Will The Proposed Animal Welfare Bill Have Anything More Than Its 15 Seconds Of Fame?

Every so often since 2015, the proposed Animal Welfare Bill seeking to refine existing legal frameworks  protecting urban animals and pets, gets its fifteen seconds of fame before being forgotten once again. The proposed Bill is considered the only comprehensive piece of legislature that ensures the safety of animals—domestic or otherwise. It is the only available alternative to outdated provisions in the Ordinance for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of 1907 and the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1937.   

These legislations are unclear and insufficient, and as a result, animal welfare is largely neglected. It often takes a particularly gruesome case to bring the issue to light. 

The inhumane burning of the  Labrador Charlie last year horrified the nation — but it wasn’t enough to push the Animal Welfare Bill through. 

Every year, numerous cases of cruelty towards animals are reported, sparking protests by animal welfare groups and concerned citizens. But with inadequate legislation, the legal framework has few solutions to prevent or end the abuse of animals. 

This is but one part of the problem. Scores of animals—dogs, cats, cattle and horses —are abandoned every year by their owners. Neglected and mistreated, they are the silent victims of human violence.

The sale of finches, sparrows and even parrots in one of the highly unregulated pet shops in the country. At any given day, you can see people selling caged birds on the side of the roads. Photo credits: Roar Media/Kris Thomas

Pet Shops

All over Sri Lanka, are pet shops managed by small-time vendors, selling kittens, puppies, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs and various exotic fish. 

Crammed into cages and tanks that have barely any space to hold them, these creatures are sold at top-notch prices. A pedigree puppy, depending on the breed, can cost up to Rs 50,000 or more, while the price for a purebred cat could go up to Rs 25,000. The shops may be small, but the business is definitely booming. 

There are a few ways to acquire a pet in Sri Lanka. These include the small, unregulated pet shops you find everywhere, advertisements in the newspapers and adoption through animal rescue shelters. None of these avenues is strictly regulated by law. 

Pet shops are not registered under any institution or regulatory authority. While they may have a business registration, it is important to note that pet shops are not licensed to sell animals since the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance prohibits the commercial sale of animals. The online sale of pets does not count as a  licensed sales method either. 

The second option would be to obtain a pet from an animal shelter—an altruistic or charitable organisation that rescues street animals and offers them up for adoption. The existing legal framework does not shed any light on how these organisations are expected to be regulated. They don’t stipulate, for instance, how large a shelter needs to be to house a certain number of animals, or what basic amenities it should provide. At the same time, shelters rarely enjoy institutional support when it comes to managing and caring for animals. 

Indira Sahadevan runs the privately funded Cat Protection Trust in Gampaha. The Trust, founded in 2012, acts as a social service organisation, with the purpose of eradicating the spread of rabies in the country. Sahadevan told Roar Media that shelters in the country face a number of challenges due to the lack of recognition and regulation. 

“I believe regulation is essential. The shelters require more comprehensive regulations that will allow better veterinary services to come in and better resources in order to ensure the care of creatures,” she said. “What is happening right now is people don’t have a problem with abandoning their pets with us. But they also go on to complain that such shelters are a nuisance.” 

At present, her shelter is home to 70 dogs and 90 cats. Sahadevan says that the shelter is at the brink of overcrowding. “I first started this specifically to care for cats. But now I have dogs that were abandoned in front of my doorstep. These animals get sick quite often and they are sensitive. They need more space which I cannot provide,” she said.

A kitten in a cage, put on display. Caging animals, while not prohibited under any legislature, will be outlawed if the proposed Bill is enacted. Photo credits: themorning.lk

Puppy Mills

The neglect and cruelty of animals in pet shops and animal shelters is but one link in a chain of torture which begins at the hands of the breeder.  

There are active ‘puppy mills’, where commercial breeding takes place for profit. Here, dogs are used for factory-style breeding, under pitiful conditions. Females are repeatedly impregnated and made to produce litter after litter of puppies to be sold at exorbitant prices. These mills act without proper regulation, and lack the basic conditions for pet breeding. In fact, Sri Lanka does not have an authoritative body that is charged with monitoring the condition of puppy mills at all. 

According to environmental lawyer and activist, Jagath Gunawardena, the amended Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No. 13 of 1907, sets out the provisions with which to take action against these ventures. “The Ordinance states that any person who ill-treats, overdrives, overrides, abuses or tortures [an animal] or if any animal is found in any place suffering pain by reason of starvation, mutilation or other ill-treatment, can be held accountable for these actions. This is enough to take action against these ventures. However, the existing law only discusses violations, which means that there are no clear cut methods that are documented in order to prevent such acts. That’s what is lacking in the legal framework,” he said. 

Gunawardena cited two incidents in Kirulapone and Kotte where the Ordinance was called into play to shut down two shops accused of exploiting animals, sometime in 2004 and 2005. Similarly, there have been other instances where pet shops were closed down, based on complaints made to the relevant authorities, he said. Recently, a pet shop in Mount Lavinia was closed down after it was found that the death of a dog was caused by sheer negligence and ill-treatment.  

Status Of Animal Welfare Bill

Following the death of Charlie in the latter part of 2018, the discussion surrounding the proposed Animal Welfare Bill resurfaced and attracted major public support. However, halfway through the year, lobbyists have still not made any significant leeway in adopting it. 

The proposed Bill first reached the limelight in 2006, when it was proposed that the existing Ordinance, which was over a hundred years old, needed to be changed.  The provisions of the Ordinance assigned a ridiculously low fine of Rs. 100 for violations or imprisonment as a deterrent. 

The proposal to amend the Bill was met with severe opposition at the beginning. According to Gunawardena, opposition came from religious groups and communities that practised the slaughter of animals at home. 

Under the proposed new law, people who abandon animals on the roads and temples after using them for breeding, those that imprison animals in kennels without giving them adequate freedom, and abuse or neglect them, will be subject to penalty. The Bill introduces the duty of care on every person who is in charge of animals. The draft Act also stipulates a fine of Rs. 100,000, as well as a one-year prison sentence for violations. 

Earlier this year, speaking at a media briefing, the former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), President’s Counsel U. R. de Silva told Roar Media that a ten-member National Animal Welfare Authority would be set up as recommended in the Bill. The Authority will comprise a lawyer, veterinarians practising both western and eastern medicine, academics and leading activists who are passionate about animal welfare.

However, efforts to appoint the committee has proven futile. 

“The proposal to appoint and create the National Animal Welfare Authority was made during the last few months of my tenure as the president of BASL ended,” de Silva said.  “Since then, so many matters have challenged the progress of the appointment, including the Easter Sunday attacks and the political situation in the country. I have been assisting the current BASL president to make this a reality but we are at a difficult position since the authorities are not interested.”

Attorney-at-law Senaka Weeraratna, who was the former legal consultant on animal welfare legislation to the Law Commission of Sri Lanka, noted that the legislation has faced roadblocks because it is not considered a priority. “In other countries, people take pride in working for the welfare of the animals. However, here, no one takes the side of the animals in parliament except for a handful. Why? Because animals have no votes, no money and no clout.” 

Cover —Kris Thomas 

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