Katherine Polak, DVM, MPH, MS, DACVPM, DABVP (Shelter Medicine Practice) is the Head of Stray Animal Care – Southeast Asia for FOUR PAWS International, a global animal welfare organization working to end the suffering of wild, stray, and farm animals. Dr. Polak was a Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Resident at the University of Florida and has maintained courtesy faculty status teaching in the UF online Shelter Medicine Program ever since. She currently manages FOUR PAWS companion animal programs in Southeast Asia, and authored this overview of the COVID-19 pandemic from an international animal welfare perspective.
COVID-19 has affected lives around the world, upending our social habits, compromising public health, and bringing the world’s economy to a screeching halt. Receiving far less attention, however, is the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on companion animals, particularly those without an owner. While animal shelters in the U.S. have been challenged balancing animal care and community demands with public health and safety, internationally, stray animals are facing incredible challenges in communities which even under normal circumstances provide little to no safety net for their welfare.
Most stray animals are reliant on humans either directly or indirectly for sufficient resources, including food, water, and shelter. As the pandemic spread around the world and countries acted to increase social distancing, people were forced to stay in their homes while restaurants, hotels, and factories closed their doors. As jobs became scarcer, many people left capital cities and returned to their villages, often hundreds of miles away, while tourists and ex-pats returned to their home countries. People venturing out to local markets to purchase food became fewer and fewer.
The effect of this human migration on stray animals was devastating. Food sources became increasingly scarce as regular feeders of strays were no longer providing the food these animals so desperately depended on. With animals going hungry, conflict between stray dogs and communities, livestock, and among dogs themselves becomes inevitable.
In Southeast Asia, strays face a special challenge. As economic situations worsened, the theft and sale of dogs and cats for the meat trade became more rampant. Throughout the region, stray dogs and cats frequently live at Buddhist temples, given that monks feed the animals. While temple animals are largely protected from theft, as food sources dwindle, hungry dogs and cats are more likely to venture outside temple grounds in search of food, putting them at risk being snatched for their meat. In cities across Cambodia, dog meat vendors are now reporting an increase in the overall demand for dog meat, with some customers citing the belief that dog meat warms and protects the body from disease.
In Vietnam, dog meat restaurants have simply adapted to the current situation, converting their dine-in business to a to-go model. Dog and cat meat dishes are also being advertised on the popular Foody.Vn food delivery app for home delivery during the country’s lockdown measures. On the tourist island of Bali, there are reports of new dog meat warungs (small, family-owned restaurants) opening up, as those out of work look for alternative sources of income in a place where stray dogs are in ready supply.
In some communities, stray animals have been further ostracized because of rumors suggested that they are carriers of the coronavirus. Despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) clarifying that pet animals do not spread COVID-19 to humans, some local governments issued advisories cautioning against contact with animals, which further fueled negative attitudes towards strays. However, in communities where dog meat consumption occurs, this announcement led to increased dog meat consumption given the perceived lack of risk by consumers.
Helping strays around the world
In my working areas from Thailand to Indonesia, FOUR PAWS International is ensuring animals have the resources to survive the coming months. During this challenging time, most animal care programs have been put on hold in an effort to reduce potential staff exposure to disease. However, our teams are still responding to emergency cases and ensuring animals enrolled in our programs are cared for.
In some places we are taking a more aggressive approach, conducting large scale feeding programs for stray animals. Last week in Cambodia we initiated a feeding program for Buddhist pagodas, providing dry dog and cat food, kitten formula, rice, and medications for the temple’s animals. In Bali we will be working closely with Bali Animal Welfare Association providing desperately needed food for hungry dogs around the Mount Agung volcano, which erupted in 2019 causing thousands to evacuate and leave hundreds of dogs behind.
In Eastern Europe, together with local partners, FOUR PAWS is currently feeding more than 1,000 free-roaming dogs in Romania, starting with the cities of Bucharest and Galati. Similar initiatives will follow in Ukraine and Bulgaria, to keep animals both from starving to death and from being culled by local authorities.
Preventing another pandemic
For the past 5+ years, I have dedicated my career to documenting and campaigning against the abhorrent cruelty associated with the dog and cat meat trades in Asia. Venturing into wet markets and slaughterhouses, I have witnessed some of the most unimaginable cruelty toward companion animals. Dogs and cats packed tightly in cages soaked in blood and feces, often stacked on top of one another in crowded markets in 90+ degree heat.
An illicit, profit-driven industry, there are more than 20 million dogs and cats being snatched, traded, and sold for their meat every year across Asia. The trade in companion animals often overlaps with that of wild animals, with both being transported and sold side by side in filthy markets and restaurants. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we as campaigners would frequently characterize the trade as a “ticking time bomb” for disease transmission, given the rampant co-mingling of species, high levels of illness, and the mass transport of animals involved. Never could we have imagined, however, just how widespread that bomb would be felt.
The current pandemic is tragic on many levels, but never has the opportunity been greater for legislative change level for animals. Governments throughout Asia have a duty to their citizens (and to the world) to prevent another pandemic from happening.
Already we are seeing positive signs of change. On the 24th of February, China announced a ban on buying and selling wild animals for food. On the 2nd of April, Shenzhen (the fifth largest city in China) announced a historic, comprehensive, and permanent ban on the consumption of dogs and cats as well as wild animals, making it the first city in China to permanently ban the dog and cat meat trades.
In Vietnam, on the 9th of March, Vietnam’s Prime Minister ordered the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to submit a directive for a ban on the wildlife trade, while the authorities are continuing to discourage dog and cat meat consumption during this crisis. We will continue fighting to end these antiquated, cruel practices across Asia to ban these trades to the history books.