This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 2 2014
Some years ago, Sri Lankan newspapers interviewed an English animal welfare activist. They allowed her to voice her view that as a nation Sri Lanka is particularly cruel to animals because of the number of and condition of 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 journalist writing the piece did not put forward any counter arguments or ask any incisive questions. This seemed to me an example of a kind of masochism prevalent among some Sri Lankans. There is a kind of pride in claiming that Sri Lankan politicians are the most corrupt. Now it seems a matter of pride that Sri Lanka is the cruellest nation on earth to animals.
I wrote in these pages on May 21 about a particularly horrific example of cruelty to animals in Sri Lanka. The widespread disgust that that case caused indicated that cruelty was not the norm in this country. Driving around Sri Lanka, I have noticed that one rarely sees dead animals on the roads. Even the most maniacal bus drivers seem to avoid running over dogs, however wayward the behaviour of the dogs – or snakes, or lizards. In England, the roads are carpeted with squashed hedgehogs. In Ireland, the major roads are littered with the corpses of foxes. Drivers do not try to avoid them and possibly deliberately aim to kill them.
It seems that, in reality, the UK is not the animal-loving nation that it was thought to be or that it thinks itself to be. I was once involved in a case where a man in Sussex reacted to his neighbours’ complaints about his dog by cutting off the dog’s testicles and nailing them to the neighbours’ front door. In 2012, 4,168 people in England and Wales were convicted of cruelty to animals. There are some horrific stories in the annual report of the RSPCA:
We are not talking about negligence here. This is vicious torture and sadistic violence. Operation Gazpacho, conducted by the RSPCA, revealed a sickening increase in organised dogfights in the UK. In 2008, following a BBC documentary on the horrific genetic disabilities of pedigree dogs, the RSPCA withdrew its support from Crufts Dog Show.
The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals has been signed and ratified by 18 European countries, but not by the UK. Among the many interest groups opposed to the Convention is the Council of Docked Breeds. The organisation’s name is a misnomer as its members are not dogs with their tails cut off but humans who cut tails off dogs. They are against the Convention because “many of our most loved breeds would be placed at risk, and some could disappear altogether.” The Convention may be OK for Johnny Foreigner but Britain does not need it. “While animal welfare in some Council of Europe member states certainly requires improvement, we in this country have a comprehensive body of legislation which ensures extremely high standards of welfare among companion animals. We also have a host of Governmental and non Governmental bodies to see that the law is properly enforced.”
Many aspects of animal welfare in Sri Lanka need improvement. Perhaps the most important thing is for the media to help create a culture of responsible pet ownership.
Former colleagues of the professor who mutilated three shelter dogs for no purpose were confident that the law would take its course. The former colleague now in Australia said: “If he is as flagrantly in breach of these laws as claimed, then his detractors in Sri Lanka have a clear legal avenue for punishing him.” The colleague eventually realised that he was mistaken. “I didn’t believe it at first, but it does seem to be the case that there are no laws in Sri Lanka about animal welfare.”A former colleague in the UK, said: “Any such action in the UK would be dealt with under criminal law with serious consequences for those involved; moreover, such actions damage the reputation of legitimate scientists and bring discredit to the profession.”
The Veterinary Surgeons and Practitioners Act No 46 of 1956 established the Veterinary Council of Sri Lanka in order to regulate the conduct of veterinary practitioners in Sri Lanka. The Act states, ‘”The Council may order the name of any Veterinary Surgeon or Veterinary Practitioner to be expunged from the register if he –after an inquiry by the Council, is found guilty of infamous conduct.” The Council apparently found the two veterinarians guilty of “unethical and inhumane veterinary practices” but chose not to issue a public statement or to punish the two miscreants in any meaningful way. The unlicensed mutilation of three healthy dogs would count as ‘infamous conduct’ to most veterinary governing bodies. Professional codes of conduct and ethics committees are all very well but what is needed is a strong law that is enforced.
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. There is no reported case of an offender being given a sentence of imprisonment for causing cruelty to an animal. There is no lead agency to enforce the law and the police are too busy and have inadequate powers.
As long ago as December 2007, I wrote: “another encouraging development is that an Animal Welfare Bill has been gazetted as a Private Member’s Bill by Ven. Athureliye Ratana Thero, MP. This Bill could enable Sri Lanka to provide a model for other Asian countries to incorporate in their legislation modern standards for the way humans co-exist with other sentient beings.” One of the objectives of the bill is to raise community awareness about animal welfare and to foster kindness, compassion, and responsible behaviour towards animals.
The Law Commission of Sri Lanka prepared the new legislation was by after extensive consultations with the public and examination of other jurisdictions. It adopts a proactive approach to animal welfare, covering all animals, which are no longer to be regarded as the chattels of humans, with obligations and prohibitions emanating from recognition of a duty of care. A new National Animal Welfare Authority will administer the legislation, develop policies, and strengthen and expand the existing enforcement machinery.
On May 21 2014, I wrote: “An Animal Welfare Bill also based on the Law Commission draft has been finalised by the authorities and will be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers on 29th May. Let us pray!”
Our prayers did not work. Cabinet consideration was postponed yet again. I do not know why, but it may be that communal differences are getting in the way. Many foreign observers perceived a disjunction between Buddhist principles of compassion and the way Sri Lankans treat animals in reality. The bill was promoted by a Buddhist cleric who has gone into politics. One of the drafters is a lawyer whose commitment to Buddhism leads him to oppose Hindu animal sacrifices and Muslim slaughtering. I heard dark rumours about a Tamil politician being the cause of this latest delay in moving the Animal Welfare Bill forward. Writing in the pages of Ceylon Today on March 11 2013, Ashoo Amarasinghe brought religion into it and accused Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem of dragging his feet because he is a Muslim. “Part (VI) Clause 22 of the Animal Welfare Bill that seeks to ‘prevent the infliction upon such animal of unnecessary fear or pain,’ runs contrary to the halal method of animal slaughter owing to your religious belief?”
It is very sad that, in these days of tribal tensions, compassion for animals can be a political issue and a potential cause of communal strife.