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Covid19: A Pandemic or Panacea for Animals?

Updated: May 19, 2020

Written by Janet Akselrud and Darshini Babu Ganesh

Herds of deer roam around Haridwar, India. Mountain boars in Barcelona poke their snouts into the bushes under the street lamps. The noisy chatter of monkeys can be heard outside homes in Thailand. Goats clip-clop on the streets of Wales, coyotes make their presence obvious in San Francisco neighborhoods, and there are rats everywhere. Animals all across the globe have come out of hiding, wondering “where have all the people gone?”. The COVID19 pandemic and social distancing haven’t created a new lifestyle just for us; It’s also a novel situation for the animals around us too. From zoo animals to pets, from lab animals to the wild ones, the change has affected everyone. When we think of animals being affected by the pandemic, we think of our beloved household companions: our pets. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there have been no reports of the virus spreading between pets and humans, though there have been a few reports of infected dogs and cats outside of the United States. Nevertheless, it is important to wash your hands after playing with your pet, keep them away from your face, and avoid contact until more information is available. On the bright side, people are adopting more pets than ever before. Usually, people don’t adopt pets because they are never home. With stay-at-home orders, there has been a rise in interest for fostering pets. “KC Pet Project, a nonprofit animal shelter in Kansas City, Mo., received 250 requests to foster pets in four days, according to Tori Fugate, a spokeswoman for the shelter.” Since many shelters are facing reduced staff and support, their animals are in desperate need of adoption. On the other hand, shelters worry that they may see a rise in shelter arrivals as financial strains make it difficult for owners to provide for their pets. For now, it is clear that the benefits of adoption go both ways: the pet finds a safe home, and the owner finds a loveable companion during these tumultuous times. Another familiar place where animals are kept goes eerily silent for the past couple of weeks: zoos. These places are known for bustling activity, rain or shine, and are home to species from all over the world. Now, the orangutans and chimpanzees sit along the glass waiting for visitors to arrive. Pygmy goats and other petting zoo animals arrive at the gates for feeding time, only to see that the children are still gone. The strain has been difficult for zookeepers. They aren’t considered as essential workers and it’s been hard to move back and forth between home and work responsibilities, especially when money isn’t flowing in as readily as it used to. Like many other zoos across the world, Neumünster Zoo in Germany has started discussing other options for their animals, like euthanization or at worst, feeding the zoo’s prey animals to predators. The worry intensified with news of Nadia the tiger of the Bronx Zoo testing positive for COVID19. The situation brings up the age-old debate: should zoos be banned? While zoos often emphasize their conservation efforts, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed how dangerously dependent these animals are on visitors’ tickets.

A Red Panda at the Dublin Zoo (Photo provided by Janet Akselrud)

On the wilder side, conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society have noticed an increase in the poaching of protected species in rural areas, from Indian tigers to African rhinos. “Rhino 911, a South Africa-based nonprofit that provides emergency helicopter response and transport for rhinos”, has reported that they’ve gotten calls every day since the March 23rd lockdown in Botswana, as of April 8th. The poaching has increased in places that were previously popular tourist locations. Normally, animals in the Okavango Delta and Kruger National Park have tourists, hunters, guides, and rangers with their eyes on them. With national lockdowns, rangers have been left to monitor millions of acres on their own. The lack of tourists, a result of lockdowns, has constricted Africa’s “$39 billion tourism industry” and since that business funds wildlife conservation efforts around the world, many experts worry about the increased poaching that is seen. In India, many have raised concerns about the Bronx Zoo tiger diagnosed with the coronavirus. However, conservation zoologist and tiger expert K. Ullas Karanth, who is currently a senior conservation scientist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, firmly states that poaching will have a far more dangerous impact on the tiger population than COVID19 will. With the disruption of traditional social and economic systems in rural areas, people have turned to natural sources for income. This ranges from poaching for income, to killing small ungulates (the main source of prey for tigers) to eat and sell. Killing animals for bushmeat is cheaper than actually buying it.

Rhino at the Dublin Zoo (Photo provided by Janet Akselrud)

However, there are a few missing pieces to the puzzle. Like any business, poaching is fueled by demand. Supply has been increasing, and it’s been clear where it’s happening, but there isn’t much information from the demand side. Many places, such as China, still believe that there is medicinal value to rhino horns and tiger bones, consume it as a delicacy, or use it as a show of prestige. Given tight lockdowns on international trade, it is difficult to pinpoint where all these products are going during this time, as an increase in supply often occurs to match an increase in demand. As of April 14th, there have been reports of the wet markets in China reopening, and many states that despite the wildlife ban in China, ending the trade will take time. A vaccine is a probable solution for ensuring that waves of the coronavirus don’t keep reappearing and, as unfortunate as it may sound, no vaccine will be approved without animal testing. There are possibly several stages of mice, hamster, ferret, primate, and human testing that will need to occur in the process of obtaining a vaccine. Right now, in stage one, there are laboratories around the world breeding genetically engineered mice. For the mice to be useful they need to be susceptible to the disease and show symptoms that mirror humans as close as possible. The mouse is used to test the coronavirus is called the hACE2 mouse. This mouse was developed first by Dr. Stanley Perlman, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa, and was susceptible to infection with the SARS virus. While some laboratories breed mice and some test vaccines, others are working to genetically engineer animals for future stages of the testing process. The larger the animal, the longer it takes to breed them. Dr. Stanley Perlman said, “We are potentially going to be dealing with this for a really long time and need to come to better terms with that.” On the side of comfort, infectious disease specialist at Washington University confirms that live virus testing only takes place in level 3 biosecure labs. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Google has been working to collect and present data on human mobility changes. The data is based on users who have turned their location history settings on. Keep in mind, no data personally identifying the individual is collected and everyone has the choice to turn off their location settings at any time. As of today, April 20th, 2020, the top four countries experiencing devastating effects from the coronavirus are the USA, Spain, Italy, and France in order. Based on google mobility data from April 11th, 2020 each country has had its own response to experiencing a pandemic. Spain has had a 92% decrease in people going outside to places of recreation like malls, restaurants, and libraries. The United States, despite having the greatest number of coronavirus cases, has only had a 45% decrease in these same areas. Even France and Italy, lower down on the coronavirus list than the United States have had an 86% decrease in visiting recreational areas. A similar trend occurs in the category of parks. The United States only experiences a 16% decrease while Spain, Italy, and France experience a decrease of 85%, 78%, and 79% respectively.

Google Mobility Data of the United States

Thinking back to a month ago when the coronavirus reached the United States, citizens were more reluctant to listen to warnings about going outside then they are now, in the midst of a crisis. It may be this reluctance, clearly reflected in the google mobility data that has led the United States to the top of the coronavirus cases list. The Google mobility data will only be online as long as it is helpful to Public Health Officials in slowing the spread of the virus. Anyone interested in researching the trends of their country can follow this link: The coronavirus lockdown has greatly affected human patterns. Shopping centers, restaurants, and parks have closed while at the same time everyone has been encouraged to stay home. It may be hard getting used to this temporary lifestyle but, to end on a good note, our reduced presence on beaches has become a major boost to sea turtle populations. Reports of sea turtles, all 7 species of which are on the endangered animal list, have skyrocketed in places like Thailand, Florida, and India. The Guardian, interviewing Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, reported 11 nests of the rare leatherback sea turtle. CNN, interviewing Dr. Justin Perrault, Director of Research at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, reported a whole 72 sea turtle nests already counted on Juno beach, Florida. One nest belongs to the loggerhead species and the other 71 belong to the leatherback species. The Sea Voice News reported 407,194 olive Ridley sea turtle eggs in Orissa, India. It is estimated that 60 million sea turtle eggs will be laid during the coronavirus lockdown. Sea turtles like to lay their eggs in quiet, undisturbed areas. When visiting beaches that remain open for essential activities like walking, citizens should be mindful and keep a distance from appearing turtle nests to allow the sea turtle population to bounce back. Since the start of the pandemic and social distancing enforcements, we’ve all had some shift in our lives. It proves the tremendous impact we’ve had on our world and the reaction of that world to our disappearance.

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