New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2006


Animal Rights and Global Human Health

by Ardeth Baxter

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Nothing illustrates the importance of animal rights to human health more graphically than the current threat of a global avian flu pandemic. Avian flu is one of many zoonotic diseases threatening humans and other animals.


Zoonotic diseases originate in wild or domesticated animals and spread to humans—or vice versa—through fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, body fluids, feces, etc. About 61% of 1,415 human pathogens—viruses, bacteria, parasites and prions—and 75% of new diseases affecting humans are zoonotic. Plague, Hantavirus, TB, anthrax, mad cow disease, rabies, tularemia, monkeypox, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome), and avian flu all originated in animals.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever, discovered in 1976, infected humans in Africa through the consumption of bush meat (the meat of monkeys and apes) and has killed some 1,200 humans to date. It also killed hundreds of macaques imported from the Philippines in a Virginia biomedical lab in 1989. The related Marburg virus, which caused over 450 deaths in Angola and the Congo, was first detected in 1967 when Ugandan monkeys infected lab workers in Marburg, West Germany.

Monkeypox made dozens of people in the Midwest ill two years ago. It was traced to African rodents housed with American prairie dogs in an animal dealer’s shed. The same year, a Japanese family contracted monkeypox from imported pet prairie dogs. US dealers sell or export up to 20,000 prairie dogs a year for the pet trade, particularly to Asia.

Rabies is a big problem in China. Endemic in bats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and foxes, an increase in wild animal consumption and raising dogs and cats for slaughter has made it flourish.

There have been 70,000 cases of salmonellosis in the US from human contact with reptiles and exotics such as African hedgehogs. Salmonella outbreaks have been traced to pet turtles in the 60s and 70s and pet iguanas in the 90s.

Herpes B virus can be transmitted from macaques to humans. Tuberculosis is a disease shared by humans and a number of wild animals. Parrots and gamecocks carry psittacosis, transmissible to humans. HIV/AIDS, one of the worst zoonotic diseases of all time, is believed to have come from African monkeys and has killed 25 million people so far.

The deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu probably originated with domestic poultry in the late 50s. It has since spread to wild birds and is now making its way across Asia and Europe. Over 60 people in Asia have died from avian flu since 2003. Other strains of avian flu have been found in Texas, East coast states and Canada, and several poultry workers have become ill. An avian flu pandemic hinges on one human infected with another flu being exposed to the avian flu virus, which could then mutate and produce a strain contagious among humans.


Large factory farming operations, where thousands of chickens in huge sheds are packed together in their own manure, provide a perfect climate for evolving zoonotic diseases. Pathogens in the feces are disseminated through the air or swallowed, passing from chicken to chicken and mutating into deadlier strains because of their stress-induced low immunity. According to the World Health Organization, mass animal transport and commercialization of chicken farming in Southeast Asia are ideal for the spread of avian flu.


The wildlife trade is another avenue for transporting zoonotic diseases. Estimated to be a $10 to $20 billion dollar a year industry, it supplies wildlife parts, products and live animals, such as exotic leathers and fur; ornamental objects; food; traditional medicines; exotic pets; biomedical research animals; zoo and safari park wildlife; and game farm and canned hunting ranch animals. Hunters, middlemen and consumers may have contact with infected wild animals whose destinations may be national or international at markets. Or domestic and wild animals in markets and villages may eat the waste and remnants of infected animals and spread pathogens.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that the US is the largest consumer of wildlife, including 10,000 primates, 250,000 live birds, 2 million reptiles and 200 million tropical fish annually. But despite the threat to human health, most wild-caught animals are not tested for disease and parasites at US ports of entry. Only commercial bird imports and some livestock are tested for psittacosis, Exotic Newcastle Disease, and foot and mouth. Reptiles, amphibians and fish are not tested at all. A temporary ban was imposed in February 2004 on the importation of birds and bird products from eight Asian countries because of avian flu, but it was revoked in October 2005.


Cockfighting has proved a particularly efficient way to transmit avian flu. Infected gamecocks frequently come into contact with farmed chickens or wild birds. People may carry the virus from a cockfight to their home or workplace. In Thailand, where cockfighting is very popular, thirteen people have died from the flu, and a temporary cockfighting ban has been imposed. Last year, a Thai cockfighter who died from the flu probably contracted it by sucking mucus and blood from the beaks of his injured roosters, a common practice.

A bill currently in Congress (H.R. 817) would increase the penalty for transporting gamecocks across state lines and from other countries to a felony. The aggressive cockfighting lobby has fought the bill through two advocacy groups, Citizens for Preserving Historic Animal Use and the curiously named Citizens for the Humane and Ethical Treatment of Animals (CHETA). Not surprisingly, the National Chicken Council, representing the poultry industry and eager to point the finger of blame away from factory farming, supports this bill.

Respecting an animal’s right not to suffer for human benefit can also reduce the risk to humans of zoonotic diseases arising through close association with exploited animals. Decreasing contact among species by reducing or eliminating the wildlife trade, banning cockfighting worldwide, and discouraging the growth of factory farming operations are a few ways to make the world a safer and kinder place for all animals, human and nonhuman.

Ardeth Baxter is an animal rights advocate and ethical vegan with four dogs and five cats. For more of her writing, visit: Associated Content

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