Until earlier this year, most people had never heard of the term “wet market,” but the coronavirus pandemic has thrust it into the limelight. A wet market in Wuhan, China, called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, is believed to be the source of COVID-19.
Somewhat akin to farmer’s markets and found around the world, wet markets are typically large collections of open-air stalls selling fresh seafood, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Some wet markets sell and slaughter live animals on site, including chickens, fish, and shellfish. In China, they’re a staple of daily life for many.
More rarely, wet markets also sell wild animals and their meat. The Huanan market, for example, had a wild animal section where live and slaughtered species were for sale: snakes, beavers, porcupines, and baby crocodiles, among other animals.
Why “wet” markets? One explanation has to do with the liquid in these places: live fish splashing in tubs of water, melting ice keeping meat cold, the blood and innards of slaughtered animals. Another is simply that they deal in perishable goods (thus wet) instead of dry, durable goods.
Although most wet markets don’t sell live wild animals, the terms “wet market” and “wildlife market” are often conflated, according to Aron White, a China specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based nonprofit.
Wildlife markets, also found worldwide, specifically sell wild animals for meat or as pets. The markets themselves may be legal, though they sometimes...