Image by Eyüp Öztaş from Pixabay

Seven stories, old and new, about animals, people and disease

Since Coronovirus came into the news at the beginning of this year, we’ve heard plenty of stories about the dangers of animals spreading disease to people. So it’s good to have a reminder that human beings are often the ones who destroy worlds. This is a lesson all too real for the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, who were attacked by a series of deadly epidemics, brought by conquering and colonising Europeans, in the centuries following the invasion of 1492.

Five hundred years later, the descendants of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America) have rich histories of storytelling to draw on in the face of the current pandemic. This one is from one of my favourite podcasts — “Unreserved” on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). In this episode, host Rosanna Deerchild speaks to a number of Indigenous artists and intellectuals about “why stories matter more now than ever”. The whole episode is worth listening to, but animals are at the centre of the opening tale, told by Cherokee author Daniel Heath Justice: the Cherokee story of how disease came into the world.

In this lovely piece of environmental and animal history, Sean Kheraj examines an outbreak of “equine influenza” among the horses of Toronto in the late nineteenth century, and its subsequent spread to cities throughout Canada and the United States. A friendly reminder that epidemics are nothing new, human-animal entanglements bring dangers and challenges as well as joys and mutual benefits, and that urban areas — as much as rural ones — are very much a part of nature.

Sean Kheraj: “The Great Epizootic of 1872–73: Networks of Animal Disease in North American Urban Environments”

We’ve heard lots about what it’s like for people to be locked up at home, and there have been some delightful stories about wild animals — from penguins to pumas — unexpectedly taking to the streets of the world’s major cities. But what about the animals who live side-by-side with human beings in urban areas on a daily basis, often depending on us for food and shelter? Patrick Kuklinski takes a look at the fate of pigeons left to fend for themselves in the age of quarantines — and how people can ensure they and other city birds get the care they need.

Patrick Kuklinski, “Right Now, We Need to Feed the Pigeons”

Since the novel Coronavirus was first identified in the city of Wuhan in China in early 2020, there has been much speculation about which animal it originated in (probably bats) and which one it was passed through on its way to humans (the intermediary animal). So far the most popular candidate for the latter is the pangolin: the world’s only scaled mammal and possibly its most trafficked animal. In this short piece from 2018, the children’s author Katherine Rundell recounts a trip to a wildlife reserve outside Harare, Zimbabwe, to visit one of these prehistoric “scaly anteaters” — with a tongue longer than its body, armour the “same shade of grey-green as the sea in winter”, and a mortal enemy in humankind.

Katherine Rundell: “Consider the Pangolin”

Whether or not we ever understand fully the animal origins of the Coronavirus, one thing is clear: the systems that help to enable the trans-species transmission of deadly diseases go far beyond bats and pangolins, and far beyond Chinese wet markets. There are a number of good articles out there about the links between meat eating, factory farming and Coronavirus. I particularly like Samuel’s account because it is scientifically grounded and very accessible, taking the spotlight off the wildlife sold illegally in Wuhan and spreading it globally to examine the legal but equally lethal world of industrial farming. She also looks beyond viruses, at the multitude of ways factory farms harm animals and humans, including the serious threats to health suffered by agricultural and meat plant workers. Surely, finally, factory farming is an idea — and reality — whose time has come to an end.

Sigal Samuel: “The Meat We Eat is a Pandemic Risk, too”

In Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian, time-travelling film some of the real-life themes of the Covid-19 crisis uncannily come to life on screen: a global viral pandemic, the lockdown to end all lockdowns and wild animals taking over a metropolis. No spoilers, but there’s an animal rights theme with a twist.

In the UK, 12 Monkeys is available on BBC iplayer until late 2020.

Former British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy is curating the online project “Write Where we are Now”, inviting poets from around the world to submit verse on their personal experiences, observations and reflections of the pandemic. In these three poems by Imtiaz Dharker, part of a series of describing different cities seen from the perspective of a drone, animals appear as living creatures as well as symbols of the gross inequalities among human beings that are being thrown into light and exacerbated by the security and surveillance measures put into place under lockdowns. The poems combine a lyrical voice and a sharp eye for social injustice with a sense of the absurd that sometimes flows from people’s attempts to escape the pain and chaos of human existence by finding solace in nature.

Imtiaz Dharker: “Seen From a Drone, Delhi”

Imtiaz Dharker: “Seen From a Drone, Mumbai”

Imtiaz Dharker: “Also Seen From a Drone”

Originally published at https://veganismsexandpolitics.com on April 30, 2020.

Author, editor, independent scholar, animal lover, passionate vegan, queer fem/inist www.veganismsexandpolitics.com

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