Category Archives: COVID-19

Indigenous Spirituality and Worldview as an Alternative Approach in Thinking about the COVID 19 Pandemic

Annette Kemp (VU University) & Pim Martens (Maastricht University)

In the battle against COVID-19, a neglected but extremely knowledgeable voice is that of Indigenous or indigenizing religions.  These groups have both biological and spiritual insight that could contribute to the discussion around resiliency, behaviour adaptation, and contributing environmental concerns to the COVID 19 pandemic.  This value has been proven by their participation in global groups such as the United Nations and in religious gatherings such as the Parliament of Religions.  However, mainstream sources often lack the voices of Indigenous perspectives.  Part of the problem in exclusion of these groups is general ignorance about the knowledge bank held by Indigenous and indigenizing peoples.  Another part is ideology within many sectors who wish to suppress alternative thought patterns.

To introduce readers who may belong to the first issue—lack of knowledge—we will first attempt to define who belongs to these groups and what ties the groups together.  Then we will look at the COVID 19 pandemic to consider the causes of it, and how those causes may relate to the knowledge bank that has been built by those who are locally minded.  After that we will consider Indigenous/indigenizing ethics and discuss the implications of these ethics, and how they can be applied.  The second group—those who wish to suppress Indigenous/indigenizing knowledge—will not be treated in this article.  The history and development of that problem is too long and intricate to be addressed here.  For the reader who wishes to learn about that history, we recommend that they delve into research surrounding colonialism and the market system.

To begin, Indigenous people are the easiest to define and probably the most recognizable for most readers.  These are the first peoples of a place before imperial colonization occurred.  They are known as Native Americans in the United States, First Nations in Canada, Sami in Scandinavia, Maori in New Zealand, and Aboriginals in Australia—to name a few.  Each group and individual tribe have their own beliefs and rituals even within each general grouping, but there is at least one interconnecting feature of these people, and that is their understanding of and living with nature.  This important aspect will contribute later in our discussion, and we will return to it.

The second group is those who could be defined as indigenizing.  Unlike Indigenous people they are often not the first peoples of the lands they inhabit. Although, within the British Isles and Europe they may also be the biological descendants of First Peoples. However, many are descendants of colonizers or immigrants to lands inhabited by First Peoples.  These groups have found themselves disillusioned by universal systems or metaphysical religions and have instead turned to a spirituality that is Earth focused and locally based.  Similar to Indigenous people, their beliefs and rituals are individual and differs according to how they experience the tangible world around them. Within Western terminology their beliefs would be similar to the pantheism of Einstein or Spinoza, with the exception—for the most part—that these groups desire to practice spiritual rituals. 

As those wishing for an Earth based spirituality, indigenizing groups quickly encountered problems with this desire when they realized that the original local spirituality had also been colonized and largely destroyed. Some of the original ideas can be found in folklore, but this is not expressly stated and needs to be interpreted for the underlying spiritual message that had been hidden from the colonizing forces. Differing fields—such as archaeology, anthropology, and history—have helped to recover some information, but it has been a long and arduous process, and not always certain. Many practitioners distrust the interpretations since they too have been interpreted within a colonized structure.  Since most Indigenous religion is orally based, a text is not available to compare religious history with their findings.  The one exception may be the Brehon Laws from the Irish which gives a picture of medieval ethics in the Celtic world. Similarly, the dating of these records means that they too may have been influenced by the Christianity that arrived in the 5th century.

As a solution for this problem and in their desire to relearn the spirituality of place, many indigenizing groups naturally turned to Indigenous—and Hindu—spirituality for direction.  Indigenous people were chosen for their local knowledge, and Hinduism because of its ancient knowledge.  However, problems quickly arose.  Hinduism became a problem because the spirituality was not only not practiced locally or from their region, but had elements of hierarchy that clashed with the history of egalitarianism that existed in many historical accounts of their locality.  Even so, practitioners have kept much of what they learned from the framework and philosophy of Hinduism, such as the one and the many and understandings of the Goddess.

The relationship with Indigenous people is much more problematic.  While Indigenous groups understood better than anyone else how to live with and interpret local habitats, many indigenizing groups were careless in taking over Indigenous rituals and spirituality as their own. Rather than interpreting what they learned from Indigenous peoples into their own local religions and rituals, they simply pretended to be Indigenous.  This callous appropriation opened wounds left by colonization when outsiders took resources, culture, and knowledge from Indigenous people while leaving them voiceless, impoverished, and violated.

 A new movement within indigenizing groups is the practice of learning from their own land and understanding the spirituality that arises from this knowledge—therefore the term, indigenizing.[1]  Learning from and with non-human nature is not only a reality, but a spiritual act for these groups. It is a growing field and practiced by many people who would define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is also often paired with organized religion within those who wish for more non-human nature based thought in organized religion.  Most in this area still honor, respect, and learn from Indigenous groups, but are, hopefully, more aware of cultural appropriation and are careful to learn but not to steal.

 We write this history in order to define the parameters of the use and understanding of the knowledge of these groups.  Not as a new system to lay over our current system without thought or to steal their ideas without learning our own path.  Rather as a knowledge system that is fully developed and largely ignored.  Now that we have the boundaries laid around what group of individuals we will be discussing,  we will move on to the current COVID 19 pandemic and consider how it has occurred and what Indigenous/indigenizing knowledge could mean in its eradication.


The current crisis of COVID 19 can be considered from various aspects such as resilience, economic, political, or ecological justice.  Each of these areas have been sorely challenged by the implications of the pandemic, and each are important in their own right.  However, we will consider it from a causal perspective since this is the perspective best addressed from an Indigenous worldview and is the aspect most important to those who hold Indigenous values.  Additionally, there are warnings that this virus is not an unique situation, and if we do not address the root causes then we will be facing other pandemics in the future.  Therefore, considering and addressing the causes of COVID 19 contributes to the discussion in the other areas that we listed. 

 COVID-19 was not unpredictable.  It is the third outbreak of coronavirus in 20 years. Worldwide more and more animals are kept closely together in unsanitary or overly hygienic (antibiotics, etc.) conditions to satisfy the rising demand for animal protein from densely populated megacities. The need for space and raw materials perpetuates the encroachment on animal habitats such as rain forests, which, in turn, brings more humans in contact with more exotic animal species. Add to that frequent international travel – both human and animal –  which enables the conditions for zoonosis.

Within Western European zoonotic disease is also not unthinkable. The Netherlands, for example, is a densely populated country with a great deal of intensively farmed livestock: more than a 1.5 million animals are slaughtered per day, after having spent their lives at very close quarters. The population is very mobile within the country, and Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in Europe with visitors from nearly all countries in the world.

Scientists tell us that COVID 19 originated in wet markets in China.  This has been determined by tracking the viral path and its mutations.  This fact has been contested by those involved with the wet markets, but this seems to be political in rhetoric rather than evidence based research. On the one hand, China is a huge and very diverse country, so it is difficult to generalise about the whole country. On the other, they eat a much bigger variety of animals than Europeans do—although one could also say it is surprising how few varieties of animals Western Europeans eat. In any case, consensus still is that wet markets, on which many different species of animal are kept in close proximity, is where COVID-19 has originated. In wet markets, live animals are caged next to butchered animals.  Wildlife that has not been traditionally added into the human diet is sold for consumption.  Wild animals are also caged and held within the same area as live domesticated animals.  Additionally, bats house within the buildings where the wet markets are held and roam free.  Raw meat is not constantly refrigerated, and humans walk along all this.

 It is understood that this close situation led to the virus “jumping” from the animal species over to the human species and resulting in the virus crisis.  There has been theories that the bats  living in the wet market buildings have played a part as carriers since they have a higher metabolism and allow the virus to develop within the bat species without it killing the bats first.[2]  While the virus did not jump directly from bats to humans, it is considered that it jumped to the animals caged within the wet markets who then transmitted the virus to a human host.

The global impact of this initial transmission has been devastating to the human population.  History will record the human deaths and resulting worldwide economic impact of the virus as it moved to Europe and then the North American continent.  Countries have had various success in containing the virus, but at the time of this article, almost every country and continent in the world has been impacted by the virus.  Following closely on the heels of the “great recession,” COVID’s full economic impact as a result of countries “locking down” is not yet known at the time of this article.

However, it is the word “human” that is important in our comparison of Indigenous knowledge and COVID 19.  Before the virus impacted humans, most of the world had not heard of wet markets.  The circumstances that brought on the crisis were not new. Wildlife had long been caged in wet markets. The rise of COVID 19 was not a result of a change in new animal sales or how animals were treated.  The conditions of the wet markets were known by those in the global health industry and among a few others—certainly among tourists to China—but they only became a problem once the human species became infected.  Then the ethical issues around wet markets began to be questioned.  However, these questions moved quickly to human concerns and animal treatment was a secondary consideration, important only because it made a difference to human health.  The initial discussion around COVID 19 briefly skimmed over the causes and rapidly began to address human ethical questions such as the morality of self isolation, mask wearing, and visitation to lonely individuals such as the elderly.  These situations are often named as the most important reasons that the wet markets have now received serious criticism.  Ethical considerations such as treatment of animals or food choices have not really received a widespread hearing.

 For those aware of Indigenous/indigenizing ethics, this fact highlights the difference Indigenous knowledge brings to the table.  If Indigenous knowledge was a common discussion partner within our ethical thought, wet markets would not be an accepted practice, regardless of whether humans became infected by COVID 19.  This difference highlights how difference of perspective plays an important role in ethical formation.  In the next section we will consider this different perspective, and what ethics that are held by Indigenous/indigenizing groups speaks to the COVID 19 situation. However, it is important not to only argue over whether one ethic is better than another ( a Western approach), but the pragmatic results of held ethics  (an Indigenous/ indigenizing approach) is also an important consideration.  Therefore, we will not do an in depth comparison of Western ethics vs. Indigenous/indigenizing ethics; but rather, will highlight what Indigenous/indigenizing ethics can bring to the solution of the pandemic.


As we begin, we think it is important to address an issue which those who value the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge are often confronted.  Proponents of a homogeneous ethical culture often charge Indigenous religions with romanticism or the wish to return to ancient times.  This belies the ignorance of the person leveling this accusation because Indigenous and indigenizing worldviews have not remained static since the 1700s—just as Western culture has not remained static.  They too develop as knowledge is gained or contested.  However, this occurs within their framework of knowledge just as it does in the Western framework.

Granted, Indigenous knowledge is ancient.  However, this does not mean static nor should being ancient preclude its value to knowledge acquisition.  Universities teach Roman and Greek philosophy which is also ancient, but is usually not condemned as romantic.  This obvious discrepancy in our acceptable ideas should help us to become aware of the biases that we may still carry from the colonial era which no longer serve us in our current environment.  Further, an awareness of our biases will hopefully remove—or at least make us aware of—those barriers we may unconsciously have erected as we look further at Indigenous ethics.

 For those aware of Indigenous values the most obvious ethic that is apparent in considering the COVID 19 virus is that of kinship.  Kinship is not only an Indigenous term since most cultures have an idea of kinship.  In English we have the phrase “kith and kin” to explain the extended familial relationships.  In other cultures kinship may embrace the idea of ancestors and those who have gone before.  Anthropology connects it with social connections and functioning within familial relationships.

 Within Indigenous knowledge kinship is deeper than just human interactions though.  Indigenous knowledge does not have such a definitive border between human and non-human nature as Western thought, and therefore kinship embraces non-human beings as kin as well.[3]  There is a strong understanding that animals are relatives, and some branches of Indigenous knowledge include flora as kin.  Terms such as “brother,” “cousin,” “grandmother,” or “sister” are often used with the most familiar being “Mother” Nature.  While that term has been used in cute ways for advertising and description in non-Indigenous cultures, it is a serious term for Indigenous knowledge.  The Earth is seriously considered to be our mother.  John Mohawk explains, “The Mother Earth is a spirit.  She is an energy force that shows itself to us in matter, and we call this matter Earth.”[4]

This seriousness brings along with it serious consideration and treatment.  The mindset of kinship enables humans to enlarge their ethical thinking to treat non-humans with the same ethics that they treat humans.  Therefore, respect and care for Mother Earth is not a side thought or pragmatic consideration only considered as a tool for human flourishing; but rather, an extension of what it means to be a good and moral person.  A moral person practices Earth care in the same manner as moral Western humans practice care for their human mother.  In fact, within some Indigenous thought processes one cannot be moral unless they have good morals when it comes to treatment of the non-human world.

Within Indigenous thought the idea of caging wildlife in the wet markets would be unacceptable.  Not only for those who are caging the animals, but also for the consumers who are buying the product.  Additionally, caging live animals in small cages next to their natural enemies would be a violation of natural law.  Even caging domesticated animals in such a small space would be rejected because this behaviour does not show respect or kindness towards one’s kin.  Leaving animals in a space to watch other animals to be butchered is a cruel tactic that would also be considered immoral.  Just as we would not do that to our children, we should not do that to other kin.  Considering animals as interactive, intelligent, and family automatically raises barriers of treatment and moral consideration.  Indigenous thought naturally prohibits the treatment that animals receive in wet markets, and this has the pragmatic result of also protecting humans from viral diseases.

At this point discussion can become ridiculous and far fetched.  Many then proclaim that if all life is kin then human life can no longer continue because we would not be able to eat or use products.  This catastrophic thinking may be a tactic to win an argument, but it has no basis in Indigenous thought.  Most Indigenous people are not vegetarians, although some are.  One can imagine that if both flora and fauna are considered sacred, it is not a degree of morality to be a vegetarian.  Taking either a plant or animal life is equally serious.  However, there is an understanding within Indigenous/indigenizing thought that dictates and determines the ethics of food choices whether they are animal or vegetable.  There is a serious and somber understanding that life is a circle, and that there is a natural order to life.  It is understood that within this circle of life, each being has a part to play and flora and fauna play a part in providing for human life to continue.  Just as decay of wild animal bodies—or even human bodies—plays a part in fertilizing soil that then provides plants as food for other wild animals.

Indigenous thought understands the circle of life probably better than any other form of thought due to their constant observation of the natural world.  It is this knowledge that leads to a second ethic. That ethic is to take only what is needed and to use all that is taken.  From ancient time until now, all parts of what is taken was saved if its use was not immediate.  When subsistence hunting was the source of food products, little to nothing was thrown away.  Besides providing meat, the skin was used for clothing.  Sinew was used for sewing.  Bone was used for cooking or storage.  They knew what taking an animal life entails since they hunted and butchered the animal themselves, or they gathered fruits and vegetables directly from the plant.  This intimate knowledge and work made the event unique and led to understanding of the gifts as sacred.  It is this sacredness that brought the understanding that nothing should be discarded.  Even today in Eskimo cultures in Alaska the oil from seal hunting is used both as a food item and as a source for lighting.  If this seems strange to Western cultures, it may be useful to think of what we do with that which is sacred such as any wine or wafer left over from a Catholic Mass, or even our own historical artifacts.  The only difference is that Indigenous knowledge has an immediate knowledge of  the sacredness of gift giving.

Today, food items can often be obtained without hunting for many Indigenous/indigenizing.  Still, the same ethic applies.  Not too much and nothing wasted.  This means that the idea of a plateful of steak would be an immoral choice.  No human needs a plate of steak—regardless of how many steak restaurants would convince us otherwise.  Food is also thought of as medicine in Indigenous thought and so an overwhelming choice of one food item over another would not be a moral choice.  A variety of food that builds the body and spirit would be the choice, and for this reason much thought is given to local food items and horticulture.  This consideration in relation to the wet markets, or even our own European and North American livestock living conditions, pragmatically means that there would be a reduction in the purchase of meat as well as a demand for respectful conditions for any meat production.  When the production of meat becomes a sacred event rather than only a commercial enterprise, carefulness and reverence would be a natural outcome.

 This idea of food as medicine paired with the understanding that all life is put on Earth to support life is included in many Indigenous festivals and rituals.  The animal who gives it’s life to the people to fed and clothe them is honoured. Thanksgiving is given to the animal who gives to the people.  This mindset of gratitude builds respect and provides a barrier to overconsumption or carelessness. Not to ensure that there is more for humans later—a pragmatic result—but because of a spirit of humility and thankfulness for the gifts of Mother Earth and the beings on Earth.[5]

This mindset of gratitude and caution in taking provides a spiritual aspect to the Indigenous approach to the world that differs from simple sustainability. Sustainability understands the world as ready to be used and conservation is necessary to be available to humans.  For most sustainability is not a spiritual value, although for those who have an Earth based spirituality it is often a practice within their spirituality. Indigenous worldview says that the world is sacred and must be approached as that which is holy simply for its sake and not for the sake of humans.  The pragmatic result is the same—sustainability occurs, but has a more intrinsic motivation than sustainability for future human use.

 The thought of future use is not missing in Indigenous thought, however.  A third ethic that we will address is the idea of seventh generation thinking. [6] For those who have a hard time wrapping their minds around kinship, seventh generation thinking is a good starting point.  Simply stated the ethic of the seventh generation means that one must think about the impact that their actions have on their sixth great grandchild.  If the impact is good, then the action is good.  If the impact is wrong, then the action is wrong.

To be honest, this is a difficult ethic since it is not always easy to consider what our impact will be in seven generations.  It is similar to the Western utilitarian ethic which considers the greatest good for the greatest amount of people.  Trying to decide this is always a long shot and carries many exceptions and influences that may not be foreseen.  Additionally, when we consider the technological jumps that have been made within the last seven generations, one may scratch their head as they try to consider what may lie in our grandchildren’s futures. 

However, the theory of the seventh generation is not as convoluted as utilitarianism can become.  The teaching is meant to teach people to think of the long term rather than short term thinking and to think about what they would want for their own family rather than becoming unattached from their actions due to their own mortality.  It may be impossible to know what the future will hold, but we can consider if we want to drive or ride our bicycle when we think about our grandchildren’s’ future and climate change.  Likewise, knowing that wet markets may create a virus that challenges our grandchild’s very existence makes us aware of today’s food purchases.  Purchasing compassionately raised meat—and limiting ourselves in how much we purchase—or paying for biodiverse products becomes less of an economic burden and more of a loving gesture for our offspring.  In this model sustainability is not about a cold market calculation of long term supply and use—which does nothing to motivate an individual’s ethical behaviour—but rather, becomes a question of love for our kin and a support of life nourishing behaviors.  John Mohawk explains this ethic as a spiritual directive in addition to an internalized love for our offspring, however.  He writes that “It is the Creator’s way that all are taught to direct their energies toward the well-being of the unborn generations.”[7]

Future Considerations

We are left with the question, then, of whether Western culture can hear and work with Indigenous thought structures.  If we believe the scientists of our universities, our patterns of thought and behaviour has brought us into grave danger.  The question should not be whether we can do it, but rather can we risk not learning from Indigenous/indigenizing knowledge?

There are countries that are attempting to merge the two thought cultures.  Ecuador was the first country to write the rights of Nature into its constitution—largely due to the work of her Indigenous communities.  Now that law recognizes nature as a rights holder, Western thought is required to work with Indigenous thought to pave a way towards the future.  According to Hugo Echeverria, an environmental attorney, this means Ecuador is paving the way to build constitutional law that incorporates all rights holders and will impact how society develops in this area.[8]

Even though Christopher Stone, also an attorney, called for rights for nature in his 1972 article entitled “Should Trees Have Standing,” it has taken years for this to be incorporated into a legal system.  Its passage is due to the work and advocacy of the Indigenous communities in Ecuador that is based on their spiritual, rather than instrumental, approach to all of life. 

Other communities and countries are following in that many are beginning to hear and understand what their Indigenous communities are arguing.  Canada is another country that has recently begun to incorporate Indigenous thought into their policy making, although they are not yet as progressive as Ecuador by writing it into their constitution.[9]  Moreover, the battle on fossil fuel extraction is an ongoing sore spot between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government.  Still the recognition of another form of knowledge creation is encouraging.


In this article we have attempted to introduce Indigenous/indigenizing spirituality and worldview as an alternative approach to thinking about the COVID 19 pandemic.  Rather than addressing the resulting symptoms of dis-ease to the virus, we have argued that a different approach to the causes is necessary.  Since the system of ethics in Western thought is largely anthropocentric and therefore not as useful in addressing biological situations,  we introduced three Indigenous ethics that address the known causes of COVID 19.

Combatting the idea that Indigenous/indigenizing worldview is too romantic for a post-modern world, we introduced two nations whose policies are currently incorporating Indigenous thought.  One has included rights of nature—a result of held kinship ethics and morality—into their legal constitution.  This indicates that Indigenous thought is a valid system for our contemporary problems and lived experiences.

As a final note, it is important that we dialogue with Indigenous people to learn how their knowledge can help us in the current COVID 19 pandemic, but more so, that we learn so we can strategically recognize those practices that endanger life and, in doing so, prevent further pandemics such as COVID 19. From the above argumentation it could be assumed that a beginning point is greater respect for nature which would include moving away from industrial livestock farming, deforestation, wet markets, etc. While not covered in this article, these actions would also help address climate change,  which has and will bring its own detrimental impact on living beings, including humans.

[1] To better understand Native teachings on indigenizing, see:  John Mohawk, Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader, Jose Barreiro, ed. (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010).  Here Barreiro records Mohawk’s argumentation as, “The culture of Native nations was built around the knowledge of how to survive in an environment,” xv.  A discussion within Western culture can be found in: Graham Harvey, Indigenizing Movements in Europe,  (Sheffield, Equinox, 2020).

[2] A source for further reading can be found at, obtained 08/07/2020.

[3] A quick description can be viewed at: Native American Prophecy, youtube video,, beginning point 4.27, obtained 09/07/2020.

[4] Mohawk, Thinking in Indian, 7.

[5] A good and interpreted example of this is the Thanksgiving Address that is read at Haudenosaunee gatherings before proceeding with meetings.  This is not a prayer, but an actual address to the recognized kin and shows both how Haudenosaunee view each being and their gratitude for it., obtained 09/07/2020.

[6] Great Peacemaker, Gayanashagowa (Great Law of Peace), Gerald Murphy and Jon Roland, eds. March 25, 2013, Kindle file.  For an example of current practice, See:, obtained 09/07/2020.

[7] Mohawk, Thinking in Indian, 3.

[8] Hugo Echeverria, Ecuador:  Recent Developments on the Rights of Nature, Eventbrite Zoom Conference, June 11, 2020.

[9], obtained 27 July, 2020.

Animals Are Running Away From Us – Indigenous & Religious Views on Animals

New Documentary!

Our relationship with the natural environment and animals has changed dramatically over time. In this documentary, I discuss past patterns and future pathways with representatives of various indigenous cultures and religious beliefs. Learning from them about our relationship with animals may be a way we can begin to address the sustainability challenges we see today.

Mens-dierrelatie, zoönosen en de recente COVID-19 pandemie

Onze gezondheid is afhankelijk van biodiversiteit. Wij zijn afhankelijk van ecosystemen en de diensten die deze ecosystemen aan ons geven. Gezondheid van dieren, mensen en planten hangt met elkaar samen. Het één kun je niet los zien van het andere. Duurzaamheid en dieren hebben alles met elkaar te maken.

Bekijk hier het interview wat ik onlangs had met de Nicolaas G. Pierson Foundation over mens-dierrelatie, zoönosen en de COVID-19 pandemie.

Wat moeten dierentuinen doen om te overleven?

Interview en uitzending door EenVandaag:

Uitzending EenVandaag 24-7-2020

Het is een nachtmerriescenario, maar het kan zomaar gebeuren: dierentuinen die door de coronacrisis moeten sluiten. Want 27 van de ruim 30 dierentuinen in Nederland hebben het financieel erg zwaar, zegt de Nederlandse Vereniging van Dierentuinen.

Mocht het misgaan, dan heeft dat gevolgen voor een groot aantal dieren. “In totaal hebben we het over zo’n 1000 diersoorten en 100.000 dieren in Nederlandse dierentuinen”, zegt Lisette de Ruigh van de Nederlandse Vereniging van Dierentuinen (NVD). En daarom hebben ze bij het ministerie van Landbouw aangeklopt voor een noodpakket van 110 miljoen euro. Want door de lockdown en de bijhorende maatregelen leiden de dierentuinen een gezamenlijk verlies van 150 miljoen euro.

De noodklok luiden

Zware tijden voor Diergaarde Blijdorp. Financieel gaat het door corona erg slecht. Het Rotterdamse park is niet alleen: bijna alle dierentuinen in ons land staan op omvallen. Directeur Erik Zevenbergen doet wat hij kan, maar weet niet of het genoeg is.

Zoo Veldhoven luidde de noodklok al eerder. “Als dierenpark ben je afhankelijk van het hoogseizoen”, vertelt eigenaar Richard Loomans. “Juist dan moet je namelijk je inkomsten halen voor de rest van het jaar.” Het besluit van de overheid om dierenparken te sluiten kwam dan ook als een donderslag bij heldere hemel. “Het is makkelijk gezegd, maar al onze rekeningen moeten in die weken wel betaald worden.”

Invloed van corona

De dierentuinen die de impact van corona het snelst merken, zijn de dierentuinen zonder winstoogmerk, oftewel de stichtingen. “Elke euro die wordt verdiend wordt weer terug in het park gestopt”, vertelt Lisette de Ruigh. Deze parken hebben nauwelijks reserves, denk bijvoorbeeld aan Diergaarde Blijdorp in Rotterdam.

En Blijdorp is niet de enige. Ook Apenheul, Wildlands Zoo en Ouwehands dierenpark vertelden dit jaar ook te maken te hebben met een miljoenenverlies en maken zich daarom grote zorgen over de toekomst van hun park. Een woordvoerder van Apenheul vertelt dat zij maar maar 60 procent van de normale omzet draaien. “Dat is een verlies van 3 tot 4 miljoen dit jaar.”

Meer dan een dagje uit

Sinds Richard Loomans de papegaaienopvang in Veldhoven zeven jaar geleden overnam na een faillissement heeft hij er veel tijd en geld gestopt. Hij wist toen nog niet dat hij jaren later wéér in een crisissituatie terecht zou komen. “We hebben nieuwe volières gebouwd, maar ook andere dieren verwelkomt en van de papegaaienopvang een volwaardige zoo gemaakt.”

Pim Martens, hoogleraar duurzame mens-dierrelaties, kan goed begrijpen dat veel parken zich gaan heroriënteren. “Al helemaal na zo’n crisis”, zegt hij hierover. Naast een leuk dagje uit hebben ze bijvoorbeeld ook een voorlichtingsfunctie, zorgen ze voor educatie, streven ze naar behoud van diersoorten en doen ze wetenschappelijk onderzoek. “Maar sommige dierentuinen hebben ook een commerciële insteek. Dat kan wel eens op gespannen voet staan.”

Te veel amusement

“Het businessmodel van een dierentuin is vandaag de dag ontzettend moeilijk,” vertelt Martens. “Er moet een adventure- of dinopark bij om winstgevend te zijn en te kunnen rondkomen. Daardoor wordt een dierentuin te veel amusement, dat zou niet het hoofddoel moeten zijn.”

Volgens Lisette de Ruigh is dat hoofddoel nog altijd mensen bewust maken, inspireren en stimuleren om zorgen voor de natuur te hebben. In dierentuinen word je namelijk ondergedompeld in de natuur. “Mensen kunnen zich bewust worden van hun eigen rol in deze wereld. Wij dragen gewoon bij aan het behoud van natuur.”


Een dierentuin belandt daardoor al gauw in een soort spagaat. Dieren in een klein hokje zorgen er wél voor dat er onderzoek gedaan kan worden en zo dieren in het wild te kunnen helpen. Een zo goed mogelijke situatie voor het dier met zoveel mogelijk ruimte is vaak het doel. “Maar geef je ze te veel ruimte, dan ziet de bezoeker geen enkel dier meer,” merkt Martens op. “Terwijl je juist zoveel mogelijk bezoekers wil trekken, om die inkomsten vervolgens weer aan het dier te kunnen besteden.”

“Je wilt aan voorlichting doen, dat kost geld. Maar je wilt ook de dieren optimaal verzorgen”, zegt Martens. “Al die spanningen zijn er in elke dierentuin.”

Weinig compensatie

“Van de overheid krijgen we weinig compensatie”, zegt Loomans van Zoo Veldhoven. “Eenmalig 4000 euro voor een heel park. Als kleine zelfstandige, kan je daar wel 2 maanden van vooruit. Maar met een dierentuin en 25 man personeel, kunnen we onze dieren net een week voeren.”

In Nederland zijn 65 dierentuinvergunningen. Naast instellingen die dieren opvangen zoals Stichting Aap, zijn er ongeveer 30 échte dierenparken. “70 procent hiervan heeft echt flinke verliezen geleden”, laat de NVD weten. “Zonder overheidshulp gaan we het gewoon niet redden.”

Kantoorpersoneel knipt de kaartjes

De grote dierentuinen zijn 365 dagen per jaar open. “Maar vanaf april nemen ze personeel in dienst en begint het seizoen écht. Nu moesten de dierentuinen half maart dicht, terwijl de contracten met het personeel al waren afgesloten. De helft van de mensen was ineens niet meer nodig.”

“Omdat het eerste steunpakket van de overheid is gebaseerd op de maand maart, de maand waarin je nog minder mensen in dienst hebt, ontvang je uiteindelijk ook minder dan je eigenlijk nodig hebt.” Om zoveel mogelijk personeelskosten te besparen wordt in Blijdorp nu kantoorpersoneel ingezet om kaartjes te knippen.

Seizoensgebonden bedrijven

Voor een tweede steunpakket is als basis de gemiddelde omzet over 2019 genomen, vertelt De Ruigh. Oftewel de zomer- en wintermaanden verdelen over 12 maanden.

Het tweede steunpakket geldt voor de maanden juni, juli en augustus, de topmaanden, die zelfs met een dagbezetting van maximaal 40 procent van de capaciteit, een hogere maandomzet geven dan de gemiddelde omzet per maand in 2019. Hierdoor krijgen seizoensgebonden bedrijven, zoals dierentuinen bijna geen subsidie.


Waar de bezoekersaantallen laag blijven, gaat de zorg voor de dieren wel door. Voor de dieren is het een ramp dat dierenparken in zwaar weer zitten. “Als dit echt lang blijft duren, ben ik bang dat de kosten gepaard gaan met het verzorgen van de dieren”, vertelt Martens. Ook Loomans van Zoo Veldhoven maakt zich zorgen. “Als de papegaaien moeten worden losgelaten hebben ze geen enkele kans om te overleven.”

In het najaar wordt duidelijk welk welke parken het eerst de nasleep van het virus gaan merken. De ministeries van Landbouw en Economische Zaken zijn op de hoogte van de situatie bij Nederlandse dierentuinen. Afgesproken is dat er op korte termijn een gesprek is met de dierentuinen, waarbij alle hierbij betrokken partijen worden uitgenodigd. De schade van de crisis blijft volgens De Ruigh nog een langere tijd zichtbaar. “Het gaat nog jaren duren om hiervan te herstellen.”

arbij alle hierbij betrokken partijen worden uitgenodigd. De schade van de crisis blijft volgens De Ruigh nog een langere tijd zichtbaar. “Het gaat nog jaren duren om hiervan te herstellen.”

Scientivists urgently needed!

Almost every scientist recognises this picture. Having devoted much of their lives to perform research on a specific issue, but not being able to get the message outside the academic walls (and it’s not only the government that’s ‘out there’). This holds for the more fundamental sciences, but even more so for research on more complex issues, like climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss, financial-economic crisis, and the current corona pandemic.

Of course, many scientists are to be blamed as well. Being so caught up in their own scientific square centimetre, they are unable to communicate the main message of their research to others. Stimulated by the perverse publication system that only accounts for peer-reviewed publications (and not so much for more understandable messages), leaves people outside academia with only scientific papers. Not very useful in the public arena.

But still. Isn’t it funny, that a society that pays lots of money to universities and research centres, that does value teaching and research done at these places highly, then dismisses results of these institutes if it is not ‘handy’, and perhaps a little too vague?

Academia has responded through the initiation of new fields of research, such as sustainability science, focusing on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and non-academic stakeholders from business, government, and the civil society. Not so much for the fundamental sciences, but for the earlier mentioned ‘complex societal issues’ humanity faces today. The idea behind this is that we all need to work together in order to address sustainability challenges and develop real solution patterns.

Well, that’s a step in the right direction. However, being good scientists, this idea of ‘sustainability science’ is becoming formalised rapidly. And  – although classified by concepts such as post-normal, mode-2, triple helix, and other science paradigms – it still are ‘scientific’ classifications. With other words, it is being ‘bounded’ by similar rules that apply to other sciences as well.

From a scientific point of view, this is fine. But what about the point of view of moving forward to a more sustainable world? Does this not oblige scientists to take more responsibility, especially at times when many signals in nature and society are red? Or do we (scientists) continue to discuss the rules under which ‘sustainability science’ needs to be operated? Rules that probably will be ‘dismissed’ by the other stakeholders if it suits their purpose?

It is about time for many (more) scientists to become scientivists. Scientivists are people that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the ‘science part’), to promote, impede, or direct societal change (the ‘activist part’). Scientivism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, to economic activism, such as boycotts, sit-ins etc. Scientivists are not afraid of interfering with legitimized procedures and official politics when science shows this would be needed.

On the other hand, scientivists must be aware that their actions may increase the risk of scientific results inappropriately being used into social discourses and in the media. This might lead to situations where, for instance, researchers find themselves unwittingly “supporting” an application of the generated knowledge they might strongly disagree with.

It is, therefore, not a ‘job’ (as for most of us ‘being a scientist’ is), but rather an ‘attitude’. An attitude that may be urgently to move forward to a more sustainable society. As in this era of social media, opportunities for scientivists will increase as we speak, there are no reasons not to join…unless you do not have that attitude…

(Published earlier (in 2012) by Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans)

See also (in Dutch): Een taxonomie van de wetenschapsactivist and The meaning of academia in times of environmental crisis.

Our sustainability challenges: climate change, health, and animal well-being

The lecture by Prof. Pim Martens, given Monday June 15th

Our dominant current socio-economic and political systems have become decoupled from the larger ecology of life, and our relationship with our natural environment and the animals within has changed dramatically. This has led to various outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases – with COVID-19 as the hard lesson learned (or not?). In this lecture, Pim Martens, Professor of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University, will discuss the complexities and connections between our own well-being and that of the animals with whom we live, and global environmental changes like climate change and biodiversity loss.

Compared to climate change, the impact of covid-19 will look like peanuts

We’ve been warning about this for decades

COVID-19, the third outbreak of coronavirus in 20 years, wasn’t exactly unpredictable. Professor Pim Martens, who tries to integrate scientific knowledge and animal advocacy, talks about how zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans, foreground the complex interconnectedness of our wellbeing and our treatment of animals.

“It was strange – I had no idea. And even when the first reports emerged, I was quite sure they would contain it within the province….” Professor of Sustainable Development Pim Martens has been to China at the end of last year at the invitation of Bingtao Su, his former PhD student at Maastricht University. As a visiting professor, he spent two weeks lecturing at Shandong University and the Chinese Academy of Science.

Under his guidance, Su had studied the Chinese perspective on animal welfare, as compared to the Netherlands and Japan. They used questionnaires to collect data about how factors such as age, gender, or religion relate to attitudes towards animals. He is now also supervising PhD and MSc students conducting similar research in Indonesia and Spain.

Chinese attitudes towards animals

“Sustainability is underrepresented in Chinese Academics, but they are keen to bring in expertise, especially integrated perspectives on interdisciplinary sustainability science.” Sustainable human-animal relationship is a somewhat delicate topic in China: apart from the vast amounts of money at stake, there is also still a belief in the medicinal powers of rare animals’ organs as well as a cultural reluctance towards open criticism.

“China is a huge and very diverse country, so it’s difficult to generalise – that’s also what we’ve found in the study. It is true that they eat a much bigger variety of animals than we do – although you could also say it’s surprising how few animals we in Western Europe eat…” In any case, many suspect that wet markets, on which many different species of animal are kept in close proximity, is where COVID-19 has originated.

Meat, milk and raw materials

More and more animals are kept closely together in unsanitary or overly hygienic (antibiotics, etc.) conditions to satisfy the rising demand for animal protein of densely populated megacities. The need for space and raw materials perpetuates the encroachment on animal habitats like rainforests, which, in turn, brings more humans in contact with more exotic animal species. Add to that frequent international travel – both human and animal – and it’s excellent conditions for zoonosis.

Diseases moving from animals to humans isn’t entirely preventable of course. “It’s a question of probabilities – if we were all vegan animal rights activists, there could still be a zoonotic pandemic but it would be infinitely less likely.” And this was no perfect storm either. “Academics have been warning for decades that this will happen – it was always a question of when, not if.” We’ve had several zoonotic epidemics – several of them corona in fact – in recent decades.

Zoonosis closer to home

According to Martens, a Western European source of zoonotic disease isn’t unthinkable either. The Netherlands, for example, is a densely populated country with a lot of intensively farmed livestock: more than a 1.5 million animals are slaughtered per day, after having spent their lives at very close quarters indeed. The population is very mobile within the country and Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in Europe.

Martens cites the 2007 outbreak of Q Fever, a rather uncommon but devastating disease that can spread from livestock to humans. Dutch authorities were struggling to contain or monitor the spread and the original tally of 25 victims is now estimated to be closer to a hundred. The spread of the disease was eventually contained through a mass cull (of goats and sheep, that is) and by introducing a vaccine for animals.

Greater respect for nature

“The solution is greater respect for nature: moving away from industrial livestock farming, deforestation, wet markets, etc. This would also help address climate change, the impact of which will make this look like peanuts.” Martens’ own contribution to science – together with many international scientists – is studying the complexity and interactions between humans, animals and nature by, among other things, developing mathematical models to simulate the spread of zoonoses. But he also hopes to do his part in bringing about a change of attitude.

He was certainly heartened by how many students attended his lectures in China and how interested and knowledgeable they were. “You can tell that there is a cultural shift especially among young, educated people in urban areas.” Together with Su, he now wants to repeat the original study to see whether the COVID-19 outbreak has changed attitudes towards animal welfare in China.

Surely, it must have changed? Given the public and political discourse, Martens has his doubts. “Of course, economic recovery is very important, but I really hope we won’t rush back to business as usual without fixing the underlying problem.” He adds with a sigh: “If we haven’t learnt anything from this pandemic, then maybe we will from the next one…”

By: Florian Raith. See original post on UMnieuws.

Vergeleken met klimaatverandering is covid-19 een lachertje

Cartoon van Raf Schoenmaekers.

“We hebben hier al tientallen jaren voor gewaarschuwd”

Covid-19, de derde uitbraak van een coronavirus in 20 jaar, was niet bepaald onvoorspelbaar. Hoogleraar Pim Martens, die wetenschappelijke kennis en dierenrechtenactivisme probeert te combineren, legt uit hoe zoönosen, besmettelijke ziektes die van dieren op mensen kunnen overspringen, de complexe onderlinge samenhang aan het licht brengen tussen ons welzijn en hoe we met dieren omgaan.

“Het was vreemd – ik had geen idee. Zelfs toen de eerste rapporten verschenen, was ik er vrij zeker van dat ze het beperkt zouden weten te houden tot de provincie…” Hoogleraar Sustainable Development Pim Martens was eind vorig jaar in China op uitnodiging van Bingtao Su, zijn voormalige PhD-student bij de Universiteit Maastricht. Als gastdocent gaf hij twee weken lang colleges aan de Shandong Universiteit en de Chinese Academie van Wetenschappen.

Onder zijn leiding had Su de Chinese visie op dierenwelzijn bestudeerd, in vergelijking met Nederland en Japan. Door middel van enquêtes hadden ze data verzameld over factoren als leeftijd, geslacht en religie in relatie tot de opvattingen over dieren. Hij begeleidt nu ook PhD- en MSc-studenten die soortgelijk onderzoek doen in Indonesië en Spanje.

Chinese opvattingen over dieren

“Duurzaamheid is ondervertegenwoordigd in de Chinese wetenschap, maar ze halen graag expertise in huis, vooral geïntegreerde visies op interdisciplinaire duurzaamheidswetenschap.” Duurzame relaties tussen dieren en mensen liggen in China enigszins gevoelig: behalve dat het om enorme bedragen gaat, bestaat het geloof in de medicinale krachten van de organen van zeldzame dieren nog altijd, en ligt terughoudendheid met betrekking tot openlijke kritiek in de cultuur besloten.

“China is een gigantisch en zeer divers land, dus het is moeilijk om te generaliseren – dat is ook iets dat uit het onderzoek naar voren kwam. Het klopt dat ze veel meer verschillende dieren eten dan wij, hoewel je ook kunt beweren hoe verrassend weinig dieren we in West-Europa eten…” Hoe het ook zij, velen vermoeden dat de wet markets, waar veel verschillende soorten dieren dicht bij elkaar gehouden worden, de oorsprong zijn van covid-19.

Vlees, melk en grondstoffen

Steeds meer dieren zitten dicht op elkaar gepakt in onhygiënische of juist uiterst hygiënische (antibiotica, enz.) omstandigheden, om tegemoet te komen aan de stijgende vraag naar dierlijke proteïnen in de dichtbevolkte steden. Vanwege de behoefte aan ruimte en grondstoffen worden de woongebieden van dieren, zoals regenwouden, steeds verder aangetast, wat omgekeerd tot effect heeft dat meer mensen in contact komen met meer exotische diersoorten. Tel daar het intensieve internationale reizen – van zowel mens als dier – bij op en voilà: prima omstandigheden voor zoönose.

Het overspringen van ziektes van dieren op mensen is natuurlijk niet helemaal te voorkomen. “Het gaat om waarschijnlijkheid. Als we allemaal veganistische dierenrechtenactivisten zouden zijn, zou er zich nog steeds een zoönotische pandemie kunnen voordoen, maar de kans daarop zou oneindig veel kleiner zijn.” Covid-19 kwam ook niet uit de lucht vallen. “Wetenschappers zitten al tientallen jaren te wachten tot dit gebeurt – het was altijd een kwestie van wanneer, niet van of.” In de afgelopen 20 jaar zijn er verschillende zoönotische epidemieën geweest; bij enkele daarvan ging het om corona.

Zoönose dichter bij huis

Volgens Martens is een West-Europese bron van een zoönotische ziekte ook niet ondenkbaar. Neem bijvoorbeeld Nederland, een dichtbevolkt land met een intensieve veesector met grote aantallen dieren: iedere dag worden er meer dan 1,5 miljoen dieren geslacht, nadat ze een leven lang op elkaars lip hebben gezeten. De bevolking is binnen de landsgrenzen zeer mobiel en Schiphol is een van de drukste luchthavens van Europa.

Martens brengt de uitbraak van de Q-koorts in 2007 in herinnering, een tamelijk zeldzame maar verwoestende ziekte, die van vee kan overgaan op mensen. De Nederlandse autoriteiten hadden moeite met het tegengaan en het monitoren van de ziekte. Het aantal slachtoffers, dat oorspronkelijk op 25 lag, wordt inmiddels geschat op tegen de 100. De verspreiding van Q-koorts werd uiteindelijk beperkt door massale ruiming (voor de duidelijkheid: van geiten en schapen) en door de ontwikkeling van een vaccin voor dieren.

Meer respect voor de natuur

“De oplossing ligt in meer respect voor de natuur: stoppen met de veehouderij op industriële schaal, ontbossing, wet markets, enzovoorts. Dat zou ook de aanpak van de klimaatverandering ten goede komen – vergeleken bij de gevolgen daarvan is covid-19 een lachertje.” Martens’ eigen bijdrage aan de wetenschap – samen met vele andere internationale wetenschappers – is het bestuderen van de complexe interacties tussen mensen, dieren en de natuur, onder andere door het ontwikkelen van wiskundige methodes om de verspreiding van zoönosen te simuleren. Maar hij hoopt ook dat hij zijn steentje kan bijdragen aan mentaliteitsverandering.

Het deed hem zeker goed om te zien hoeveel studenten zijn colleges in China bijwoonden en hoe geïnteresseerd en goed geïnformeerd ze zijn. “Je kunt zien dat er een culturele verandering gaan is onder jonge, goed opgeleide mensen in stedelijke gebieden.” Samen met Su wil hij nu het originele onderzoek herhalen om uit te zoeken of de uitbraak van covid-19 de opvattingen over dierenwelzijn in China zijn veranderd.

Dat moet toch haast wel? Martens heeft zijn twijfels, gelet op het publieke en politieke discours. “Natuurlijk, economisch herstel is heel belangrijk, maar ik hoop echt dat we niet in no time terugvallen in de oude patronen, zonder het onderliggende probleem gefikst te hebben.” Met een zucht voegt hij eraan toe: “Als we niks geleerd hebben van deze pandemie, dan misschien van de volgende…”

Door: Florian Raith. Zie origineel bericht op UMnieuws.