I’m not a vegetarian – not quite yet anyhow. I put my hands up to eating chicken and the odd fish supper.

I’ve been known to see away a lasagne washed down by a glass of house red. Nevertheless, I’m increasingly concerned about the relationship between humans and animals. The unease has been sharpened by recent barbaric footage, released by Animal Equity UK, of piglets allegedly being hammered to death on the concrete floor of an Aberdeenshire farm. Hollywood actor Karen Gillan has shared the footage with her 1.2 million followers, first warning them it is “very upsetting”. A quick trawl of the internet suggests that similar mistreatment is not unknown at farms and abattoirs up and down the country.

The current crop of farming programmes possibly presents a cuddly and sanitised version of modern animal husbandry. The stars of programmes such as This Week on the Farm, Our Yorkshire Farm, This Farming Life and Our Farm in the Dales unquestionably care deeply about their livestock and tend them well. Nevertheless, there’s a lingering suspicion they are not entirely typical. None of the programmes feature the massive agri-businesses that rely on intensive methods that involve overcrowding and severely restricting the freedom and movement of animals. The programmes offer few, if any, insights into the transport of cattle, pigs and lambs or the reality of what happens to them at the slaughter facility. These are sentient creatures that experience pain and fear just as we do. There are those in the industry who tell us the animals are cheerfully unaware of what is about to happen when they are at the abattoir. The obvious question being, how can they be so sure? The animals certainly can’t tell us. Foodies and restaurant reviewers paint equally unconvincing pictures of lambs and the like leading full and happy lives gambolling on the sunlit uplands. Aye right. There is a spectrum of philosophical argument about the rights and wrongs of raising and killing animals for meat. At one end are those who contend it violates the animals’ absolute rights and interests. At the other, are those who argue without meat-eating humans, the animals wouldn’t be alive in the first place. Which dodges the slight ethical issue of the quality and length of that life.

Food and travel writer, AA Gill, had no moral scruples about eating meat. He famously declared that he would “eat anything that didn’t have a birth certificate”, which suggested he would have happily dined on dog or cat meat. In purely philosophical terms, there’s no difference between eating a sensitive and intelligent pig and eating Rover or Kitty. They probably taste like chicken. If humans don’t buy into ethical arguments against meat eating, how about a bit of self-interest? In industrial-scale agriculture, antibiotics are routinely used to prevent the spread of disease amongst closely confined cattle. They are also used to breed larger and more quickly growing animals. Unsurprisingly, there is increasing evidence that over use of antibiotics in farm animals is contributing to their reduced effectiveness in the treatment of human infections. Only last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, “we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”

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Our track record in heeding such warnings is not good. We largely ignored the lessons of the 2003 outbreak of Avian influenza, summed up in Dr Michael Greger’s 2006 book, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching. The Australian Animal Justice Party estimates that 60 per cent of infectious diseases are zoonotic, transferring directly from animals and insects to humans. Such transference may well have been linked to outbreaks of Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). It’s suspected the latter transferred from camels to humans. BSE, the so-called “mad cow” disease, was linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The WHO has warned, “wild animals are the source of 70% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans, many of which are caused by novel viruses”. Professor David Benetar of Cape Town University writing in the NY Times has warned: “Simply put, the coronavirus epidemic is a result of our gross maltreatment of animals." There is a similarity between SARS-CoV -2 and a virus found in pangolin, one of the world’s most illegally trafficked animals. Pangolin were possibly the intermediary or amplifier of the virus spreading between bats and humans.

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The WHO commissioned report, “Covid-19: Make it the Last Pandemic”, has much to say about the ways in which poor communication, inadequate leadership and lack of transparency all contributed to the spread and extent of the coronavirus pandemic. It has disappointingly little to say about tackling the root causes of the pandemic, including human encroachment on the habitats of wild animals and the existence of wet markets in Asia and Africa. Affluent countries are playing Russian Roulette with zoonotic disease. We rely on our relative wealth and science to come up with “just in time” vaccines to respond to the threat they pose. Without pre-emptive action it’s almost inevitable that one such disease will win the race against vaccine development. In that event it won’t just be the world’s poorest countries that bear the brunt. If complacency isn’t to be the death of us, we need to be proactive and more respectful of animals both in the wild and on farms. In a trailer for his 1963 movie The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock listed all the ways in which humans abused birds. He then asked in mock innocence, “Why on earth would the birds try to harm humanity?” Without prompt and concerted action, it might not just be birds and hyenas having the last laugh.

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