Reflections on Stray Dogs
This article was published in the Sunday Island on January 15, 2011
I was saddened to read in the Sunday Island of fears that the President’s no-kill policy might be falling into abeyance as street dogs at Galle Face were being rounded up for who knows what fate. I am going to make a confession here and admit that I was once guilty of dog-napping. More of that later. First, some personal observations about different cultural norms about animals. In urban England dogs are generally on a lead and accompanied by an “owner”. This is euphemistically referred to as “exercise” but the main purpose is for the dog to defecate a reasonable distance away from the owner’s domicile. I admonished a neighbour as he watched his dog downloading on my front lawn. His basic argument was that the dog had to do it somewhere and my garden was not as neat as his.
In rural Ireland, dogs might be owned but they wandered around having an independent existence. Every day we saw a Jack Russell trotting purposefully along for quite a large distance from one house to another to get its breakfast.
In Sri Lanka, it is unusual to see a dog on a lead. Many dogs would appear to be strays or feral but they are actually community dogs. They may not have a warm bed, but they do indeed belong to a house or section of a village. In some villages, the dogs roaming the post-tsunami wreckage were still at “their house” even though the sea had taken away the house.
A couple of years back, several Sri Lankan newspapers gave prominence to an English animal welfare campaigner who was planning to set up a shelter for Sri Lankan street dogs. The Sunday Leader quoted her: “We were overcome by the quiet despair, misery and silent suffering of thousands of strays, pets, wildlife and livestock alike…The attitude of a majority of locals who prefer to turn a blind eye to the suffering of an innocent stray and instead pay thousands for a purebred that they take care of like their own children has also contributed towards the suffering of these animals.”
She was shocked to see advertisements for pedigree pups. “Dogs are bred whilst thousands of unwanted strays roam the streets looking for love and compassion from humans. Suffering of owned animals is often equal to the suffering of the strays.”
“Ireland is synonymous with puppy farming. It is the most, vile despicable trade in misery,” says one reputable dog breeder in Northern Ireland. Breeding bitches are kept in filthy conditions to produce pups to sell at premium prices just below what reputable breeders charge. A puppy farmer in Australia wrote to me to express his outrage at being victimised: “similar to what happened to Jews in the beginning of Hitler’s rein [sic] of terror.” Peter Singer and JM Coetzee have been criticised for comparing intensive animal rearing to Nazi behaviour. It is a new twist to hear a puppy farmer comparing himself to victims of the holocaust.
Ireland also has the highest per capita rate of stray dog euthanasia in the EU, with 23,000 dogs put down annually.
I have heard the argument that sterilisation is contrary to Buddhist precepts. I do not know how true this is but surely Buddhist precepts would be against dumping unwanted puppies on the roadside.
We noticed a resistance to sterilisation among the Catholic population in rural Ireland and wondered if, in some bizarre way, this was related to the Church’s doctrine on abortion. Certainly, one of the Christian precepts is “Thou shalt not kill”.
It seems that in reality the UK is not the animal loving nation that it was once thought to be. In the UK in 2007, there was a 42% rise in the number of custodial sentences for cruelty to dogs. Operation Gazpacho, conducted by the RSPCA, revealed a sickening increase in organised dog fights. In 2008, following a BBC documentary on the horrific genetic disabilities of pedigree dogs, the RSPCA withdrew its support from Crufts Dog Show.
The Christian festival of Christmas in the UK is the traditional season for abandoning pet dogs. Dog dumping has got earlier every year since the early 2000s and now starts well before Christmas. Barking (no pun intended) and Dagenham Council covers a borough in Essex which is thought to have the highest dog ownership in the UK. ‘Essex man’ and ‘Essex girls’ are stereotypical figures of fun in England. Perhaps in America, rednecks might be a rough equivalent. A pit bull terrier would be the dog of choice for this stereotype. Because pit bulls are a very popular breed and can be sold for between £250 and £750, many Barking residents have decided to breed them. Litters are typically between six and ten puppies. Many are dumped when they are past the cute puppy stage and become expensive to feed.
Sri Lankans seem to me to be guilty of negligence and ignorance rather than active cruelty. It is not too different from what we encountered in Ireland. Everyday, three dogs came a quarter of a mile up the road from an elderly neighbour’s house to take us for a walk. One of the dogs was a female that our neighbour had purchased as a pet. The other two were skanky, abandoned creatures that had wandered to her house and been allowed to stay. One was a Scottish terrier with a distressing skin condition which had probably caused his ‘loving’ owners to dump him.
Our neighbour loved all three dogs equally. For some reason we were never able to fathom – but suspected might have something to do with religion – she never got any of the dogs sterilised. Every year the female produced a litter of puppies which our neighbour’s son drowned.
The lady died and the dogs were well-cared for by the son. Still the female was not sterilised. One day she came to us in great distress, covered in blood. It was clear that another litter had been drowned. After she had the chance to recover, we took her to a friend who ran boarding kennels. From there we took her to a vet who sterilised her. After a few days recuperation back at the kennels, we returned her home. No-one ever said anything about the fact that she had been missing. No-one remarked on the fact that she no longer had puppies. Don’t ask, don’t tell. As Seamus Heaney wrote: “Whatever you say, say nothing”.
There are many aspects of animal welfare in Sri Lanka that are in need of improvement. Perhaps the most important is for the media to help create a culture of responsible pet ownership.
Rules and regulations are important because even if you cannot change the attitude of everyone, you can change behaviour. The Sri Lankan Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance enacted by the colonial government in 1907 is ineffective mainly because its sanctions have never been updated. The maximum fine is only Rs100. The authorities have tended to think it not worthwhile to pursue even cases involving heinous cruelty to animals.
An Animal Welfare Bill was gazetted long ago as a Private Member’s Bill by the Venerable Athureliye Ratana Thero, MP. It still languishes in legislative limbo. A petition is being circulated to get it passed.