Will the pandemic change our relationship with nature and animals?

Will the pandemic change our relationship with nature and animals?

Argentinian vegan activist Melisa Lobo has given a home to more than 300 animals on her farm in La Plata, which she has transformed into a sanctuary and where she calls calves, cows and pigs by their first names. She defends the animal cause in a country where the meat industry, especially extensive beef farming, makes a considerable contribution to the economy.

(AP/Natacha Pisarenko)

During August 2020, anonymous activists tagged several French farms with messages such as “the global epidemic is due to animal slaughter”, “animal farming, the cradle of pandemics” and “the virus is speciesism”.

The authors of these slogans then set out their demands on specialised digital platforms. They stated, notably, that “the media continue to obscure the link between zoophagia and pandemics…[.] It is our duty to force them to make this link and to act accordingly. Because beyond the human victims of Covid-19, the victims of speciesism number in the trillions every year.” Finally they warned that other farms would be targeted and encouraged others to join their movement because: “You don’t win a war armed only with flowers”.

This type of animal welfare activism is not new. Its origins date back to the 1970s, when activists embarked on more radical methods to abolish ‘speciesism’, in other words the hierarchy between humans and animals, as well as the hierarchy between different species.

Under the banner of ‘animal liberation’, these anti-speciesists – as they describe themselves – have waged a war based on direct action for half a century. The weapons deployed include the destruction of hunting watchtowers, the theft of cattle, the blockading of slaughterhouses, the ransacking of butchers’ shops, the denunciation of laboratories where tests and experiments are carried out on animals or the production of clandestine reports to denounce cruelty to animals.

Images of pigs, cows, chickens or mink in agony, undergoing degrading treatment, regularly make the headlines and have shed light on illegal practices that have forced public authorities to intervene. These videos are also an effective tool for raising public awareness and promoting a vegan lifestyle: the ultimate remedy which would ensure a certain equality of treatment to all living beings on the planet. While it is difficult to know the precise number of anti-speciesists in Europe, it is undeniable that it has been growing for several years and that their networks now extend to the four corners of the continent.

“What has changed is the way we interact with animals”

This development is partly the result of the anti-speciesist discourse, which has adapted to the 21st century and found crossovers with other abolitionist movements. In fact, while the rejection of animal suffering remains the most deeply rooted and the most decisive conviction, anti-speciesism now also takes into account climate change caused by factory farming as well as infectious diseases of animal origin, zoonoses, of which the Covid-19 pandemic is the most relentless demonstration. The release of greenhouse gases and deadly viruses are seen as two facets of the problematic relationship between humans, nature and animals.

“There is clearly a link,” says a spokesperson for the Belgian organisation Animal Rights, which recalls that the Covid-19 probably began in a wet market in Wuhan, after being transmitted from a bat and a pangolin to a human. “It has been a century since humanity has suffered waves of ever more serious epidemics linked to the consumption of animal products,” said anti-speciesist activist Yves Bonnardel, before concluding: “We have reached a stage where those who eat meat put other citizens in danger”. It is a harsh view, but one that chimes with some other opinions within the anti-speciesist movement, for whom the abolition of meat consumption would prevent millions of deaths.

Plague, rabies, Ebola, mad cow disease, SARS, MERS, swine flu, avian flu – 75 per cent of epidemics are of animal origin, and every time these zoonoses confront humanity with a huge health challenge, particularly since the appearance of Covid-19.

According to Eurogroup for Animals, the main animal lobby in Europe, “the current Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically shown that the way we treat the animals who share our planet has consequences we cannot continue to ignore.”

Without calling for a vegetarian revolution, this grouping of more than 70 animal rights organisations highlights several factors. Among them are the poaching and trafficking of wildlife, such as the pangolin, which too often takes place out of sight of health checks. But the main culprit remains intensive breeding. With its assembly line yields and overcrowding of billions of animals, it is not only an ideal breeding ground for viruses, but it also fuels deforestation and loss of biodiversity, which results in the reduction of habitable space for wild species and consequently their closer proximity to human environments.

“Wild and domestic animals have been carriers of viruses and bacteria for millennia. What has changed is the way we interact with them,” says Eurogroup for Animals, concluding that: “We only have ourselves to blame”.

Some researchers offer a more tempered view of the anti-meat position. Swiss epidemiologist Didier Pittet believes that “there is no obvious scientific connection between the coronavirus and meat consumption in general”. For this specialist, the fault is not necessarily consumption but rather the excessive proximity to the animals and their microorganisms. A relationship that, according to him, would not disappear if everyone became vegetarian or vegan, because animals will always exist, as will their droppings.

Many members of the animal movement agree with this analysis. Like the Belgian NGO Gaia, for example, they do not necessarily advocate stopping the consumption of meat but rather a style of livestock farming that guarantees the well-being of the animal and its environment. The promoters of this line of thought also believe that their type of activism, based on political lobbying and public awareness, is more effective than that advocated by the most radical anti-speciesist organisations.

These arguments are rejected by the latter, for whom respectful animal farming to ensure the needs of more than seven billion human beings is an illusion, as is the perpetuation of animal sacrifice on the altar of non-essential meat as food. Direct action alone is effective according to these activists, even if it must go beyond the framework of legality and non-violence.

The fight against ‘agri-bashing’ and the political balance of power

While there have been no human victims of this approach, countries like the United States have classified some of these groups, such as the famous Animal Liberation Front (ALF), on the list of terrorist threats. Taking a more moderate approach, Europe compares, in its latest report on terrorism, the anti-speciesists to other movements focused on a single issue, such as anti-abortionists and environmentalists. Europol also says that most of their actions are non-violent and pose “limited risk to public order”.

Many European governments, however, have strengthened their judicial and legislative arsenal against anti-speciesists, in the name of the fight against ‘agri-bashing’. While Belgium remains largely untouched by this type of action, France set up a special unit of the national gendarmerie a year ago to track down and punish animal liberation activists. Called DEMETER, after the Greek goddess of the harvest, this unit is actively supported by the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions, the FNSEA, whose president Christina Lambert condemns the rising trend of “bashing” the meat industry and the “unacceptable methods” of anti-speciesist activists who, according to her organisation, carried out more than 40 incursions into French farms during 2019.

At the launch of DEMETER, the former Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner did not hesitate to toughen his tone against the anti-speciesists, guilty, according to him, of “intimidation, debasement, insults” towards farmers, or even of making “films with disgusting comments, before using farmers as fodder for social networks”. Castaner made clear that as a consequence anti-speciesism would become “one of the priority areas for intelligence”.

Faced with this increased repression, the anti-speciesist association L214, which specialises in video investigations, has complained of an attempt at “intimidation” by the government and has initiated legal proceedings against DEMETER, with the support of the Human Rights League.

Linking its remarks to the current health crisis, L214 insists: “Associations in the world of animal protection and more generally environmental protection are being put under surveillance at a time when citizens’ need and demand for transparency on these subjects has never been so great.”

The NGO upholds as proof its latest video, which reveals the abject treatment of pigs raised to produce ham for the Herta brand. Faced with the outcry over these images, the British supermarket chain Waitrose has decided to withdraw these products from its shelves.

A meagre victory, in a wider cause that some continue to see as an unrealistic utopia, and others as evidence of a health threat the world can no longer ignore.

This story has been translated from French.