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.