The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the wet markets in Asia — specifically Wuhan, China — but wet markets where shoppers pick out live animals to be purchased as food or slaughtered on the spot also can be found in the U.S.
In California, Illinois and New York, hungry patrons can browse amphibians, reptiles and birds. New York City has about 80 markets hawking live chickens, goats, sheep, turkeys, guinea fowl, rabbits, partridges, pigeons, quail and ducks.
Animal rights activists, who have long fought to close down these markets, say their crusade is poised to gain traction, thanks to the media spotlight on China’s wet markets and a possible link to the coronavirus.
“For the global good, it is time to move on, and we cannot bring these live markets with us,” said Judie Mancuso, founder and president of Social Compassion in Legislation. “We can’t keep coming up with vaccines and viral drugs and lose hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives in the process. We need to focus on the source.”
The origins of COVID-19 are hotly debated, with accusations that it came from a government virology lab in Wuhan, China, or possibly emerged from a contaminated bat sold at one of the city’s wet markets.
Selling bats for consumption is illegal in the U.S., but some states allow certain bat species to be sold as pets.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify bats as “bush meat,” which is illegal to bring into the U.S. The penalty is a fine of up to $250,000.
Ms. Mancuso’s organization wants the markets shut down altogether and is putting a special effort into working with states on legislation to ban the sale of live animals.
California and New York lawmakers have introduced legislation that would cut off imports of exotic animals that also could spread novel diseases to humans.
Each state has different regulations.
Amphibians, reptiles and birds are sold in California at “live animal markets” for food. In New York, live animals are kept in cages and sold for human consumption. New York City markets offer chickens, sheep, goats, guinea fowl, rabbits, turkeys, partridges, quail, and ducks.
In Illinois, most live animal markets are found around Chicago and are licensed by the state. Their animal sales are similar to the ones in New York.
Opponents fret that even the legal markets lack sufficient government oversight to ensure cleanliness.
In 2015, an Asian animal market in Miami found itself under scrutiny for unsanitary conditions, animals being deprived of food and water, and turtles being sold without a permit.
“It’s not like somebody is in there making sure the knives are clean and the blood gets mopped up,” Ms. Mancuso said.
Members of Congress, including nearly two dozen senators, sent a letter this month to the director of the World Health Organization and the director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization requesting a global shutdown of wet markets in an effort to prevent another pandemic.
“Scientists studying zoonotic diseases — diseases that jump between animals and humans — have pointed to the close proximity of shoppers, vendors, and both live and dead animals at wildlife markets in countries around the world as prime transmission locations for these pathogens,” the letter read. “It is clear that to protect human health, these close and sustained interactions with wildlife must stop.”
WHO is reportedly developing guidance to increase safety when wet markets reopen, according to the BBC, which reported this week that the U.N. health organization views the markets as a source of affordable food for millions of people.
Meanwhile, reports suggest that wet markets in China have already begun reopening.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, said the world should demand the closure of China’s wet markets.
“I think they should shut down those things right away,” he told Fox News, noting many diseases have come from the “unusual” human-animal interactions.