Zoonosis — A Manmade Catastrophe

Tiger King, Netflix Special

I recently finished watching the Netlfix hit documentary series Tiger King, which has become a pop culture phenomenon in these quarantine times.

The seven part series at its core is about despicable people doing deplorable things. Even though Netflix calls it a documentary series, it is more a reality show about people who are bizarre train-wrecks. Like many who came before them, from Kardashians to Duck Dynasty, they are just the new flavor of the month.

Heck, we even elected one to lead the country.

The show mainly circles around a feud between Joe Exotic, a man who breeds “big cats”, mainly tigers, and operates a private zoo in Oklahoma and Carole Baskin who claims to rescue big cats from abuse from operators like Joe and is determined to shut him and his kind down.

While you watch these narcissistic characters over a period of five years, everything as the show tag line promises “murder, mayhem and madness” comes into focus.

The show in many ways is a perfect reflection of Trump’s America, as it embodies how far the culture has fallen in every manner possible.

The show ends with a jaw dropping statistic which to a certain degree speaks to the crisis we find ourselves in at this very moment.

There are more tigers in captivity in America than there are in the wild. Most of them bred by private zoos catering to a growing fetish of people taking pleasure in petting them and taking selfies for their Instagram posts and mantle displays. Joe in the show claims he has more than 200 tigers in his facility and keeps breeding more and more for money.

Private zoos big and small dot the nation and the USDA has issued more than two thousand licenses over the years. Watching animals in cages has become a sadistic kind of entertainment that has been normalized by wide social acceptability.

Wild animals have been an obsession in the west, since big game hunting decimated wildlife in Africa and India, during colonialism.

Circuses used and abused animals till recently. Big fish are still made to perform for humans in aquariums all around the country to the delight of many. Most animals perform for humans only for food. This is a known fact.

To reduce our guilt, a nature conservation and education agenda is propagated, while animals are kept in enclosures for our pleasure. Some animals are justifiably rescued from the wild and cared for in these facilities, but the business of using animals for profit is ethically problematic no matter how you approach it.

The smaller private zoos are only in for the profit. In the show you see snakes, monkeys, big cats of every pedigree, exotic birds and some claim over two hundred species in cages.

On sprawling ranches in Texas today one can shoot big game for big money. You can hunt African wildlife in Texas, and it is legal. Some owners say the proceeds go for wildlife conservation in Africa.

In the present moment we are in the midst of a pandemic caused by messing with the wild. While we point a finger at China and its eating habits and focus on the barbarism of its meat markets, we conveniently ignore the barbarism we tolerate right here in America in the name of “freedom”.

“Zoonotic Spillover” or “Zoonosis” is the term used when a virus spills over from an animal to a human. This happens when humans come in close contact with wild animals in ways they should not.

Zoonosis is a common phenomenon and about two thirds of viruses circulating among humans are of this nature.

Zoonotic spillover has increased in the last 50 years, mainly due to environmental degradation, deforestation and shrinking wild habitats bringing humans closer and closer to the wild.

HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Anthrax, West Nile, Zika, SARS and MERS are just a few viruses that have made the jump into humans.

In the case of the new coronavirus, researchers believe the virus may have originated within horseshoe bats in China and then could have possibly spread to other animals — which people then ate.

This is still a theory, as conclusive evidence is still murky. But since this is not the first “coronavirus” known to mankind, the theory that this transfer may have happened in a Wuhan wet animal market, is more plausible than not.

David Quammen’s 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, traces the rise of different zoonoses around the world

Quammen noted in a February interview on NPR, when only 500 people had died in China, that the outbreak was a serious threat and a rapid global spread was imminent.

Quammen noted that humans are the common link in all zoonoses: “We humans are so abundant and so disruptive on this planet. … We’re cutting the tropical forests. We’re building work camps in those forests and villages. We’re eating the wildlife,” he says. “You go into a forest and you shake the trees — literally and figuratively — and viruses fall out.”

It is all but clear in this crisis, that there are too many of us on this planet taking up too much space. We are causing biodiversity to disappear at an alarming rate and have lost sight of our boundaries.

Interacting with wild animals in their natural habitat as an observer is one thing. To breed them, eat them, smuggle them and enclose them for our pleasure is not only barbaric but has proven lethal.

If we do not learn this lesson from this pandemic, then nature will scold us one way or another over and over again.

Anand Kamalakar is a Brooklyn based documentary film director, producer and editor. His latest film SALAM can now be seen on Netflix.

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