Animal Welfare in Sri Lanka
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 30 2020
A lady reported that a household near her home had a pedigree dog locked up in a kennel for two years. The animal was severely emaciated and living in its own excrement. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the dog had, in fact, been locked up for six years. It was not a pedigree dog. The family considered it as such because it was not a street dog and money had been paid for it. The son of the household had been determined to own the dog even though the previous owner had not wanted to part with it. He forced money on the man and took the dog. The son then moved out of the household and left the dog behind. He is now living elsewhere and has another dog. The womenfolk of the household were afraid the dog would run away so they kept her locked up. They were afraid she would get pregnant and could not afford or did not think of sterilisation. They did not want her defecating all over the place so they did not feed her much.
When concerned citizens reported the case, Embark (a charity which is part of the Otara Foundation. Otara Del Gunawardene is a successful businesswoman who founded the Odel chain of shops and now devotes her time to charitable causes) sent one of their vans to rescue the dog which is called Lassie. She was very weak but the women said, “Be careful. She will bite”. She did not bite but licked her rescuers. The women were shocked that Lassie responded with affection when shown kindness. They had obviously never tried it themselves.
The case has attracted a lot of attention on social media. The last time I looked there were over 7,000 views on Instagram. Otara wrote: “make a difference and help to awaken those who don’t understand how horrendous such acts of cruelty are for innocent animals.” People were quite naturally horrified at Lassie’s suffering. One comment was, “Karma will give them crippled children or grandchildren. Sickening evil humans”.
This is what Embark reported: “Hi, Lassie is doing well. We visited the hospital yesterday. She is a lovely dog, very friendly and always wants a pat on the head. She has no major issues at the moment, they suspect some eye condition, a cataract most probably. We will have to wait a few more days to actually know what other issues she has. But all in all, she is happy and free.”
It was strange to observe that the people responsible for Lassie’s prolonged suffering did not seem to be evil people even though over a period of six years they had been doing evil things. I have noted a tendency for Sri Lankans to join with foreigners to condemn Sri Lankans as particularly cruel to animals. Generally speaking, 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. I could write reams about examples of cruelty to animals in the UK and Ireland. Dog-fighting has become a spectator sport in England. There are puppy farms in Ireland. I was once involved in a case where a man in Sussex reacted to his neighbours’ complaints about his barking dog by cutting off the dog’s testicles and nailing them to the neighbours’ front door. I have not the space here to indulge in too much whataboutery concerning cruelty to animals in other countries. More detail can be found here.
Despite the large numbers of dogs roaming the streets in Sri Lanka, one rarely sees dogs that have been run over, even by our notoriously maniacal hopped-up bus drivers. The road from Midleton to Cork was littered with dead foxes, indicating that Irish drivers were not interested in avoiding them and might even have been aiming at them. There are so many good people in Sri Lanka campaigning for animal welfare and so many people working hard at the practical tasks of feeding and sterilizing and rehoming abandoned dogs.
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. My tutor at Manchester University, Louis Kushnick, taught me something that I have never forgotten. Some people argue that you cannot use the law to stop people being racists. You can use the law to modify their behaviour. Their attitude does not really matter. Rules and regulations are important because even if you cannot stop people hating animals you can stop them causing animals to suffer. You may not change attitudes but you might 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 (41p or 53 cents). The authorities have tended to think it not worthwhile to pursue even cases involving heinous cruelty to animals.
On January 14 2020, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said he had informed the relevant authorities to take any necessary action to put an end to animal cruelty. He said he was shocked to hear of incidents reported from around Sri Lanka of horrific displays of cruelty to animals. In June 2006, the then President Mahinda 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. Former President Sirisena, when he was Minister of 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. Mahinda Rajapaksa has stood firm against the slaughter of street dogs.
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.
My optimism was unfounded. The Animal Welfare Bill, fourteen years later, has still not become law. Mahinda Rajapaksa is now prime minister and is clearly still interested in dealing with cruelty to animals; Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now president with a good deal of authority and support (last November he won the presidential election with a majority of 52.5% on a turnout of 81.52% – the highest ever); eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa is now minister with responsibility for animal welfare. Let us hope that after the parliamentary elections, there will be no further obstacles to making the Animal Welfare Bill the law of the land and the brothers will achieve justice for animals in Sri Lanka. May I be optimistic again?
Community awareness is the most important aspect. It is the moral duty of every citizen to report examples of cruelty to animals that come to notice. This is not snooping or being a busybody. It is vigilance, awareness, what in today’s parlance is called ‘wokeness’. It is empathy and living an ethical life.