Updated: Mar 22
Victor Luca, 11-Nov-20.
Published in The Beacon, 3-Feb-21.
I am no animal rights activist, far from it. When I was growing up in Whakatāne back in the seventies, I did my share of killing of animals, and now sadly, I have to admit that much of it was just for fun. Many of my school mates would spend the weekend in the bush hunting possum, deer and pig. With many years on my back, it all seems quite distasteful, even perverse. But it seemed so normal back then in an age where there seemed to be no limits.
I no longer have such a blasé attitude to the killing animals although I still eat my fair share of chicken and very occasionally beef. I realize that we are all part of an ecosystem that provides us services without which our very survival is threatened. The book by George Perkins Marsh entitled “Man and Nature - Or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action” and originally published in 1864 is a brilliant early account of the relationship that humans have to nature and how devastating we had already been to the environment and the various animal and plant species that we share the planet with. The message of this brilliant, more than 150 year old book, was clear. If people do not take care of the earth, the earth will cease to take care of them.
It wasn’t until about 100 years later for Rachel Carson’s best-selling book, “Silent Spring”, to hit the shelves on September 27, 1962, documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. We have blithely ignored this one too, and again it will ultimately be at our peril.
Shortly thereafter in 1963 came the novel La Planéte des Singes (Planet of the Apes) by Pierre Boulle which was translated into English and was the basis of the film of the same name. I guess we have all seen the movie even if we never read the book. Boulle puts in the firing line the relationship between humans and apes and depicts a dystopian world in which the roles of the two species are inverted. The central message is that human intelligence is not fixed and can easily atrophy. It poses the question, of what would we feel like if the apes did to us what we were doing to them?
In 2005 the technology for sequencing human and animal genomes permitted us a glimpse into just how close the relationship between humans and primates is. It was shown that we shared 99% of our genome with gibbons and chimpanzees.
In 2015 we found that we share 70% of our genes with a slimmy marine worm known as known as Ptychodera flava.
Earlier this year I published an opinion piece in this paper entitled “Plague of Infectious Disease” in which I pointed out what we are becoming very aware of, and that is that our need to feed and provide resources for an ever burgeoning population of consumers, has wreaked enormous damage to our planet. As humans increasingly impose themselves on the ecosystems of the planet, and as we seek to use everything to our own purpose, we may pay an enormous price. Our success may pave the way to our own self-destruction.
Adult female acorn worm, Saccoglossus kowalevskii, with eggs, collected near Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The COVID-19 pandemic is just the last of a long line of infectious diseases that underscore how our use and abuse of animals and ecosystems may come back to bite us on the backside. I explained in my earlier piece how almost all infectious diseases have animal origins. For instance, measles originated in cows and sheep, influenza in water fowl, whooping cough in pigs, SARS in civet cats, the common cold in horses, leprosy in bison, typhoid in chickens, smallpox in camels, and finally, ebola and probably COVID-19 in fruit bats.
As we blur the boundaries between humans and animals, and encroach on and destroy their habitats, we would do well to remember that we are more related to these animals than we may realize.
On the 9th of June it was reported in the prestigious science journal Science that the Coronavirus had ripped through Dutch mink farms and that this triggered a cull to prevent human infection. Although mink appear to be particularly susceptible to COVID-19, they are by no means the only animal reservoir of COVID-19. So far 121 animals from 15 countries have shown positive COVID-19 infections including in cats, dogs, tigers, lions and puma indicated that person-to-animal transmission has occurred. We have also managed to give mink the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These susceptible animals are reared in factory farms under stressful conditions so that we can exploit them for their fur and this makes them even more vulnerable to this novel disease.
So far 265 mink farms in six countries have shown evidence of COVID-19 infections. A variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus in mink in Denmark is a particularly disturbing finding that underscores that animal reservoirs can transfer a variant of COVID-19 back to humans.
Evolution is dependent on mutation of the reproductive machinery of living cells. Although not strictly living, viruses also mutate given sufficient time and enough options and so the eventual appearance of SARS-CoV-2 variant was inevitable. COVID-19 mutation in animal reservoirs that then infect humans with new and perhaps more infectious and lethal versions of the disease could in short order render newly synthesized vaccines useless.
We breed mink by the millions in order for the well-heeled to wear their fur. Would it then not be poetic but tragic if the mink finally got their revenge?