This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 15 2012.
The present-day Sri Lankan Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena made a statement in Kalutara on January 6, 2012, that he has decided to revive the policy of killing street dogs “in the traditional way”.
If I have any regular readers, they will have noticed that I am not a great fan of tourism. However, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract tourists it would be a good idea to provide hotel rooms that don’t have stained towels, filthy rugs and alien hairs in the bedding. Another good strategy would be to avoid-cutting paying customers’ throats and sexually assaulting foreign women on the beaches. Calling it “Eve-Teasing” really does not make it into a quaint and lovable local custom. The New York Times has dropped Sri Lanka from its list of recommended holiday destinations.
A very painful process
Another quaint local custom foreign tourists probably will not appreciate is filling the streets with dead dogs. Calling mass slaughter of street dogs the “traditional way” makes it sound like one of those quaint old folk ways that tourists will flock to see.
Back in 2002, I was strolling past the Bandarawela Hotel in the tea country, a favourite destination even then for western tourists, and also crowded with visitors from all over Sri Lanka during public holidays.
I thought I noticed two sleeping dogs huddled together, prone on the sidewalk. A few hundred yards on I saw two more prone dogs. Then there was another three and they were covered with flies; the dogs were making no efforts to dislodge the flies. All along Dharmavijaya Mawatha and back along Main Street, dogs lay motionless on the pavement. Crows were pecking the eyeballs of some. Outside a stall on the market selling vadais, a dog was a seething mass of bluebottles, which were also sampling the vadais and moving along to the fish and meat stalls.
This was a consequence of the “traditional way”. The “traditional way” is a very painful process. Dogs undergo immense suffering after the poison is injected, sometimes writhing in agony for hours, jerking with muscle spasms and frothing at the mouth.
Being of an interfering nature, always interfering with nature, we decided to do something about this situation and tried to organise our own sterilisation programme with a friend who is a veterinarian. She took us to a meeting of vets and medical officers of health at the Uva Provincial council Health HQ. The chief government vet Dr PAL Harischandra and Dr Nilamani Hewageegana, who was then deputy provincial director of Health services for Uva Province, addressed the meeting.
We saw horrifying films of actual rabies victims in their death throes, strapped to hospital beds, screaming and writhing and frothing at the mouth. They crave something to quench their thirst but scream in agony at the sight of water. They cut their own arteries as they frenziedly crash through glass in a vain attempt to escape from the horror.
Every ten minutes, somewhere in the world, someone dies from rabies infection. Of the reported cases, 30-50% are children under 15.
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease but it is still a public health problem in many countries in Asia, even though safe, effective vaccines for both human and veterinary use exist. Most of the 50,000 deaths from rabies reported annually around the world occur in Asia, and most of the victims are children.
Knowledge of these horrendous facts might be a deterrent to someone planning a holiday in Sri Lanka.
Back in 2002, Dr Hewageegana invited us to her home one evening and gave us advice on how we might approach our modest project. We did not have any huge ambitions but hoped we could help in a small way. Dr Hewageegana informed us that she was having discussions with the chairman of the Urban District Council about her Healthy cities project. During the course of those discussions she had received an assurance from him that the slaughter of street dogs in his bailiwick would cease.
Dr Harischandra corresponded with us regularly, gave us helpful advice and invited us to meetings and seminars.
In 2005, scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage after the tsunami. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of starving and desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service, led by Dr Harischandra courageously resisted calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and took the opportunity, with the support of tireless local vets, foreign volunteers and the then Minister of Health, Nimal Siripala de Silva, to carry out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccinations and sterilisation of dogs.
In June 2006, President Rajapaksa’s website proudly carried a letter from Monika Kostner in Germany: “Mr President, let me congratulate you on the path that you have chosen. Please continue pursuing it. I greatly welcome your pledge to bring stringent laws against cruelty to animals. Do not give way to those political forces and vested interests, which are keen to continue the outdated, cruel treatment of animals. After all, they are living and feeling creatures.”
Visakha Tillekeratne, one of the five trustees of the Animal Welfare Trust, responded thus to Minister Sirisena’s statement: “I believe he is being wrongly advised.” Animal welfare groups united to explain that mass slaughter has been shown in many countries to be ineffective. Sterilization is the only solution.
Unfortunately, a good policy established by Nimal Siripala de Silva has been bungled and undermined by greed and corruption. Nevertheless, despite what Minister Sirisena claims, rabies deaths in Sri Lanka have reduced, not increased. The Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry said that the number of deaths caused by rabies dropped in Sri Lanka by 50% last year compared to the deaths reported during 2006 to 2010. According to Health Education Bureau statistics, 18 rabies deaths were reported from the Western Province in 2009, while this figure had dropped to 11 in 2010 as a result of a number of awareness programmes carried out by local government institutions in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.
We thought we were making progress when a dog-lover, Nimal Siripala de Silva, whose wife is an animal welfare activist, was health minister, and the president, many times reiterated his no-kill policy. Thanks to Minister Sirisena, Sri Lanka is again being shamed. An international petition is being organized and is attracting comments like: “Sri Lanka, the world is watching you.”
Champa Fernando of KACPAW speculated: “Is he trying to bring discredit to the president? The No-Kill policy came from the president and this is the only humane way.”
The president had said that mass slaughter was against the Buddhist philosophy of living in harmony.
Minister Sirisena had said some sin , must be committed in order to gather merit.
Health Ministry spokesman WMD Wanniniyaike Iater said that there was no move to kill stray dogs and said that Minister Sirisena’s remarks had been taken out of context. Let us see how long it is before this subject comes up again.