By Karen Fiorito

Did we learn anything from COVID-19? Like a lot of animal rights activists, I had hoped that things would change. Sadly, I am not so sure that collectively we learned our lesson. It’s time for us to acknowledge the essential truth of the situation: This isn’t our first pandemic, and it won’t be our last. COVID-19 and other pandemics are caused by animal agriculture and our reckless exploitation of the natural world. Not only might future outbreaks be more dangerous, experts agree that they are also expected to become more frequent.

In researching this topic, I read the report “Zoonoses – A Ticking Time Bomb” by Dr. Justine Butler, Senior Health Researcher and Writer at Viva!, a UK Vegan Charity. I learned that Zoonotic diseases are diseases that spread from animals to humans. They include familiar ones, such as the common cold, influenza (flu), polio, AIDS, measles, and other lesser-known ones, such as SARS, MERS, Nipah virus and Ebola. Most recently, COVID-19 has joined this growing list, having jumped from bats or other wild animals, to humans, leading to the current pandemic.

I also learned that there are over 200 zoonotic diseases, and 56 of them affect 2.5 billion people and cause nearly three million deaths each year. For frame of reference: in 2017, zoonotic diseases caused 2.7 million deaths, diabetes caused 1.37 million deaths and traffic accidents caused 1.24 million deaths globally. Non-pandemic zoonoses caused more worldwide fatalities than all traffic accidents and diabetes combined.

Zoonotic diseases are emerging with increasing frequency, with three out of every four new infectious diseases coming from non-human animals. COVID-19 has caused a huge number of deaths across the globe and has focused the world’s attention on how our mistreatment of wild and farmed animals has resulted in dire consequences to our health. Yet, much of the media’s focus has been on the effects of COVID-19, not the causes. In order to combat this disinformation, I decided to do what I do best: create a billboard.

I designed a “Know Your Zoonoses” billboard, which was installed at 10 locations across the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles on April 19, 2021, just in time for Earth Day. These billboards were made possible by a grant from the Puffin Foundation and information supplied by Viva!. Because of COVID-19, I had to change the direction of my grant, which was supposed to focus on Climate Change. During lockdown I contacted the Puffin Foundation and asked if I could get an extension and also change the focus of my boards. I wanted to get this information out there as quickly as possible, but to my surprise, it wasn’t that easy.

“Know Your Zoonoses” Billboard Design

Although the Puffin Foundation granted me an extension and permission to change direction, my artwork was rejected three times by three different billboard agencies until finally I found a company to put them up. This took months of negotiating. Every time I would find boards and was ready to go, the artwork would not pass the approval process in the end or they would want me to change it. I almost gave up, but the sheer denial of factual information made me even more determined. There is so much false information out there about COVID-19, many people do not want to face the truth. I felt it long past time to spread awareness of this and how it can be stopped. We must stop animal agriculture. Not only have we eaten our way to zoonoses, we have altered the planet’s composition.

Today, livestock is 60% of all mammal biomass on the planet (with wild mammals accounting for only 4% and most of the remainder attributed to humans), while poultry accounts for 70% of bird biomass, denoting a major man-made change in the species makeup of our planet. Genetically modified to grow massively large while still babies, animals are confined by the thousands in cramped cages and sordid sheds, fed GMO corn and soy, and injected with medically-important antibiotics to keep them alive just long enough to kill them. Suffering from respiratory disease and impaired immune systems, they are the perfect incubators for pathogens to mutate and spill over to humans. In factory farms and in wet markets, we are creating monster zoonotic viruses that threaten our very survival.

These are facts, not opinions. Scientists say that this virus would be impossible to create in a lab because Coronaviruses mutate through transmission from one animal to another, eventually spreading to humans. Humans usually come into contact with the virus by eating an infected animal (or by being scratched or bitten by an animal they are trying to capture). The mutations we are now seeing are what happens to the virus when it jumps from species to species and back again to humans. This cycle will continue until we stop exploiting animals and their environments. The more we humans encroach on natural habitats and eat animals, the more viruses we can expect to have in the future.

As Juliet Gellatley, founder and director of Viva! and zoologist says: “We must have a societal shift in the way we view animals, the environment and our diets. We must stop eating animals. It is time to finally make the connection between animal agriculture and environmental destruction, antibiotic resistance and disease outbreak. We must stop tearing down forests to make way for animal farming or to grow animal feed. We must protect ecosystems and prioritise the safety and freedom of wild animals, leaving them to live their lives away from human contact. If we don’t take urgent and far-reaching action now, eating animals will be the death of us”.

About Karen Fiorito
Los Angeles-based artist and activist Karen Fiorito designs billboards – which she uses along with social media and interactive websites – to educate the public and to create debate and awareness about important issues concerning the future of our planet. She has been using billboards in her art since 2004, with her ‘Dear America’ billboard criticizing the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Since then, she has had 10 designs in 34 different locations and formats, including Cape Town, South Africa. 

About Viva!
Viva! is the UK’s leading vegan campaigning charity, specialising in undercover investigations and high-profile animal campaigns. Founded in 1994 by Juliet Gellatley, Viva! have spent more than 25 years creating a kinder, more sustainable world for humans and animals alike. Please join or donate.

About The Puffin Foundation 
The Puffin Foundation Ltd. has sought to open the doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and art organizations who are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy. Visit for more info.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s