This past decade was, arguably, the decade of animals. More news stories covered animal welfare issues than ever before and some of the major events of the past decade involved animals. Animal protection has become a considerable social issue. But there is more to animal protection than the well-being of animals; human welfare is integrally tied with it and during this past decade, this connection was highlighted in unprecedented ways. The following top ten animal stories of the past ten years, listed in no particular order, reveal just how connected human and animal welfare and health are:
1. Michael Vick and dog fighting. Vick's conviction for running a dog fighting ring brought unparalleled attention to the underground world of animal fighting and the immense cruelty involved. The human welfare connection was also illustrated as animal fighting is associated with other illegal crimes. Up to two-thirds of those who commit animal cruelty also commit at least one other criminal offense, including violence towards other humans, particularly women and children.
2. Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the world watched, horrified, as many people refused to evacuate their homes and in some cases, risk death to avoid losing their companion animals (who were not welcome in local shelters). Indeed, the most common reason people return to evacuation sites is to rescue their animal. Post-Katrina studies show that the loss of companion animals worsened the mental trauma many people suffered. This was a wake-up call for emergency rescue agencies to take animal rescue seriously.
3. and 4. Swine and Avian influenzas. It's now apparent that what happens on the farm doesn't always stay on the farm. When avian (H5N1) influenza spread rapidly across poultry farms in Asia in 2003 and jumped the species barrier to infect humans, questions were raised about the potential for the next pandemic to originate from animal farms. The current swine (H1N1) flu pandemic, though relatively mild, confirms that animal agriculture can play a significant role in the emergence of new, deadlier strains of flu viruses. Animals raised for food are increasingly crammed into intensive animal operations or "factory farms", living in profoundly unhygienic and stressful conditions. The animal's reduced immunity, due to prolonged stress and high crowding, create perfect breeding grounds for new diseases.
5. and 6. Exotic pet attacks. The horrendous 2009 attack of a woman in Connecticut by a "pet" chimpanzee and the 2003 tiger attack against Roy Horn of the "Siegfried and Roy" animal act underscored the dangers of keeping exotic animals as pets or for entertainment. No one knows why these particular animals attacked, but exotic animals raised as pets or used for entertainment are too often kept in deplorable or inadequate housing conditions or are subjected to other forms of abuse. Exotic animals can't be handled safely and can carry infectious diseases, posing immense public health risks.
7. Hallmark Meat Packing investigation. The California cow slaughter plant investigation revealed egregious abuses of cows too sick to stand (labeled "downed" cows), leading to the largest meat recall in U.S history in 2008. Despite regulations against the use of downed cows for food because of fears that they may be sick with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or "mad cow" disease, these cows were slaughtered and sold for human consumption. Considerable concern was raised about the safety of our food supply, particularly because approximately 1 million land animals are slaughtered for food every hour in the U.S, making regulatory oversight formidable.
8. The melamine pet food contamination. The 2007 worldwide recall of pet food imported from China contaminated with melamine followed after possibly thousands of animals died. The public outrage that ensued was tremendous. Additionally, since some of the tainted pet food was also fed to animals processed into human food, the need for greater regulatory oversight of food fed to animals for the protection of both humans and animals became evident.
9. The health benefits of companion animals. While not a single news story, this past decade saw more published reports of the benefits animal companions provide for human health than ever before. From lowering blood pressure, stress, and cardiovascular disease risk, to facilitating communication by children with autism, to helping people with Alzheimer's disease, numerous medical studies revealed how mutually beneficial the human-animal bond is.
10. Climate change. Perhaps one of the most significant news stories of our time. Partly due to reports from the Pew Charitable Trust in 2008 and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 and, most recently, to the highly publicized book "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Saffran Foer, the connection between what we eat and climate change is now widely acknowledged. The unprecedented worldwide demand for meat and the subsequent rise in immense, intensive animal operations is impacting our climate in significant ways. In addition to severely compromising animal welfare, modern animal agricultural practice is one of the main contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. The human health impact is tremendous.
These news stories, viewed together, tell a larger story, one of human and animal interconnectedness, and that public health and animal welfare are not separate issues.
If we really want to promote human well-being, we can't forget the animals.
Aysha Akhtar MD, MPH is a fellow of the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics and a neurologist and public health specialist with the Food and Drug Administration. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Humans and Animals: The New Public Health Paradigm.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. government.