Animal Welfare Bill – still waiting after all these years

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on September 2 2019


As I write, we are still very much in the dark about who the next president of Sri Lanka might be. The only candidate who has declared himself is Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If he is successful, he will have less power than his predecessors but his brother will be prime minister and will have executive power. Countless previous contenders promised to abolish the executive presidency. None of them lived up to their promises. Countless contenders promised to make the Animal Welfare Bill law. It still has not happened.

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 the Venerable 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 was 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 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.

My optimism was unfounded.

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!”

My prayers were not answered.

In 2015, the present Government also brought forth this Bill under its 100-day programme. However, the draft Bill has not yet been presented to Parliament.

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. 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.

When I was publicizing the case of a Sri Lankan university professor who mutilated three shelter dogs for no purpose, I approached western academics who had worked with the culprit. One 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.” Another former colleague of the rogue professor, 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.”

Remains of Polly


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. When I go out in the morning to feed street dogs, I am forever finding new recruits to my little gang. There have been handsome big rottweilers, German shepherds and this week an obese Labrador with a leather collar. These are not dogs who were born on the streets. Are they just lost? Have they wandered from their homes and can’t find their way back? Or have they been dumped because they became an inconvenience, an accessory that no longer fits the human life style.

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.

The current president when he was Minister for Health made a statement in Kalutara on January 6, 2012, that he had decided to revive the policy of killing street dogs “in 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.

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.” Despite resistance from some of his underlings, President Rajapaksa continued to insist that street dogs should not be killed. Let him, if successful in the elections, please bring in the too-long-delayed law.