Corporate animal welfare vis-à-vis CSR

By Medha de Alwis

Last week, social media displayed an advertisement in the form of a video. The advertisement was by a leading insurance company. It shows a customer walking into a shop that sells bullhooks (hendu kade in Sinhala). A bullhook is a well-known tool used by mahouts to control elephants. It is a stick as high as the elephant. A sharp hook is attached to the end of the stick. When the said hook is placed on the sensitive areas of an elephant, the animal feels excruciating pain. Have you ever seen a mahout without a bullhook? In fear of the bullhook and the pain that may be caused by it, elephants have no option other than being obedient to the mahout. This is an age-old fact well known by all elephant owners, their mahouts, and scientists who have studied elephant anatomy and behaviour.

The advertisement displays the bullhook seller proudly announcing to the customer that he will get a free elephant if he buys a bullhook. The customer is surprised because an elephant is thousands of times more expensive than a bullhook. The intention of the insurance advertisement is clearly to drive home the message that when an insurance policy is bought from that company, one would get more benefits than they ever thought.

There is no argument with what the insurance company wants to project. They are a business and they are out to earn profit. The issue is that cruelty towards animals (in this case elephants) too is projected via this advertisement. The said advertisement has now been taken down. Perhaps pressure from interested parties does work. The question that this article would address is whether the mindset which created, promoted, and approved such a message on animal cruelty, has been changed.

What is the mindset?

Should profit be earned at any cost? Should animals be used either as icons or victims in earning profit? Should animals be subjected to cruel, inhuman, degrading attitudes? Would society put up with an innocent human being chained? Then why does the same society not have a problem when an innocent animal is chained?

Corporate social responsibility

It has been a bit over two decades since Sri Lanka welcomed the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR departments were formed in rich top-tier companies. Heads of departments were recruited with supporting staff. CSR projects were and are being carried out throughout Sri Lanka. In that backdrop, how could a leading insurance company and a leading advertising company validate such an advertisement? If society includes all living and non-living beings, how does corporate social responsibility not include responsibility towards animals?

Is there a policy on corporate animal welfare?

Some policies are limited only to paper. But at least to have it on paper is a better start than not having anything at all. Many top companies are loud about their responsibility towards society, but are there any who make a loud noise by being responsible for animals? Are the few animal welfare projects that not in line with their business interests?

It is sad that many sectors in society turn a blind eye to this, including the military. What about using live animals in captivity as military mascots? What do we gain by this? And how much do we lose by it?

What is the law?

The island has many hopes for the Animal Welfare Bill which is currently being perused at the Attorney General’s Department. It is sad to note that there is no provision on corporate animal responsibility in that Bill. Hence, there is currently no tangible policy on corporate animal responsibility and there won’t be in the near future.

Message to the youth

When such advertisements promote chained animals in captivity and tools such as the inhuman bullhook that causes unbearable pain, what is the message we deliver to the younger generation? Do we not give them a clear sign that an animal’s freedom, dignity, and peace are not important? What do we want to convey to the younger generation? Do we want them to learn how to respect, regard, and treat animals kindly? If so, do advertisements such as this, fulfil that want?

Be practical

It is impractical to ask corporates to leave their business interests behind and prioritise animal welfare. That is not what is being asked. What is asked is to be sensitive, responsive, and responsible in the interest of animals as much as one is responsible in the interest of the business. But how can it be done?

Modus operandi

  • Baby steps are good to start with. With bona fide intentions, things would grow
  • Be sensitive about the image of the animals in all business procedures including advertisements
  • Be sure not to harm animals in the process of carrying out business
  • Compensate for any harm done so far

Just because there is no law and policy, it does not mean that animals could be ill-treated. Common sense and sensitivity are groundstones in a society. Law and policy are outcomes of the said groundstones. Lack of law and policy is not an excuse to ignore sensitivity and common sense. The pressure exerted to take down the advertisement in question, and it finally being taken down, is one among many little success stories on the way up.