CfHAS Leverhulme ECR Fellow Dr. Paula Arcari reflects on the current pandemic in light of its overlaps with human/animal relations

COVID-19 shows why we need to stop commodifying animals

For many thousands of people worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic is providing painful proof of the inadequacies and failings of a profit-based capitalist world economy. However, thousands of nonhuman lives are equally vulnerable under this system but have fewer, if any, legal protections.

Animals are part of vast, globally connected industries that commodify their bodies not only for food, but also entertainment, research, and companionship. Now that the systems of exchange that provide for their daily maintenance are dissolving, they face the possibility of mass extermination.

Some zoos are coming to terms with the possibility of having to kill some ‘if not all’ of their animals, feed some of their animals to others, or shut down permanently. This is in addition to the thousands of healthy animals that zoos cull every year due to being unwanted surplus or to maintain genetic integrity. As Sam Threadgill of Freedom for Animals explains, “without breeding and maintaining stocks of captive animals for people to look at, the animals wouldn’t be in this even more dire situation.”

Racehorses and greyhounds are already at high risk in industries that rely on large numbers of animals being born to make them financially viable, with consequent over-supply and high annual ‘wastage’. With racing suspended, UK advocacy organisations are anticipating a spike in welfare issues and potential widespread culling. After the 2008–2009 financial crisis, the number of racehorses sent to abattoirs in Britain and Ireland doubled and the IMF predicts that the Covid-19 recession will be “way worse”.

There are also hundreds of thousands of animals that are part of struggling tourist operations (for example elephants in Thailand); millions of laboratory animals who have become surplus to requirements and face mass culling; and many thousands more in rescue centres which are struggling through lack of funds, have had to suspend intake, or are facing closure. While there are reports of increased adoptions, charities warn of the consequences for these animals post-pandemic when people regain their social/work lives, and also note that the number of pets being abandoned has increased.

Essentially, animals are highly expendable commodities when it comes to an economic crisis and associated shifts in values. Unlike humans, they have no legal status, and they also don’t have second homes, pension schemes, insurance, savings, or social services to rely on. That the animal-industrial complex is so directly implicated in the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, with myriad animals being substantial victims of both, only emphasises the cycles of violence that result from capitalist commodification.

To avoid future, perhaps worse, risks to global health and nonhuman lives, and also make greater inroads towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the commodification of animals’ lives and bodies needs to stop. There are ways this can be done with compassion and respect, helping those currently dependent on these systems transition to alternative livelihoods, as is happening in farming.

If it seems insensitive or irrelevant to speak of animal exploitation at this time, it is important to understand that all human oppressions — based on ‘race’, ethnicity, gender, class, age, religion, ability or other perceived difference — operate through the same mechanisms, and all are super-charged under capitalism. Human and nonhuman oppression cannot be treated separately.

Dr Paula Arcari