2017 Aug 2
It started off as just another Saturday afternoon. I had just had a hearty lunch and was lazing under the tropical Moratuwa sun.
Suddenly, something – or someone- cast a shadow over me, blocking the continuous stream of sunlight. I opened my eyes to see a figure looming over me. Out of nowhere, I felt a piercing jab on my back. Howling in shock, I jumped up, now wide awake.
What is happening?
Panic. Disorientation. Everything is spinning. My vision is distorted. Nothing is making any sense.
I can’t breathe. A searing pain is travelling up my body.
I can feel someone screaming. It takes me a while to realize that that someone is me.
HELP, I scream, but no one comes to my rescue.
Time has never gone by so slowly. It seems like an eternity has passed in this unbearable spectrum of pain. Death would be a welcoming bliss in the presence of this absolute torture…
An extract from a medical thriller? A scene from a horror movie?
Horrifying as it may be, this is the real-life anthropomorphism of what the dogs and cats at the University of Moratuwa may have felt like when they were injected with toxic chemicals that ultimately led to their gruesome deaths.
On Saturday, July 15, footage of a drugged dog running around in circles, screaming in agony, took the Internet by storm.
Animal welfare activists and religious leaders were quick to cry out in outrage at the inhumane mass culling.
Allegations were raised that it was a government-sanctioned operation to control the University’s canine population, but the Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils, Faiszer Musthapha, denied the allegations.
University authorities claimed that they only meant to tranquilize the dogs to facilitate transport, upon which, two of the dogs had died from an overdose.
However, Ray of Hope Sri Lanka reportedly conducted an investigation of their own and discovered that ten cats and two dogs had been covertly buried in a University-owned land in Homagama.
Following this incident, the Supreme Court today set a date for the hearing of the fundamental rights petition which was filed by 25 monks and the Animal Protection Trust, seeking an immediate injunction against the inhumane killing of dogs, on the grounds that the act was in violation of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
When the petition was taken up for consideration by the Supreme Court today, the petitioning party had stated before the trial at bar that incidents of mass canine culling such as those in Jayawardenepura and Moratuwa dogs had been a recurring event on the island.
According to the petitioners, 23 dogs had been massacred in the Moratuwa University premises whereas 13 dogs had been murdered at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura prior to that.
The recent incident at the Moratuwa University sparked inquisition as to what exactly was happening with the Animal Welfare Bill which was proposed almost a decade ago.
The Drafting Dilly-Dally
The Animal Welfare Bill was initially proposed by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero, who, upon inquiry, affirmed that he had in fact proposed it back in 2008 as a Private Member’s Bill.
It was proposed as the existing legislation was incomprehensive, and filled with loopholes and discrepancies.
The proposed Bill was in turn submitted to the Legal Draftsman’s Department, and this is where its progress hit a dead-end.
Over half a decade later, soon after the new government was elected in 2015, the Ministry of Livestock and Rural Community Development once again started the Bill’s drafting process from scratch.
The Bill was then opened up for public review.
Whilst its exposure to public scrutiny was certainly a step forward given the stagnation of its preliminary stages, the Government still failed to provide clear responses. The activists and the general public who offered their tuppence-worth therefore did not know if their input was incorporated into the draft, or even considered.
Regardless, the Bill was somehow passed onto the Legal Draftsman again, who further amended it and sent it back to the Ministry.
Almost a decade after its initial proposal, the Bill still continues to languish within the bureaucratic process.
The draft is now being passed back and forth between the Ministry and the Legal Draftsman, much like a seemingly endless game of tennis.
Needless to say, the drafting process has therefore proven to be both tedious and time-consuming.
The Government is also dealing with objections from the farming sector and other concerned industries, who object to the tightening of animal welfare laws, as it would in turn affect their industries in an unprofitable fashion.
Both the Government and animal welfare activists are now attempting to work in cooperation to expedite the drafting process and see the Bill’s successful passing.
“The Bill’s drafting process has taken a long time as many conflicting interests and opinions have to be balanced, not to mention the time-consuming nature of the legislative process of revising the Bill repeatedly,” said representative of the Animal Welfare Coalition and Attorney-at-law, Bhagya Wickramasinghe.
The Archaic Statute
To say that the existing Sri Lankan legislation presiding over animal protection is archaic and outdated is an understatement.
The current law governing the protection of animals is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907. This piece of legislation was last amended over half a decade ago, back in 1955.
Over 50 years later, its antediluvian penalties, set in the backdrop of the colonial economy and society, still continue to be enacted.
- Derisory monetary penalty
Section 2 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act imposes a monetary penalty for animal cruelty, which may extend up to Rs.100.
There has been no change in this quantum since its introduction in 1907. Whilst Rs. 100 may have been a fair fine back then, in the face of the present economic standards, it has now become a downright ridiculous sum which fails in its inherent task of acting as a deterrent.
- Animal welfare: the lacuna
Additionally, the existing legislation only covers basic acts of cruelty and not welfare issues pertaining to animals.
Section 2 of the Ordinance defines the offence of cruelty to include beating, ill-treatment, torture, over driving and the carriage of an animal in any vehicle in such manner as to subject such animal to unnecessary pain or suffering.
- Teetering platform of ethics
There is no legal coverage in Sri Lanka for animal ownership either. Whilst most cat and dog owners do treat their animals well, it is purely out of the goodness of their own hearts, and not out of a legal obligation.
The Animal Welfare Bill therefore aims to fill the existing legislative loopholes, and address welfare-related issues such as the use of animals in cosmetic testing, ownership and care of an animal, and the space required for animals.
The Revolutionary Animal Welfare Bill
One of the key highlights of the Animal Welfare Bill is its aim to establish a National Animal Welfare Authority to look into issues and take necessary action.
The Bill also aims to increase the monetary penalties to a level which will deter humans from committing acts that violate the welfare and wellbeing of animals.
Activists and Religious Leaders Speak Out on the Massacre…
When inquired about the recent alleged dog massacre at the University of Moratuwa, Attorney-at-law, Bhagya Wickramasinghe explained that as no proper legislation was in place, the legal implications were in a “grey area”, making it difficult to point the finger at a perpetrator.
Regardless, she explained that instead of what was done, the relevant authorities could have cooperated with animal welfare activists, animal lovers and other concerned groups who may have been able to adopt the strays, foster them, or launch programmes to facilitate their adoption by third parties.
Otara Gunawardene, Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Embark Foundation, a leading animal welfare organization, made a statement which complimented the Attorney’s proposed solution when she addressed the media and expressed her regret over the inhumane culling, and added that had she been consulted, she could have offered a more humane alternative solution.
Alternatively, as the underlying reason for the massacre was the threat posed by rabid stray animals, Attorney-at-law, Bhagya Wickramasinghe also suggested that a proper programme to neuter and vaccinate community animals against rabies was the ideal and most humane course of action to mitigate the issue of stray animals in Sri Lanka.
Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thero, upon expressing his sentiments on the incident, vehemently condemned “such an inhumane act being conducted at an educational institution where citizens were being moulded into educated, wholesome individuals”.
A Page out of the West
Countries such as the United Kingdom, Austria and New Zealand have a reputation of promoting liberal values, and as a result, prohibit ritual slaughter on grounds of unnecessary cruelty.
However, in our multi-cultural country, traditional practices such as the use of elephants in religious rituals or the slaughter of animals for religious ceremonies have been enshrined into our society from centuries ago. These cultural and religious practices make it difficult for us to adopt the same liberal, ‘common-sense’ approach in the enforcement of animal welfare legislation.
India can be considered as the country most similar to Sri Lanka in terms of customs, culture, religious rites, practices and norms. Despite still continuing to have a high incidence of animal cruelty, even India amended its animal protection laws less than fifty years ago.
Attorney-at-law, Bhagya Wickramasinghe stated that the United Kingdom adhered to animal welfare laws whose high standards ought to be emulated by Sri Lanka.
The UK has been ranked highly on the Animal Protection Index for a number of reasons;
- The UK has appropriate legislation that formally recognizes animal sentience.
- The nation has laws that apply to the use of animals in farming, recreation and scientific testing, animals in captivity, wild animals, and companion animals.
- Thirdly, their laws also govern the use of animals in recreational purposes and scientific research.
- There is due Government-mandated accountability for cruelty inflicted on animals, and all concerned stakeholders are considered in the legislation.
- Lastly, animal care and protection are both included in the national education system of the UK.
Our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity…
– Emmanuel Kant
It is easy to recruit the support of animal lovers and animal welfare activists to promote animal welfare. It is however a much more daunting task to convince the indifferent to support the cause. But as Kant rightfully said, our well-being and existence depends on the well-being and existence of both flora and fauna. This earth was created in such a way that the survival of ecosystems was dependent on co-existence.
“We have already delayed the introduction of the Animal Welfare Bill for far too long. We have taken so long for the drafting process. It should therefore be passed and enacted without further delay so that we have a proper legal framework to deal with issues of animal protection, such as the Moratuwa mass culling, when they come up.”
-Bhagya Wickramasinghe, Attorney-at-law
Whilst dog killings, despite being rare, succeed in stirring up a lot of debate, the lesser known, more frequent cock fighting in rural Sri Lanka does not attract as much attention. The Sinhala and Tamil New Year season sees an increase in the incidence of cock fighting, as Sinhalese and Tamils from far and wide flock together to villages for the festivities.
It is palpably clear that a myriad of cruel acts is being inflicted on a vast spectrum of animals in Sri Lanka.
The passing of the Animal Welfare Bill is therefore crucial, especially given the obsolescence of the existing Act.
Whilst on one hand, it is a grave injustice that we are serving to innocent animals, on the other hand, it is also shameful for a country to continue to enforce such an obsolete and archaic statute as the main governing legislation on animal protection.
It is therefore in the best interests of all stakeholders concerned – the Government, the public and the animals – to see the process of the Animal Welfare Bill through to the end and ensure its proper enforcement, to put the issue to bed once and for all.