Animals in the post-COVID world

Hanniah Tariq on the suffering caused by the pandemic to other sentient beings

Animals in the post-COVID world
The spread of Covid-19 has had massive implications for animal welfare, both under human care and in the wild. Domestic, neighbourhood, residents of manmade habitats (zoos, sanctuaries, and shelters) and undomesticated animals have all been impacted, as we can see from news about animal vulnerability and lockdowns.

Starting at those closest to us, our domesticated companions, it already begins with heartbreak. In a time when tolerance, patience, and compassion are key, it seems that local experience has been the opposite. Various animal rescue and shelter organizations contacted revealed that they are receiving escalating cases of animal abandonment and abuse in the past few weeks. The main problem is misinformation, according to Prof. Masood Rabbani, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore. In early April, he clarified that if domestic pets had a role to play, it would have been obvious by now. He also mentioned that the World Health Organization (WHO) Center for Disease Control’s advisory correspondingly states that there is no evidence that pets are involved. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) similarly confirms that “there is no evidence that animals are playing a significant epidemiological role in the spread of human infections with SARS-CoV-2.” Regardless of such guidelines, relentless circulation of hearsay about animals potentially becoming COVID-19 vectors has led to an alarming rate of pet abandonment in Pakistan. To counter this trend, official sources like the Ministry of National Health Services Regulations & Coordination (NHSRC)’s Covid-19 health advisory platform need to clarify instructions like “Avoid Contact with Animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).” Current economic pressure felt by some families is also leading to more pets being thrown out or killed.

Shelters overwhelmed by cases are attempting to dispel fears. According to Ayesha Chundrigar, founder of the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF), “when that news got out that cats can contract it, without realizing it or doing any proper research people started abandoning their pets. It didn’t matter if it was a cat or dog; we started receiving messages like crazy that we want you to take our pets.” Chundrigar also noticed the abnormal development of increasing abuse cases. “They doubled, which is very strange. We receive more than 200 calls and messages via social media from across Pakistan, displaying that in lockdown, animal abandonment and abuse cases have become ridiculously high. I’m talking about proper abuse like burning puppies alive and poisoning kittens. By the time they get to us, they are in such a grave state that they can’t survive. Considering that the pandemic is linked to animal cruelty, it is bizarre that instead of things becoming better for animals, they have become far worse,” says Chundrigar.

Mahera Omar, Omar Co-founder of Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), has observed a similar trend. “There is compassion fatigue even in regular days, but we are receiving a lot more calls for abandoned pets literally thrown on the street now. People can’t even tolerate newly born kittens near their house. We were already scrambling with injured animals, but now with the virus, we are overwhelmed, guiding people what to do with the additional abandoned animals they are finding,” she states. IPS Animal Rescue has had a similar experience with “receiving cases of people abandoning their pets and throwing friendly animals out of their apartments due to fear that they can infect them.” This unfortunate occurrence is not inevitable, though. For example, in New York, the current epicenter of the pandemic, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has noted no major negative effects on domestic animal welfare. In a statement to the press President and CEO of the ASPCA, Matt Bershadker said that “while stresses and challenges have risen in an unprecedented fashion, the ASPCA has not seen an increase in owner surrenders or stray intakes at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City due to COVID-19.”

Future pets have also suffered at this time. Due to the lockdown, several pet shop keepers with no previous experience of the situation closed their shops leaving animals without care. Gulfnews reports that hundreds of animals perished as a result in pet markets. “For ten days, those animals were completely locked and crying for help. I got in touch with the government, we got a whole bunch of volunteers, and together we got out a lot of animals. The government is being fantastic and sending people to check up on the pet shops every week or so now,” says Chundrigar.

Working animals are also suffering as most of them are owned by daily wage earners. So while the owners are struggling financially, the animals are slowly starving to death. For instance, ACF has rescued numerous donkeys “literally down to skin and bones” in this period. As far as livestock is concerned, Eric Fèvre, International Livestock Research Institute, feels that there is no reason for alarm as “from a farming perspective, there don’t seem to be any anthropo-zoonotic cases despite the fact it came from animals originally.” However, the availability of livestock feed is critical for the survival of millions of animal rearing households across the country. Keeping this in mind, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has shown support by donating 315 kg of animal compound feed to 1,400 families in rural Sindh.

Just like domestic abuse cases have increased exponentially, so has widespread abuse of stray animals in cities. Street animals are starving with their primary food sources like restaurants closed for weeks. Without regular sources of nutrition they are obviously distressed and slowly starving to death. The barking of misery resulting from this is leading to civilians poisoning or shooting dogs on the street. “People are taking animal lives into their own hands and not realizing that the barking is because they are starving. We have a bunch of puppies with us that are bleeding from their mouths because they were poisoned. This is the standard case we see day after day. I wake up to this, and I sleep to this. I had no idea it was going to be this intense,” discloses Chundrigar.

Rescue capabilities of animal welfare organizations are also being stretched. Todd’s Welfare Society in Lahore, for example, is under quarantine due to the virus and has suspended rescue operations to protect their animals and shelter staff. IPS Animal Rescue is trying to accommodate as many cases as they can but stated that it’s “really hard as our rescue work focuses on injured animals, and we are running out of space. Plus, people who give up these animals take no responsibility; they usually dump them in shelters and vanish. We are trying to educate people about COVID-19 protocols related to animals and finding new good families for the abandoned poor souls. The support we need from people is that they should step up and adopt animals from shelters, we need to have space to cater to more cases, and we can’t leave our rescues on roads, so we need good families for them. Plus, people can foster sick animals to share our burden, and donation in any form is always helpful.”

Clearly, regardless of present circumstances, people need to continue to maintain an ethical and humane and treatment of all sentient beings. A way forward is urgently updating and stricter implementation of the Prevention to Cruelty to Animal Act, 1890. Punjab is currently the only province with a ‘Society for Prevention of Cruelty (SPCA) to Animals’ established under the act. The Nation reported in 2018 that through this society, “people are fined, though nominally, for maltreating animals, while there is no custodian of the 1890 act to implement it in the other three provinces.” Misleading information on COVID-19’s interaction with animals must also be countered as it continues to threaten the welfare of fauna around the world. As put by Omar, “It’s not the animals that have given us the virus but how we have treated nature, ecosystems, and wildlife. But, I feel people have ended up blaming animals, and it’s translating to this situation.”