31 January 2020

Wet Markets or Walmart?
Animal Consumption & the Coronavirus

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

This article was first published on January 30, 2020 on the Animals 24-7 website.

People buy meat at a butchers’ shop at the Bowrington Road food market in Hong Kong.
People buy meat at a butchers’ shop at the Bowrington Road food market in Hong Kong.
Photograph: Grant Rooney/Alamy

Reminders of Animal Suffering in Daily Life

Apart from a small but perhaps widening circle of optimism, it is hard to figure whether progress for farmed animals is actually happening in modern society. While it’s great seeing more plant-based products in local supermarkets, the amount of meat displayed in the aisles has not lessened, nor, apparently, has the amount of it exiting the stores in millions of plastic shopping bags each day.

I was thinking about the reminders of animal suffering in our daily lives, here in America – reminders so familiar that they go unnoticed by most of us– while reading about the recent outbreak of a new strain of contagious coronavirus in China and Hong Kong that has been traced to one or more live animal markets in the city of Wuhan in central China, where, as in all fresh-kill “wet” markets, highly stressed animals, both wild and domestic, huddle in cages and tanks awaiting their turn to be slaughtered.

The Taste for ‘Warm Meat’ in China and Hong Kong

A January 23rd article in The Guardian, “Appetite for ‘warm meat’ drives risk of disease in Hong Kong and China,” haunts me, as do photographs in media accounts of customers, sometimes with their children, browsing in Asian markets amid freshly killed and still living animals in garishly-lit, blood-soaked caverns that not only don’t seem to repulse anyone, but invite enthusiasm for what the customers perceive as the delectable carnage.

Collage by Beth Clifton

Is Western Society Progressive?

I’m tempted to think, “Well, at least we’ve come a long way from that,” but I don’t quite believe it. Is it moral progress to go from buying meat in a market filled with the recently beating and still beating hearts of wild and domesticated animals, to browsing over the antiseptically-doctored flesh of birds, mammals and fish at Walmart and Whole Foods from which the odors of death and the faces of the animals have been purged?

The Guardian notes that a Walmart store close to a “wet” market in China bordering Hong Kong has only a trickle of customers, compared to the shoppers who appear each day at daybreak at the market to assess the freshly-killed flesh by smell, color, and touch, and who consider “warm” meat safer to consume than “some diseased animal” chilled or frozen at Walmart.

If rural people in China and Hong Kong, who traditionally have not had refrigerators and thus by long habit prefer freshly killed animals over preserved flesh, start to prefer the Walmart experience over the wet market experience, will this be progress for animals?

George Bernard Shaw on the Custom of Atrocity

The British playwright and socialist advocate George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said custom will reconcile people to any atrocity. Take Salisbury Maryland, the home of Perdue Farms, where a McDonald’s sits on one side of the highway and a chicken slaughterhouse looms on the other, surrounded by sagging truckloads of chickens waiting on the loading dock to be killed. There is no clear evidence that the sight of suffering in others evokes empathy or protest in the majority of people, and the first shock of seeing suffering can wear off. Even if it doesn’t, people have many ways of not seeing or caring.

False Guilt & Indifference to Animals

The fact that animals are suffering and dying for appetites that can be satisfied by plant-based foods makes some, perhaps many, people uncomfortable, though not necessarily out of guilt. People get annoyed that you’re bothering them about animals, trying to curtail their freedom and uncover a guilt they may or may not feel, so that some end up feeling “guilty” because they don’t feel guilty, just vexed that they’re being victimized.

Deborah Cao, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and an expert on animal protection in China, observes in The Guardian article that a deep contributor to the continuing preference for freshly-killed animals in China – even though China has been identified as the source of most avian and other transmittable flu viruses going back to the 1918 “Spanish Flu” which killed 50 million people worldwide – the biggest factor, she says, is “the indifference or perception of people who simply regard animals as food, tools, or as things that people can do anything they want to. In particular, there is no perception of farm animals as having feelings, or being capable of feeling pain or suffering.”

Is Animal Suffering Enough to Win People Over?

There is evidence to support the belief that most people in modern western society recognize that other animal species have feelings and can experience at least pain and fear, but how much does this recognition count in their thinking and buying behavior?

In a recent discussion with a fellow animal rights activist, we shared our concern that animals and animal rights still have little traction with the general public. Animals and animal rights seem to need to be bundled into arguments on behalf of health, taste, convenience, cost, the environment, and other issues in order to be heard. That said, there are, I believe, images, and not just mirages, of light in the long slog for animals and animal liberation. We do reach people with our message, just not enough people yet. Hopefully, human moral evolution is happening and animal advocates are helping to make it happen.

Ending the Traffic in Animals

Since we are in the midst of a factual and perceptual muddle where animals are concerned, we must do what we can in our individual lifetimes to advocate for, and embody to the best of our ability, the world that we want to exist for all sentient beings and habitations on Earth. This of course means working to end the sorrowful traffic in animals, by weaning others and ourselves if we’re still complicit, from choosing to mistreat and consume animals, whether they are obviously animals in the wet markets of traditional culture or less obviously animals in the meat cases of Walmart, Whole Foods and their like.


Michael Standaert. Appetite for ‘warm meat’ drives risk of disease in Hong Kong and China. The Guardian, January 23, 2020.


For more on the sources of contagious influenza viruses, see
Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) - What You Need to Know.


KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).


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