Bloedel Conservatory’s strategic plan.

It’s important to note that the Conservatory’s website states that all the birds there “have either been directly donated to the Conservatory from homes that can no longer keep them or have been adopted from the GreyHaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary.”

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Challenging captivity

VHS has a long history of opposition to animal captivity. Most recently, we published a report, commissioned from Zoocheck, that drew attention to a number of issues at the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

The report found that animals at the zoo were suffering from boredom and frustration caused by the lack of activity and stimulation that comes with captivity.

In addition, the report identified animal enclosures that were too small, including cages for raptors (owls, hawks, kestrels) that provided no opportunity for flight. Tanks in the zoo’s reptile house were also found to be under-sized, preventing animals from engaging in natural behaviours.

A key finding was that a number of the zoo’s exotic animals are not suited to B.C.’s climate and should be moved to more appropriate facilities. In the longer term, the report recommended, the zoo should transition toward becoming a sanctuary for native species.

The report has received widespread media attention and many people joined our e-campaign calling on the zoo to address the issues it raises. Our opinion editorial in the Georgia Straight gives an overview of the psychological suffering experienced by captive animals at the Greater Vancouver Zoo and other zoos around the world.

The management of the Greater Vancouver Zoo has not responded directly to VHS or Zoocheck, but has told news media that it has plans to make changes and improvements over the next few years. It remains to be seen whether these changes will make a positive difference to the lives of the animals, but VHS will continue to monitor the zoo and draw public attention to their conditions and welfare.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

The Greater Vancouver Zoo must chart a new course

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

To watch the Siberian tiger at the Greater Vancouver Zoo pace back and forth along the fence of her enclosure is to witness to one of the most common experiences of zoo animals: boredom.

The pacing is recognized by animal behaviourists as a “stereotypy”, which has been described as a functionless behaviour pattern that “captive animals may develop as a response to physical restraint, lack of stimulation, or inescapable fear or frustration.”

Giraffes at the zoo can also been seen exhibiting stereotypic behaviour. In their case it’s chewing and licking metal bars, likely indicating frustration with not being able to forage naturally.

The central problem here is obvious: it’s captivity. While some animals adapt to it better than others, a walk around the zoo will find many animals looking lethargic, sometimes motionless, as they languish in enclosures with little to do and nowhere to go.

While ending animal captivity is the only real answer to the problem, giving the animals more space and something to do would at least alleviate some of the tedium they endure. But according to a new report, the Greater Vancouver Zoo is even failing to do that adequately.

The report, commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) from researchers at Zoocheck, argues that the zoo hasn’t invested enough in behavioural or environmental enrichment for the animals—a problem identified by the two groups in previous reports in 2003 and 2008. Enrichment involves providing challenging and stimulating activities, environments, and objects for zoo animals. It can include habitat design, increased food variety, and foraging opportunities.

The report also found that a number of the zoo’s animal exhibits don’t provide enough space. Reptiles are kept in small terrariums, with no ability to engage in natural roaming behaviours. Several birds, including owls and hawks, are in undersized cages, denying them little or no opportunity to fly.

Recommendations in the report include developing a comprehensive enrichment program; increasing the size of enclosures; and moving animals to other facilities if they are not suited to the Lower Mainland’s climate or if the zoo cannot satisfy their physical, psychological, and social needs.

Such measures would improve the welfare of the zoo’s animals but the complexity of their natural habitats—which they have evolved to thrive in—can never be adequately replicated. The question remains: how can we justify holding animals captive when it compromises their welfare?

Zoos argue that they are all about conservation and education. Indeed, the Greater Vancouver Zoo participates in conservation projects involving butterflies, frogs and turtles, but the vast majority of its animals are there for show. They will never be returned to the wild.

There is little evidence to show that zoos have educational value. Damian Aspinall, the owner of two U.K. wildlife parks, estimates that 99 percent of visitors who come to his parks come for an enjoyable day out, but just one percent get newly enthusiastic about conservation. He has called for zoos, including his own, to be phased out in the next two decades.

The Greater Vancouver Zoo needs to fundamentally change direction. It can start by alleviating the crushing boredom so many of its animals endure. A comprehensive program of behavioural and environmental enrichment will help.

In the longer term, the zoo should move toward being a sanctuary for native species and abandon its current model, one that condemns animals to a lifetime of captivity just to provide humans with a day out.