V. Victoria Shroff: COVID-19 and the impact on animals

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      By V. Victoria Shroff

      It's been the best of times and it's been the worst of times for animals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

      How we treat animals is an important yardstick for how we are doing as humans. We've seen some animal shelters jubilantly empty with pandemic puppies and Corona kitties leaving the confines of a cage to a happy life with a loving family. More people are at home, working remotely with their new four-legged fur colleagues. There's a new appreciation for how much comfort animals bring to humans.

      Aquariums and zoos are closing as COVID keeps the crowds away in lockdown and the customer-base revenue dries up. Rodeos in 2020 have been cancelled because crowds cannot gather.

      For the most part, I think these closures serve the best interests of the animals involved and I therefore believe that they are positive developments. Perhaps it's a chance for these operations to continue in ways that don't use animals, to reinvent themselves and conduct their business without exploiting animals as entertainers. There is apparently an amazing virtual reality aquarium in Japan that's incredible for teaching and learning about cetaceans without imprisoning cognitively complex animals in tiny tanks.

      There's been evidence of rewilding in some regions where wild animals—not seen in years—are resurfacing as pollution levels have lessened and quiet settles back into some habitats. Many of us have no doubt seen the YouTube clips of dinosaurs resurfacing and cetaceans swimming in Venice and other outlandish animal fantasia, but around the world, backyards do seem to be filled with more birdsong, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, moose, caribou, and deer.

      At the very least, the corona global disaster has forced the world to confront human interconnectivity with animals and the natural world, and the need for proper stewardship. The lockdown has made us face some hard truths to which we need to find answers on a global scale.

      While those are a few of my favourite things, there's been a dark side also very much in evidence. Companion animals were ruthlessly abandoned at the start of COVID-19 in several major cities, left to fend for themselves in the streets or purposely dumped or killed as fake news decried that folks could contract the coronavirus from their dog or cat.

      Importantly, it turned out, the few reported cases involving companion animals contracting the coronavirus that have surfaced so far have been human to animal transmission and not the other way around. Animals may have to be cautious around their human caregivers if the human is infected with the virus, not the other way around.

      Pet custody inquiries at my Vancouver animal law firm are up as couples and roommates with pets are planning to split up after all of this forced pandemic togetherness. Couples and roommates will be fighting over custody and ownership of the family pet.

      Pet issues in stratas and tenancies are also up as people are at home all the time and getting on their neighbours' nerves with the family animal as a flashpoint.

      Dog-bite cases are also up as the weather improves and folks are taking out dogs to parks whom they have newly acquired or improperly socialized (proper socialization training needs to be on both sides of the leash), resulting in negative interactions.

      Horrifically, domestic violence has spiked since lockdown was instituted and the family pet is also affected, often harmed, or weaponized by the abuser.

      Sadly, farmers are "depopulating" their farmed animals due to slaughterhouse shutdowns. Millions of animals in slaughterhouses are being subjected to mass killing as they cannot be "processed" into animal meat during the pandemic due to slaughterhouse shortages. 

      Slaughterhouses were already a weak link in the meat-supply food chain as many large processing plants have been shut down over the past decade for various reasons, such as folks seeking out animal meat alternatives for health and ethical reasons.

      During lockdowns, some farmers have nowhere to offload or sell their animals for food. Some of these animals are being gassed to death. Sounds ghastly. Animal lives are shown to be totally dispensable.

      Chickens and pigs are most at risk because cradle to grave, they live less than about three months, but cows are also much affected. During shutdowns farmers cannot work at capacity, there's a lack of staff, they can't generate revenue to pay for feed and care. Then animals are euthanized (killed).

      It's a viscous circle for the farm industry. Apparently, outside North America a resurgence in home cooking has meant intensely farmed pigs and chickens are sold quickly to slaughterhouses for animal meat to willing and ready consumers.

      A glaring spotlight has finally illuminated the horror that is the "wet market" where wild and domestic animals are housed in filthy cages, cheek by jowl, and sold off as foodstuffs or medicine in a disgusting market milieu of feces, blood, and dirty water, creating a perfect viral breeding ground. 

      Wet markets need to be shut down along with a global halt in the trade of wildlife or we'll already be brewing the next pandemic.

      Will we heed the global call to be stewards for animals and the natural world or will we simply attempt to pick up where we left off?

      Even with the the seemingly positive side effects of the COVID-19 virus on human to animal behaviour, I remain concerned that we treat animals well and with respect. 

      I'm apprehensive that the newly adopted pandemic puppies and corona kitties may be returned to shelters once workplaces reopen and there's no longer a need for a furry COVID home buddy, but only time will tell.

      V. Victoria Shroff is credited as one of the first and longest serving animal-law lawyers in Canada. She has been practising animal law for 20 years in downtown Vancouver at Shroff and Associates and is also adjunct professor of animal law at Allard School of Law at UBC. Victoria has been recognized for her pioneering work in animal law, was a finalist for Canadian Lawyers' top 25 most influential lawyers in Canada in both 2018 and 2019, and is frequently interviewed about animal matters in the media. She has lectured on animal law locally, in the U.S., and in Asia. She regularly contributes animal-law articles for legal, pet, and mainstream publications. She also founded and teaches an animal-law program called Paws of Empathy, which she teaches with a dog or two. Follow her @shroffanimallaw. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.