The international wildlife trade is directly responsible for the emergence and spread of pandemic disease, and according to a new report from World Animal Protection, many Canadians have participated in one way or another.
“We’re maybe not as big a player as the U.S. and other countries,” said Melissa Matlow, campaign director of World Animal Protection Canada, “but for our population size, [we play] an important role, and I think many people would be shocked to know the level and volume of the wildlife trade.”
Famous are the wet markets of southeast Asia, but animals are exchanged globally by several industries closer to home, often without adequate oversight. According to the February report – Trading Animals and Diseases: Canada’s Role in the Global Commercial Wildlife Trade – a staggering 320,081 animals were imported into Canada in 2019 alone, destined for zoos, for use in traditional medicine, and in about 80 per cent of cases, for pet stores.
“What we’re finding is that a significant volume of animals imported to the country are supplying the exotic pet trade,” said Matlow. “People can encounter these animals at retail stores like PetSmart and exotic pet expos which occur across the country. They’re being plucked from the wilds of other countries and coming here without enough information for us to know if it’s a sustainable capture. There are just so many risks, and the zoonotic disease risk is the big one.”
A majority of pandemic diseases, 75 per cent according to the report, are zoonotic, originating in animals and leaping the species divide into human beings, a process aided considerably by our checkered and at times inhumane relationship with wildlife. When we bring them into close proximity with ourselves and each other, storing them in stressful, unhygienic conditions, we unwittingly give their resident diseases every opportunity to mutate, spread and adapt for entirely new hosts, namely humans. Wet markets are a prime example, breeding wild animals in close-quartered captivity for sale as food, fur or medicine to a ready customer base – this is where the original SARS virus came from in 2003 and where a growing consensus places the origins of Covid-19 – but the exotic pet trade features many of the same conditions, and is not restricted to southeast Asia.
“It’s when these animals that wouldn’t normally encounter each other in the wild are kept in close proximity in stressful, unhygienic conditions that we have this ideal environment for deadly pathogens to emerge and spread to people,” said Matlow. “Those characteristics describe the wildlife trade that our country is part of.”
World Animal Protection is an international charity working on policy and public engagement wherever it concerns animal welfare. They are active on crises such as ghost fishing, livestock health, poaching and, especially in the last year, pandemic disease.
“It always takes a tragedy to get the government to act,” lamented Matlow. Shortly after the arrival of Covid-19, in the summer of 2020, she and her Canadian colleagues began work on this report, taking an unwelcome opportunity to highlight the dangers of the international wildlife trade at a time when their warnings would not be merely theoretical. Aside from making the case that our treatment of wildlife, national and internationally, triggers pandemics, the report calls for legislative change on the provincial and federal levels to curb Canada’s involvement.
Three agencies are responsible for overseeing the importation of wildlife into Canada – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canada Border Services Agency and Canadian Wildlife Service – all of whom asking very different questions at the border. Between these agencies, said Matlow, are large regulatory gaps. Data collection at the border is very often incomplete, without regulators knowing necessarily where wildlife is coming from or where it’s going, and the identification of species can be difficult for officers poorly versed in zoology, especially in cases where they’re being actively deceived, and when the list of banned species is long and nuanced.
At the provincial level, wildlife regulations are so piecemeal and inconsistent that enforcement would be challenging even without limited staff and resources, said Matlow. For example, she said, in many Ontario municipalities you must be licensed to own a dog. There is no legal barrier whatsoever in Ontario for owning a tiger.
Among the solutions suggested by Matlow are more comprehension wildlife regulations adopted by provinces and territories with federal support, and something called the positive listing approach, already adopted in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. Instead of compiling an exhaustive list of banned species, positive listing would see the federal government ban all wild animals entering the country except those on a short list of permitted species, consisting of animals which have been screened for sustainability of capture, suitability for Canadian climates, ease of ownership, potential to become invasive and to propagate pandemic disease, and domestic factors like available veterinary expertise and shelter capacity. Not only would this approach put the burden of truth on the industry, but it would dramatically simplify enforcement.
“I know of no other existential threat to our species that we treat so lightly as pandemic risk,” said Dr Peter Daszak, a zoologist, parasitologist, ecologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance, an organization which conducts research and outreach programs on the subject of global health, conservation and international development. Speaking in a recent webinar hosted by World Animal Protection Canada, he said the origins of pandemic disease are well known – subtropical wildernesses which are being penetrated by roads and poachers, the intensification of agriculture especially with regard to livestock, and the global trade in wildlife, all driven largely by consumption patterns in rich nations.
Aside from costs imposed on global biodiversity and carbon budgets, he said, the pandemic diseases which emerge from these practices cost the planet roughly $500 billions annually. This expense is orders or magnitude higher, he said, than it would cost to prevent pandemics in the first place.
“Like climate change, the science is crystal clear on this,” he said. “Pandemics are becoming more frequent. They’re bigger than before, they’re spreading faster, and whatever we do to try and control them after they emerge is much harder than trying to prevent them to start off.”
The Moral Appeal
Most Canadians, 93 per cent, believe the wildlife trade is a cruel and inhumane business, according to the World Animal Protection Canada report, and those 93 per cent are correct. As described by Matlow, animals are either taken from the wild and stored in cramped, unhygienic conditions or captively bred under those same conditions. They are shipped globally with insufficient consideration for their health and wellbeing to climates which are very foreign to them. After arrival, they’re sold to people who have no idea how to meet their exotic needs, and kept in cages, aquariums or terrariums for the remainder of their lives, grappling with barriers they do not understand and eating foods they’ve never before encountered. When owners decide against keeping the animal, they are either surrendered to shelters or abandoned outdoors, where they die or become invasive, damaging local ecology. What’s more, few Canadian veterinarians are equipped to care for them.
There are many deaths at every stage in this process, even before the animals in question reach stores or zoos. In the case of reptiles, it’s not uncommon for the majority to be dead on arrival, and even those who survive are sufficiently traumatized that they die shortly thereafter. Snakes are a prime target of the exotic pet trade and make for a stirring example. While kept in terrariums almost universally, said Matlow, they do very poorly under these conditions. Most snake species need to stretch their bodies out entirely in order to properly digest food, a biological need precious few terrariums accommodate, and glass is such an unnatural impediment to their movement that it causes stress and psychological disorders entirely unnoticed by their human keepers. A full 75 per cent of reptiles die in their first year of pethood.
Pain, stress or discomfort are widespread in the wildlife trade, such as at zoos, for which there is very little government oversight in Canada. The CAZA (Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums) accreditation program oversees only a minority of institutions, such as the African Lion Safari in Ontario, and still allows wildlife shows and elephant rides which, Matlow said, cause extreme stress to the animals in question. She said some actions of some zoos can contribute to conservation and education, but these tend to represent a small fraction of the business model. Wherever wildlife is involved, she said, Canadians should be very skeptical.
“The people who want to do these things tend to be animal lovers,” said Matlow. “They’re excited by the opportunity to cuddle an animal, and have no idea what happens behind the scenes, or after they snap that photo. If you can ride a wild animal, hug a wild animal or take a selfie with a wild animal, chances are it’s cruel.”
World Animal Protection Canada was working closely with tourism operators prior to the pandemic on exactly this issue, helping businesses distinguish between humane from inhumane wildlife experiences for their clients and book accordingly, but those efforts are of course on hold.
When it comes to curbing the wildlife trade and raising industry standards for animal welfare, she Matlow, most Canadians, politicians, businesses and agencies agree, but there is a lack of understanding as to the extent of this industry in Canada and its moral failings. World Animal Protection Canada has been making progress on informing government representatives and leadership, but no major national action has yet been taken.
There Are No Exceptions
Canada’s native species are not exempt from the international wildlife trade. In fact, a concerning trend noted in World Animal Protection’s February report and reiterated by Cecelia Parsons, spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, is the use of Canadian Black bears in traditional eastern medicines, supplementing more and more for the rare and declining Asian Black bear.
Canadian Black bears are being poached, or sometimes legally hunted in provinces with lacklustre legislation, specifically for their gall bladders and bile, either shipped to Asia or sold in traditional medicine shops in Canada. A 2018 survey of 25 such establishments in the Greater Toronto Area uncovered four selling Black bear bile, and two others willing to order bile in.
“Canada is not immune to wildlife trafficking,” said Parsons. “We are a source, trans-shipment and destination country for illicit wildlife. There are numerous native Canadian species that are illegally harvested for a number of reasons. Wild Canadian animals, including turtles, snakes, and other native reptiles, are exported to foreign countries and sometimes bred in Canada for the exotic pet industry. Some of these specimens harvested in Canada remain here while others are shipped out of the country to destinations where the value of the commodity is often significantly higher than it is in Canada.”
Wildlife enforcement officers with Environment and Climate Change Canada are responsible for protecting over 400 species of migratory bird including nests and habitats, 146 protected areas, overseeing the international and interprovincial trade in wildlife for over 36,000 species, and for protecting the 600 plus species listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and animals taken in spite of best efforts are sometimes sold as trophies, many to the United States, including snow geese, mallards, Black bears, Canadian geese and Sandhill cranes.
Melissa Matlow said the international wildlife trade is taking its toll on species-at-risk, and in Canada, the pain is felt by reptiles in particular, especially turtles which are long lived, breed slowly and can make for easy targets. One incident from 2020 saw a network of nest protectors, erected by volunteers over recently lain turtle eggs in the vicinity of Kingston, Ontario, dismantled and raided by poachers with as many as 300 eggs removed from the site, presumably for use in the exotic pet trade. All of the poached eggs belonged to at-risk species.
“Ultimately,” said Matlow, “we need to stop breeding these wild animals as pets, and capturing them from the wild to support the exotic pet industry.”
An Educational Crusade
“Ban” is a strong word in government, so while the priorities of the charity, and the interests of the globe and its animals, would be best served by a total ban on the international wildlife trade, World Animal Protection Canada’s goals in the near term are more modest, including the positive listing and legislative measures described above, but also a deliberate push for public awareness.
When the television show Friends was picked up by Netflix Canada in 2015, there was an influx of ducks delivered to animal shelters by people bringing these wild birds into their homes, like Chandler Bing and Joey Tribbiani in Season 3, then reconsidering when the animals became too much trouble. There was an uptick in demand for Snowy owls following the release of Harry Potter, for Clown fish following Finding Nemo, and after watching Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, so many people tried kissing amphibians there was a spike in salmonella cases in the United States. These decisions come from ignorance more often than malice, said Matlow, and require us to reimagine our relationship with wildlife.
The intention of this charity is not to shame people who enjoy zoos or have walked the aisles of PetSmart, or to separate people from the exotic pets they already own, but instead to harness the admiration people have for animals to achieve genuine change, such as more sustainable and humane practices in the tourism, zoo and pet industries, and to rework Canadian culture so animal welfare becomes an informed priority.
“I think it’s a massive education curve,” said Matlow, “and I do think we need to make it less cool to have that rare gecko from the wild as your pet. These are not commodities. They are sentient beings.”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes. A version of this article was originally published by Canada’s National Observer.