A Reflection on Human-Animal Relations in Light of COVID-19

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For my PhD, I have been studying the cattle trade from Montreal and Quebec City towards Great Britain in the 19th century, reflecting on the impact and significance of this trade for the environment and human-animal relations. However, my research topic also brings with it its fair share of questions which allow me to reflect not only on the past, but also on the present. Which type of relations did farmers or handlers have with their animals in the past, and in comparison, today? Have these feelings changed with the industrialization of different agricultural practices? Do different environments lead to different attitudes regarding non-human animals? Are these attitudes and relations changing once again now that the environment is becoming a more prevalent concern amongst individuals? Can I better understand human-animal relations in the past by seeing how they play out today? This short reflection piece started off as an opportunity to think about these questions in light of a Prenez le champ! event last fall at Brylee Farm in the Outaouais region in Quebec (many thanks to Marché Brut for the tickets), but current events add an additional dimension to it that I can’t bypass. I’ll start off with that. To quickly place it in its context, however, these events are organized by nutritionist Julie Aubé throughout the year, with the objective of helping people get to know local producers throughout Quebec. Brylee Farm is a producer of grass-fed meats, with a goal of safeguarding soils and the environment through eco-friendly methods.

The worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 has led me to reflect on the relation human beings have with other animal species in general, but also to rethink the impacts of industrialization, the long-distance trade of commodities, and intense consumerism on the environment. In several of my primary sources found at Library and Archives Canada, there is an evident concern about the spread of bovine Pleuropneumonia from Canadian or American animals to cattle native to Great Britain in the late 19th century. Managing these diseases and risk was frequently done through the quarantine of cattle prior to shipping or upon arrival. The week before our contemporary crisis, I was at LAC going through documents from the Department of Agriculture. Many documents of interest to me could be found next to others relating to the quarantine of human immigrants arriving to Canada and stopping at, for example, Grosse Île. Although I did not stop to seriously think more about it at the time, focusing on texts relating to Pleuropneumonia, I am now curious about why these documents were filed there and also about the similarities and differences in how human and non-human quarantine zones and disease were handled by the government at different times. What does all of this mean about how we distance ourselves as humans from very “animal” problems? About disease?

In the past weeks, several charts have been circulating on social media which show, quite visually, how the different pandemics of the past century were associated to certain species of animals and passed on to humans through zoonotic transmission: Examples include outbreaks of Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and Coronavirus amongst others. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I saw many newspaper articles discussing which animal species could have transmitted the disease to humans: snakes, bats, or pangolins? I can’t help but think that although the source is almost certainly one of these animals, the types of relation we uphold with them is a determinant in the spread of these types of diseases. Industrial farming and intense animal density in small and restricted spaces, the destruction of habitats and of ecosystems, but also a general increase in the consumption of meat in many industrialized countries since the 19th century; all shape this relation. In truth, it is easy to place blame on animal species without considering how human action also impacts this meshwork of relations between non-human animals, humans, and disease.

One column published by The Guardian particularly caught my eye: “Is Factory Farming to Blame for Coronavirus?” I can imagine everyone reading this, at this point, thinking out loud: Well? Is it? To cite the turning-point sentence in the article, a citation from the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace: “We can blame the object – the virus, the cultural practice – but causality extends out into the relationships between people and ecology.” So, can encouraging industrial farming practices, sharing more space with animals destined for slaughter and the meat trade, increasing production and increasing the density of animals in space in order to be more productive lead to more potential disease outbreaks in the future between human and non-human animals? Have the positive outcomes of industrializing, and the increased production and trade of meat and animal products been outweighed by potential negative impacts? Will we change how we see agriculture, animals, and meat?

It seems as if our world is at a turning point, and that this outbreak may have provided us with an opportunity to rethink our relation to the environment we share with other beings. In a way, I’m hopeful. Local, small-scale farming initiatives such as Brylee Farm are becoming increasingly popular in the province of Quebec. Even in Montreal, there is a desire to support small-scale and sustainable agricultural practices. Buy and eat less meat, but better meat. Support local farmers, buy free-roam chicken eggs, pasture-grown and antibiotic free meats. Choose which businesses and practices you wish to support.

This brings me to my original reflections from my visit to Brylee Farm, which has a total of 300 acres of pasture for their grass-fed Angus cattle. During my visit, owner Brian Maloney quickly reminded us that despite the pouring rain, “It’s a great day!” There are no days off. He then quickly set out to explain how his own understanding of his land changed through trial and error, interspersed with success. He believes that the energy you take from the ground you must give back in order to stop “living off of the fat of the land.”  In his talk, he mentioned how the soil is living, and joked about earthworms as a kind of employee on his farm; he considers that too much control over nature and animals is simply counterproductive. His method is interesting because he sets out to understand cattle and their needs, the soil and its needs, and how everything gives and takes in a way which should be reciprocal.

I was instantly reminded about how these reflections clash with the findings in my own research, and how intensified production, and trade over long distances, created situations whereby humans had to, or wanted to, control animals and the environment to reach economical ends. This type of trade was, for all intents and purposes, mostly one-sided. Maybe we should realize, by now, that humans, non-human animals, and the environment are linked in a way which can bend one way or another but will eventually break if we try to control everything to our own advantage. With COVID-19 reminding us how we don’t always have control over every being and situation, have we reached this breaking point?

Feature Photo: Cattle at Brylee Farm (photo by the author)
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Catherine Paulin

Catherine is a PhD student at l’Université de Montréal. She studies environmental history and human/animal relations in the 19th-20th centuries in Montreal. Catherine est doctorante à l’Université de Montréal. Elle étudie l’histoire environnementale et les relations humains/animaux aux 19e-20e siècles à Montréal.


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