COVID-19: Time to review our interaction with animals

Terrified dog awaiting slaughter peers from cage, Tomohon Extreme Market (Photo: Dog Meat Free Indonesia / DMFI)

Terrified dogs awaiting slaughter at Tomohon Extreme Market (Photo: Dog Meat Free Indonesia / DMFI)

We are largely all now living in uncharted times as COVID-19 takes a stronghold in our countries. Like millions of other people across the World, the British public is in lockdown. Whilst this is time to focus on survival, it is also an important time to take stock and to reset. Then, once this is all over and we resume our usual lives, we do our utmost to do better, and be better businesses. This is certainly the current sentiment of friends and colleagues within the travel and tourism sector.

COVID-19 has been devastating for tourism on so many levels, but within our roles and responsibilities, what actions can the sector do to ensure this kind of disaster does not happen again?

Reports have confirmed that COVID-19 is a disease of animal origin, and like SARS before it, it has likely originated from live animal markets 1. These are marketplaces, predominantly in Asia, where a large variety of live and dead wildlife species are sold alongside dogs and other domesticated animals for human consumption 2. Conditions within these markets are often crammed and unhygienic, presenting an unintentional incubator for many new diseases, carried by wildlife, that go on to infect humans. Anyone who read my last Blog will know about zoonoses (the diseases that normally exist in animals that can transfer to humans) and that the risk of transmission increases when in close contact with animals. COVID-19 is the latest in many such examples of dangerous zoonoses that include rabies, Ebola and the Plague. However, despite the acknowledgement by the World Health Organisation that zoonoses are a significant threat to global health security 3, few actions have been taken to raise greater awareness or impose relevant controls and restrictions.

For the travel and tourism sector, animals are a popular part of many travel experiences and, when managed appropriately, animals can enhance the holiday, improve education around biodiversity and aid conservation. However, studies have indicated that some activities can result in the poor welfare of animals and place people at risk. As acknowledged by ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines, this includes both physical injury risk and disease transmission, which becomes particularly pertinent when interacting with, or in proximity to animals.

Crucially, this is NOT a call, or an excuse, to abandon our pets, end our relationship with animals, or worse, end lives, but this is a wake-up call to recognise the risk of zoonoses and the need to enact measures to prevent risk. China and many other Asian countries have already suspended their live animal markets and trade in wildlife, after the identified connection with COVID-19, but there is no indication that trade will stop, indefinitely. In fact, these markets soon resumed following the SARS outbreak (2003), when similar connections were made.

My impression, and recommendation is that we need to rethink our relationship with other animal species, and specifically review how we exploit and interact with them.

It is not sufficient to just suspend activity for a short while, only to resume when the spotlight is removed – particularly if not doing so places people and or animals at risk.

Identifying, measuring and managing such risk was the topic of my webinar last week (25 March), as part of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s “Meet the Experts” series. This included my recommendation to tour operators and travel agents to review all their animal-based excursions and in-destination activities to identify high risk and establish safeguards that protect both animals and people. This is specialist work, where I would recommend the expertise and assistance of ANIMONDIAL.

Importantly, it is not only the animal activities offered by tour operators that must be considered as part of your risk assessment. In addition, there are also in-destination, cultural activities with animals that may present a risk to your customers. Consider the live animal markets – a pool of zoonoses – tourists do frequent such places and could be encouraged to touch, eat “exotic meats”, or purchase live or parts of animals (as pets or curios, respectively). Additionally, the NGO FOUR PAWS, currently spearheading a campaign to end the dog and cat meat trade in Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, estimates that 30 million dogs and cats are killed for meat across Asia each year 4. When I accompanied FOUR PAWS to investigate this trade, I saw numerous motorbikes carrying cages crammed with dogs (being taken to slaughterhouses) on the road to Angkor Wat, and the sale of dog and cat meat in Hanoi city’s tourist zone. Leaving the ethics aside, dog and cat meat trade has been linked to the spread of zoonoses including rabies and trichinellosis, and noting that only a small percentage of the population eats the meat, mainly for perceived health aids, perhaps the costs to life outweigh the benefits?

Overall, I feel that the travel industry should consider all risks and mitigate wherever possible, travellers must be made aware of any risks before they travel, and the tourism sector should use its influence to minimise risk in destinations, or to remove it altogether.

In the hope that we will soon have the COVID-19 outbreak under control and the vaccine is realised, could we, as the travel and tourism sector, do all we can to identify, measure and manage zoonotic risk within our operations? This includes adopting preventative measures, such as:

  • Washing of hands before and after any animal contact.
  • Screening animals kept in a captive environment for infectious disease.
  • Ensuring captive animals are kept in hygienic conditions that offer free-movement.
  • Undertaking a ‘health check’ audit of all your animal attractions and experiences*.
  • Influencing suppliers to phase-out all entertainment-based animal handling.
  • Working with destination partners and governments to permanently close the live animal markets, curb wildlife trafficking, and bringing an end to the dog and cat meat trade.

It will require a concerted, global effort to reset our relationship with animals that is based on respect, commitment and the highest of animal welfare standards.

Join ANIMONDIAL in striving for a world where tourism is kind to animals (and people).


  1. New York Times (2020) China’s Omnivorous Markets Are in the Eye of a Lethal Outbreak Once Again. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/25/world/asia/china-markets-coronavirus-sars.html (Accessed 26/02/2020)
  2. Dog Meat Free Indonesia (2020) Calls for Indonesia to close down its Live Animal Markets. Available at: https://www.dogmeatfreeindonesia.org/our-work/news/item/celebrities-ricky-gervais-and-peter-egan-join-campaigners-in-calls-for-indonesia-to-close-down-its-live-animal-markets (Accessed 26/02/2020)
  3. World Health Organisation (2020), Zoonotic Diseases. Available at: http://www.emro.who.int/fr/about-who/rc61/zoonotic-diseases.html (Accessed 26/02/2020)
  4. FOUR PAWS International (2020) Dog and Cat Meat in Southeast Asia. Available at: https://dogcatmeat.four-paws.org/the-truth/a-four-paws-report-on-the-dog-and-cat-meat-trade-in-the-southeast-asian (Accessed 26/02/2020)

Daniel Turner, Director ANIMONDIAL

Animals in tourism: a risky business

Temple Macaque

How to tackle risk in your supply chain

Animal activities and experiences in tourism can pose a significant risk to both the health and safety of people and animals. Businesses operating or selling such activity should therefore make every effort to assess risk and manage it effectively. However, as with most matters concerning animals, there are multiple factors to consider, not least the fact that there are thousands of species, each presenting different issues. Understanding the potential risks and how to mitigate them is crucial.

Risk mitigation is essential to any business, to protect against financial loss and damage, and to sustain operation in the event of an unforeseen happening.

Risk for tour operators and travel agents that offer animal experiences include the probability that the activity could have a negative impact on the welfare of the animal, or worse, threaten their survival. Equally, the animal interaction may place people – whether a customer or an attraction employee – at risk of injury, or worse. Animals are after all unpredictable, and therefore potentially dangerous in nature.

Consider captive Asian elephants by example. These species are classified as a Category 1, ‘hazardous animal’, by UK Defra’s Hazardous animal categorisation1, noting the species’ ability to “cause serious injury or be a serious threat to life, on the basis of hazard and risk of injury, toxin or disease”. The guidance advises against unsupervised contact or without a suitable barrier between the animal and the public. Yet direct (supervised and unsupervised) contact between elephants and tourists is commonplace and encouraged in elephant camps across Asia. Whereby activities like elephant bathing (considered by some as a responsible alternative to riding) pose significant risks. Having visited such facilities, I do question whether those risks have been duly assessed and considered.

I would recommend that all travel businesses, and their suppliers, assess risk and consult hazardous rating criteria before permitting direct animal interaction of any kind. This applies to all animals, not only those large in stature, but also smaller mammals (such as primates), birds (like ‘birds of prey’), reptiles (including snake species and crocodilians), etc. This should apply to both wild animals in the wild and those in a captive environment. In close proximity to people, particularly when avoidance is prevented, most animals are likely to trigger their ‘fight-or-flight’, stress-response and enact their respective defence mechanism(s) (e.g. teeth, horns, spikes, poison, etc.). On my drafting of ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines in 2012/3, I had included Defra’s hazardous animal classification, and it is included in ABTA’s 2nd Edition of the Guidelines (2019)2 – a valuable resource. For instance, these Guidelines recommend that all elephant contact without a barrier is “Unacceptable”.

It is not only an animal’s ability to cause physical harm that should be considered. Many animals can also carry, or are infected by, disease transmissible to humans. These are known as zoonoses, or zoonotic diseases, which can pass between vertebrate animals, including humans. Zoonoses include bacterial infections, such as Salmonella, but also fungal infections, parasites and viruses (i.e. Ebola, Avian Influenza (H5N1), SARS and coronavirus (CoV)). For instance, holding of a reptile can result in the transference of Salmonella to a person’s hand (which may then be used to pick up food), an animal’s bite might transfer rabies, whilst airborne disease (e.g. Influenzas) can transfer through close proximity. Outcomes can range from mild to serious illness in humans and even death.

Equally, it is important to recognise that human diseases can severely impact on other animals, particularly those closely related species. For instance, a monkey eating a half-eaten sandwich may pick up a cold that could be deadly (and could be transmitted to other members of the troop). It is also not uncommon for tourists viewing primates in the wild, to undergo a medical check-up, and for imposed viewing distances to be no closer than a sneeze can carry.

It is estimated, globally, that zoonoses cause one billion cases of human illness and millions of deaths occur every year. Whilst zoonoses constitute 60% of the reported, emerging infectious diseases, with 75% of the newly detected human pathogens over the last three decades, originating in animals. As the world is increasingly interconnected, emerging zoonoses in one country can potentially constitute a threat to global health security3.

Risk assessments must therefore consider zoonoses, the risk of transference, and implement effective preventative measures.

When it comes to identifying the right measures to prevent the risks of physical injury and zoonotic disease infection, many would advise preventing direct contact between people and animals of wild species (in particular). Although, where that does take place, preventative measures are recommended.

Appropriate preventative measures include:

  • the prevention of transmission through the washing of hands (and other areas, where relevant) with soapy water or effective sanitiser, both before and after the contact;
  • the prevention of infection by not touching or feeding wildlife, or consuming meat from wildlife, or domestic dogs or cats;
  • the detection of disease by screening captive animals (particularly new arrivals) and where relevant, maintaining effective quarantine measures;
  • the control of the interaction through the requirement of appropriate conduct and constant supervision and vigilance.

Whilst, unethical and intrusive preventative measures (not advocated but to be aware of) include:

  • the deterrence of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response: removal of an animal’s claws, teeth or sting (etc.);
  • taping jaws shut;
  • the use of sedatives;
  • the separation of young for hand-rearing;
  • the prevention of the animal’s capacity to avoid participation (such as being held or tethered, or the pinioning of birds – removal of part of the wing or the clipping flight-feathers);
  • Euthanasia, before all other options which preserve life have been considered.

Customers, employees, the welfare of animals and reputations must be protected at all cost.

For a tour operator or travel agency, which may offer thousands of products, or excursions, involving animals (wild and domestic), it is understandably difficult to ensure the appropriate safeguards are incorporated into its operations and supply chain. It requires careful assessment, the identification of risk and the expertise to advise accordingly. As well as knowledge of the plausible risks across all commonly kept animal species!

I am pleased to report that this expertise is now available through the ANIMONDIAL-Preverisk partnership. This unique partnership combines over a decade of animal welfare in tourism expertise with auditing and post-audit excellence. It offers tour operators and travel agencies, and their suppliers, the opportunity to ensure all associated risk is identified, measured and controlled. Furthermore, it ensures that the animal activities and experiences meet appropriate animal welfare standards that includes their protection from fear and distress (mitigating any ‘fight-or-flight’ response). ANIMONDIAL and the Preverisk Group joint services can provide tour operators and travel agencies with all they need to review current activities, mitigate risk and include ‘animal-friendly’ alternatives.

For more information about the ANIMONDIAL-Preverisk partnership and its animal welfare auditing and post-audit services, please contact us or Jonathan Ralph at Preverisk.


Daniel Turner, Director ANIMONDIAL