In 2016, the photographer and filmmaker Kelly Guerin, part of the team at We Animals Media, traveled to a wet market in Anhui province, China. “It was the first time I had witnessed the slaughter of an animal from start to finish,” she remembers. “Buyers would come up to the chicken stand, browse the crates and cages, and select the live chicken they wanted.
“The vendor pulled the terrified, flapping chicken out of the crate and cut its throat right there with an old pair of scissors. The chicken was stuffed–legs thrashing–in a funnel to bleed out, then boiled to be disinfected, thrown into a spinning machine to be de-feathered, and then the steaming body was put into a bag and handed to the waiting buyer.”
In the past one hundred years, new diseases with the potential to become pandemics have increased by 400%; in the last fifty years, an estimated three dozen diseases have come from human interference with animals.
On that freezing cold day–just before the Chinese New Year–Guerin saw her first slaughter in its entirety, and she also witnessed an example of the unnatural–and dangerous–relationship between humans and the animals we use for meat and work.
Her visit roughly coincided with the 2014–2016 ebola outbreak, which might have arisen from interactions with infected bats or bushmeat butchering. It would be just four years before a novel coronavirus emerged, possibly originating at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, a live animal market.
The team at We Animals Media, founded by the photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, has covered animal markets around the world. For Guerin, the memory of those chickens in Anhui province continues to motivate her to document the realities of our painful and precarious relationship with animals both farmed and wild.
“The live chickens in their crates could see the slaughter as clear as I did,” she tells us. “Watching them watching haunts me to this day.” We asked her to tell us more about animal markets and their connection with zoonotic diseases. You can learn more about We Animals Media and support their work here.
What’s the difference between a ‘wet market’ and a ‘wildlife market’?
“‘Wet markets’ simply refer to markets that sell perishables, like live animals, meat, or vegetables, as opposed to ‘dry markets,’ which sell things like clothes or electronics. The typical wet market will have the run-of-the-mill animal products: chicken, pork, beef, lamb, ducks, eggs, etc.
“At others, like the one in Wuhan at the center of the coronavirus outbreak, the line between wildlife and food is a little more blurred. Our photographer Jo-Anne has taken photos that capture this perfectly. In one particular photo, bats are laid out for sale next to a hand of bananas.”
Can you tell us a bit about how these animals are used?
“It depends on the market. ‘Wet markets’ are sometimes no more than a few stalls of live animals mixed in with the vegetables and electronics. Others are bigger, specialized, and attract everyone from regular people grocery shopping for their families to restaurant managers trying to get bulk deals.
“In a way, it’s no different from the meat counter at a western grocery store or a live lobster tank at a seafood restaurant–people want to buy the ‘freshest’ product possible. Here, customers select a live animal to be slaughtered, cleaned, and bagged in front of them.
“Some of these markets are more specialized. For example, at ancient Chinese medicine markets, you’ll find jars of snakes, dried seahorses, monkey skeletons, etc. on display, but you have to ‘know someone’ who can take you to the more illicit products, such as bear bile or rhino horn. Some animals are presumed to be trafficked, and others originate from factory farms.
“Live animal markets are a global phenomenon. In the west, we just call them saleyards or auctions. Some are sold for work, like horses and donkeys, others are sold for food, like ducks and goats, and others as pets, like exotic birds.
“Of course, this depends on the country and the kind of animal. I’ve been to auctions in rural Colorado where boxes of baby bunnies are labeled ‘for pets or for meat.’ Likewise, a dog being sold at a market in Vietnam could be purchased for either purpose.”
Was it difficult to gain access to many of these markets?
“Animal/wet markets are common throughout Asia, and, because they are so novel to westerners, the vendors tend not to be very alarmed by the presence of a tourist with a camera, which is often what we aim to look like. We keep our gear light and informal; we always have a smile on our face, and we always aim to look curious–never horrified.”
You’ve worked and lived in China, and you wrote recently about the ignorance and prejudice coming out of some people in the west these days.
You said, “The war on animals is happening in all our backyards. We do not get to be uniquely outraged about this pandemic when the next will likely arise just as inevitably from the filth and overused antibiotics in factory farming.”
Might you tell us a bit more about your experiences in China?
“I’m not the person best-qualified to speak on this, so all I can say is that China is home to some of the bravest, most tenacious activists I’ve ever met. They speak out at such great personal risk and can organize to conduct rescues on scales unfathomable to us in the west. They are ridiculed for crying as dogs are slaughtered for meat and threatened with violence when they intervene. I have tremendous respect for them and hope to continue to highlight the incredible work they do.
“China is without a doubt a place of grave concern for those of us who fight for animals. Their rapidly growing economy is translating to sharp rises in factory farming and wildlife trafficking for luxury foods and ancient medicines. The country is currently undergoing the same industrial revolution-based growing pains that other countries have experienced in their histories. The only difference is that when western countries experienced this, there weren’t 7.8 billion people on the planet.”
Do you think we’re talking enough right now about the relationship between animal exploitation and the novel coronavirus?
“By no stretch of the imagination am I an expert on this, but I will say you do not need to have intimate knowledge of animal agriculture or zoonotic pathogens to be aware of the fact that these major outbreaks have all originated from an unnatural, close relationship with non-human animals: swine flu, bird flu, ebola, SARS, MERS, now COVID-19.
“Those who are pointing their fingers exclusively at China are largely failing to see the pattern here: that these viruses have before, and will again, come from anywhere in the world. Across the globe, we are seeing that the destruction of countless natural habitats is bringing species into unnaturally close contact with one another.
“Everywhere in the world we have factory farms pumping antibiotics into profoundly sick systems to keep them churning. These are industries we have created, and we have chosen, to meet our demands. It is now up to all of us to change.”
We Animals Media is in the process of producing a historic book, HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene. Support the project here.