The failure of Congress to adequately fund the Zika response might be simply another example of partisan politics derailing common sense. There are certainly plenty of those. And yet, juxtaposed with the hysteria that surrounded Ebola—though the relative risk to most Americans was small—I wonder if the disproportionate response might be, at least in part, because the names of the viruses themselves. Do viruses like Zika, named after a forest in Uganda and Ebola, after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, conjure for Americans an exoticism that is mysterious, unknowable and unpredictable, that warrants either a wild over or under-reaction? If you work in public health you’re likely to be familiar with the fact that close to 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases originate with animals, but surely those animals are found in places far away, like the Adodessewa fetish market in Lomé, Togo?
Adodessewa is where Vodun healers find animal parts which, ground together in a powder with herbs, can be used in treating illnesses of the body or mind. Vodun is a collective term for the traditional African religions that an estimated 30 million West Africans practice alongside Christianity or Islam. The market consists of a large, dusty parking lot ringed by stalls owned and operated by herbalists and priests. Long rectangular tables sit in front of the stalls, weighted down with a kind of Noah’s ark of dead animals from all over West Africa: collections of creepers, flyers and leapers (including a box of chameleons), all bake in the sun.
When my friend Valerie and I climb out of the back of a taxi one blistering December afternoon, we are not merely the only European-Americans, but the only visitors, in sight. A man rises from a group of men sitting in the shade of a tree in the parking lot to greet us and explain the terms. His services, which include an introduction to a priest in one of the stalls and translation of his prescriptions, come at one price. Permission to photograph the tables of animal parts and the painted signs that advertise herbal healers by name and stall number, is extra. Valerie and I pause briefly to confer. We are in Togo for the first time, though I have been to Ghana several times with public health students on study abroad. Valerie does most of her field work in Haiti, where enslaved Africans brought versions of Vodun with them to the Americas in the form of Santeria and Voodoo. It was she who located the market in our guidebook, but it is my camera that is readily accessible. We decide that I will be the one to take pictures. In the age of Facebook, photographs are easily shared.
If I stand close enough to get the expressions on the faces of the monkey heads, the frame fills with them and it seems, at least from the picture, that there are only monkeys. There are many, many more animals, however. Dogs with canine teeth sharply pointing toward the dirt. Birds lined up on their backs from small to large like little soldiers. A sloth like creature that looks so firmly expired with its tongue protruding below its rounded nose that I can almost see cartoon Xs on its eyes.
Many of these animals are ones that I have seen only in zoos and I am trying not to think of the ecological impact of so many dead creatures. After all, I am a visitor here and, anyway, as far as environmental destruction goes, Togo has nothing on the United States. Beyond even the oversized carbon footprint that our country stamps on the face of the world, pacification of land into suburbs comprises its own kind of religion where Valerie and I are from. The sprawl that has resulted currently threatens 30 percent of domestic animal and plant species.
We move slowly from table to table, dust coating our toes and sandals. The animal parts reek. Our guide pauses in front of each display and watches carefully while I take pictures, making sure we get our money’s worth. Our guide gestures to a small boy to hold up the head of a tortoise or the hand of a chimpanzee so we can get a better look.
The Lolli Brother’s animal auction in Macon, Missouri trades in live animals, as well as dead ones and unlike at Adodessewa, photographs are strictly forbidden. According to the Humane Society, the state where my children were born and where I work is one of the least regulated states for the trade and possession of exotic animals in the country. An often-heard argument in debating public health regulations is that different communities have the right to tolerate different risks. When my husband and I bought land with friends in the Ozarks, we began investigating building codes only to determine that Shannon County, Missouri didn’t have any. Never mind that the right to tolerate higher risk is closely correlated with the right to be poor (Shannon County is the poorest in the state), the interconnectedness of even the most previously isolated populations might lead one to broaden the sense of what a comprises a “community,” especially when discussing communicable diseases.
The Lolli Brothers exotic animal auction in Missouri operates since the 1980s in a political culture that tends to value—except it seems in matters relating to sexuality and reproductive choice—the freedom to over the freedom from. Your neighbor’s freedom to own a chimpanzee, for example, supersedes your freedom from the risks those neighbors might pose to you, as in the chimp born in Festus Missouri and transported to Connecticut, that ripped off a person’s nose, lips, eyelids and hands. In 2016 Macon, Missouri remains the place you go if you are hankering for a camel to include in your church’s nativity play or a zorse (half horse half zebra) for your I-40 roadside attraction. Because the brothers are “auctioneers” and never actually own or sell the animals themselves, they are not restricted by local laws and regulations, such as the one prohibiting individuals from keeping jaguars as pets. Instead, they urge buyers to “know the regulations in your state.”
I’d first heard about the Lolli Brothers’ Exotic Animal Auction from Ingrid, who was then primate curator at the St. Louis Zoo and who introduced each of the animals in her care by name before identifying which of them had been rescued from meth dealers in rural Missouri, a demographic group not known for taking statutes and prohibitions to heart.
On the day I visited Macon, the auction was offering camels, deer and zebra to an audience that included a number of Amish, an adolescent girl wearing a t-shirt advertising a towing company called Camel Tow and a woman carrying a monkey dressed as a human baby. And there were tourists, too, only slightly harder to spot at Lolli Brothers’ than my friend and I had been at Adodessewa. Sitting below us on the bleachers, a young woman scribbled surreptitious notes on a pad in her bag. She was, it turned out, journalism graduate student from Berkeley, California.
At Adodessewa our visit ended in the company of the fetish priest who, through our translator, asked us to share our complaints, if we had any. Meanwhile, divining unspoken ones, he offered the one of us two not wearing a wedding ring a talisman to draw love. Afterwards, we hopped in the taxi and drove over the dirt to the paved road. At the exit of the parking lot our driver, a man named Dominique, paused and leaned over the back of the seat.
“That is not the real fetish market, you understand,” he said and smiled. “That is for tourists.”
It took us a while to understand the full implications of what he was telling us. If the market was for tourists then the animals had been, literally, killed for our pictures. In an age of global travel, anywhere in the world is less than twenty-four hours away from anywhere else. All kinds of animals are moving farther and more frequently than ever before. Sometimes they arrive as food. Sometimes they arrive as pets. Sometimes, and I’m talking now of the two-legged kind, they behave in self-destructive and short-sighted ways. The pictures that Valerie and I took could not be untaken, but we could choose not to post them, not to drop our own visual breadcrumbs to the market of dead animals, the spectacle that had been created, apparently, just for us.
Months later, over onion rings at a local joint called AJ’s in Macon, after skipping out on the zebras, I couldn’t help wondering what story that journalism student would write. Would it be one that highlighted the oddness of this Missouri scene, not just the exotics but Macon itself, with its big trucks and big hair, its five thousand residents perched on Highway 63 North? Or would it be a story that drew a circle around Macon and Lomé, Berkeley and Accra, and sought to illuminate the ways that we are increasingly connected and responsible to each other, to the animals and to the environment that must sustain us both?