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We visited wet markets in three different countries. Here’s what we saw.

Updated: Mar 21

Beyond their risks for spreading disease, wet markets also have nonexistent welfare standards for the animals being sold in them.

As the world faces a global pandemic, more attention has been placed on wet markets. Why?

Health officials and other experts believe that the new coronavirus originated at a wet market in Wuhan, China. As leaders scramble to secure supplies and enforce social distancing, they’re also considering how to fight against future viruses from spreading.

Wet markets have become a focus of that fight.

We’ve had the opportunity to visit wet markets around the world, including India, Thailand, and Vietnam. We’ve seen the conditions of wet markets and the welfare of the animals inside them, and want to give you a firsthand look into what they’re like.

What is a wet market?

According to Vox, the definition of a wet market is broad. Generally, a wet market is a place where fresh meat, fish, produce, and other perishable goods are sold, as distinguished from "dry markets" that sell durable goods such as fabric and electronics.

In China specifically, there are some wet markets that sell only slaughtered animals and produce; some that sell commonly eaten live animals like chickens; and some that sell wild animals like bats.

The wet market in Wuhan where the virus likely originated had a wildlife section – where animals such as live snakes, beavers, badgers, foxes, peacocks, and porcupines (among others) were for sale.

The wet markets we visited had live fish, chickens, and other animals like goats and ducks for sale.

There is some zoonotic risk anytime live animals are kept in close quarters, but wet markets that sell wild animals pose a particularly higher risk for the spread of viruses like COVID-19 due to their cramped quarters, unsanitary practices, and the proximity of wild animals that would never be near one another in a natural setting.

Beyond their risks for spreading disease, wet markets also have nearly nonexistent welfare standards for the animals being sold in them.

Stress & pain for fish

The welfare issues for fish begin on their journey to the markets. In India, fish are taken by truck from farms to markets, held in crates with some ice. The journey can often last hours. Some of the fish die of asphyxiation on the journey to the market, while others stay alive, struggling to breathe.

The ones that survive the journey often have a worse fate: they are crowded in small buckets, with or without water, then left out in the open air for prolonged periods before they die.

The fish that are still alive are usually slaughtered by having their gills slit and bleeding out. In certain regions fish are deliberately kept alive through a somewhat isolated but particularly cruel practice called “fish binding” – a practice where fish are stretched into a bent shape and tied in place with a piece of twine attached from the fish’s mouth to tail. The practice keeps the fish alive and breathing much longer than if they were lying flat.

Bound fish for sale at a market in Taiwan. CREDIT REQUIREMENTS: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Bound fish for sale at a market in Taiwan.

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

In our visit to Thailand, we observed some percussive stunning of fish, which is a more humane way to render fish unconscious before slaughter. We hope to see more wet markets practice this kind of stunning before fish are slaughtered.

Mistreatment of animals goes beyond fish

Though welfare standards for fish at wet markets are nonexistent, fish aren’t the only animals mistreated at the markets.

Many animals are kept in extremely cramped conditions for days, sometimes in more crowded cages than in factory farms.

During our visits, we saw frogs who had been skinned alive in Vietnam, and a duck defeathered alive in Thailand. In India, we saw chickens have their throats slit and then be tossed in a pen with other dying chickens, bleeding out.

Chickens in battery cages at a wet market in India.
Chickens in battery cages at a wet market in India.

What’s the solution?

For the sake of the welfare of animals sold at wet markets, as well as the risk the markets create for the spread of disease – the selling of live animals at wet markets should be banned universally.

While the Chinese government has banned the sale of wildlife at markets, some high-level officials such as Dr Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, have called for the ban of wet markets entirely.

Banning the sale of live animals at wet markets would undoubtedly disrupt the livelihoods and traditions of many people, as is frustratingly often the case when pushing for systemic change.

As Peter Singer writes in an op-ed for Project Syndicate, to ban wet markets entirely, we will have to overcome cultural preferences, as well as the economic hardship for those making a living from the markets. But even without giving animals the moral consideration they deserve, Singer says, the risk of frequent global epidemics that wet markets pose decisively outweigh these concerns.

As we work for a better world for everyone, human and otherwise, these are serious costs we must consider, and through our innovation we seek to overcome them.

A better world for all

During our visit in India, we spoke with a man whose job was selling fish at a wet market. During our conversation, we asked him what he wanted for his children’s careers.

He told us: not this. He wanted something better for his family.

Ultimately, we share his vision for a better life for wet market workers, their families, and the thousands of fish and other animals slaughtered at wet markets every day.

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