May 31, 2020

GUEST ROOM | A Pandemic Struck, and Man Forgot his Best Friend

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Whether people know it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified an anthropocentric view that most people already had.

There has always been a kinship between human beings and animals, whether it be through pets or zoos. After all, the way a person treats their pet dog or cat can likely predict how they will treat another person. These animals are not viewed as wild animals, but as companion species. We have a kinship toward them and treat them as though they are one of us, a part of our family. This kinship extends beyond companion species to charismatic megafauna, large animals that have widespread appeal, such as polar bears, giant pandas, lions or gorillas. These animals seem like they have a personality and are thus more like us.

During this turbulent time, the Center for Disease Control mandates that human beings should socially distance from others when not otherwise quarantining. As we continue these steps, I can’t help but recognize that these practices have been put in place to keep other human beings safe from the virus spreading. But where do animals fall on the scale of who to help protect? Are our lives as humans more valuable than the lives of the companion species we share our houses with and the charismatic megafauna we learn so much about?

While the CDC has released information about how humans should stay safe with their pets during this time, there has not been as much information regarding animals contracting the virus in, for example, zoos. Considering this is where a lot of animals are likely to interact with humans, you can’t help but wonder: Shouldn’t we be trying to protect these species from COVID-19 as well?

The first case in the United States of an animal testing positive for COVID-19 was at the Bronx Zoo in New York City in April. After a tiger showed symptoms of a respiratory illness, a test was administered. It was found that the tiger had contracted COVID-19 from a zoo worker and eight total large cats, lions and tigers, have since tested positive for the virus. These large cats are the perfect example of charismatic megafauna. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we love to learn about these magnificent creatures, which is why we go to zoos. Shouldn’t we be doing more to protect them?

Testing is the next question. While there is new information coming out every day about the COVID-19 spread and responses, as of April 22, both the CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture do not recommend routine testing of animals. Neither the tests nor the methods of fighting COVID-19 are the same between humans and animals. If more animals are showing symptoms of the virus, shouldn’t they have a right to have the same precautions taken for their safety? People like zoo workers should also be social distancing from animals, as they too are in danger of contracting the COVID-19 virus.

There are so many significant changes present in our lives today. But too many news stories focus on changes in human’s lives, and rarely mention those of animals. Aside from testing and transmission, one important consideration is food supply. The food supply for people is more important now than ever, but what about those species we have kinship to, namely in zoos?

If so many people are quarantining and caring for themselves during these uncertain times, how are we caring for those charismatic megafauna and other animals at our zoos? Zoos have historically been a place for people to come see and learn about those animal species we share our large planet with, but during the pandemic zoos have been losing visitors and thus their income source.

The Neumünster Zoo in Berlin, Germany, has instituted a last resort plan to feed animals to other animals within the zoo due to the fact that their food budget has drastically decreased. While the zoo has not released a specific list of which animals to spare or not, the last animal to go would be the zoo’s polar bear, Vitus.

In the past, there has been a hierarchy in place when discussing which animal habitat to save or help preserve. Today, the question is, which animal should we save or preserve the knowledge of?

Furthermore, we must consider the anthropocentric perspective. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency funds have been allocated to different small businesses and populations. While zoos are responsible for taking care of their animals during good and bad times, a representative from the Neumünster Zoo has stated that they are not receiving any city funds, and the state funds they have applied for have not been given yet.

If we as people spend so much time learning about and caring for other species, then why have we not tried to help them? Whether through social distancing from animals, or emergency funds, we should be trying to help every species cope, as the COVID-19 pandemic is a multi-species issue. We are all vulnerable to this virus, and should treat each species with the same rights.

Danielle Cohen ’20 is a graduate of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically throughout this summer.