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The untold story behind roadside pet shops

Text and pics by Medha de Alwis

As you come back home having enjoyed a relaxing holiday or drive home from work to unwind for the day, you might see animals for sale on the roadside.

These will be in the name of “pet shops”, or itinerary vendors on the roadside with temporary stands, selling all kinds of animals intended to be “domesticated” and thereby used as pets.

They could be colourful birds, dazzling fish, guinea pigs, rabbits, and adorable kittens and puppies. Although you are heading home for a peaceful rest, can these animals who are on sale and the ones already sold be assured peace and happiness? Hardly so. Let us open our eyes to the facts.

Of course, the man’s best friend, the dog, can be well trained to be a faithful companion with the assurance of being incredibly obedient to its master. Any other animal – mammal, reptile, bird, or aquatic – is neither safe nor suitable for domestication, making it a danger for both the human as well as the animal.

The animal will be subjected to stress and anxiety no matter how well you take care of it (for you think that you do), due to many reasons. Among them are habitat change, artificially introduced food patterns, space constrictions, loneliness, separation from peers, unnatural cleansing systems, and non-natural environments.

Every strand in the web matters

We spoke to some roadside pet sellers and pet shop owners to gather more information. *Sandamalee, who has been in the trade for many years, shared her poignant thoughts. When I offered to order caged birds to release later, in return she asked me: “Why do you want to madam? They would not even last for a couple of days.”

She explained that most of these birds are captured from the Dry Zone, and once they are transported and sold in another zone (mostly the Wet Zone as the business is lucrative in Colombo and around), they cannot adjust to the different climatic conditions during the captive period as well as after release.

We then spoke to environmentalist Pubudu Weerarathne to ascertain the truth behind this claim. He furthered that captured birds, although they are not in the wild, contribute heavily to the ecosystem, especially with regard to cultivations.

These silent and unappreciated contributors, when removed, would make the ecosystem go haywire. We may think that a small number would make no difference, but having spoken to an experienced ranger at the Wildlife Department, who wished to stay anonymous, we learnt that every minute strand in the web matters; the removal of one animal can make a big difference in the environment even though not seen or felt immediately.

Well, what about wildlife? Many argue that if these are not wild animals, it does not matter. But that’s far from the truth. Local animals that live in the outskirts of the wild, even in or around paddy field and chena cultivations, exist in symbiosis. Hence, one depends on the other in many ways, and the survival of all including us humans is interdependent to this subtle balance nature maintains.

*Rahula, a schoolboy and animal activist, who has with his school friends been doing an admirable job for years on safeguarding animals, said that it has been continuously observed that these pet cages are hidden under the drains for days at length, starving the birds. Imagine been born with wings to fly freely but then being imprisoned like that.

What about pet fish? Whilst many may yet argue that these are imported fish, ornamental fish bred for pet fish, and that they are bred in aquariums aloof from the other fish in the natural waters, zoologists say that breeding and raring of animals in such separation from other animals itself is agonising and it is not how an animal is supposed to live. Can you imagine yourself bask in luxury at the cost of being separated from your fellow human beings?

*Manoj, another pet shop and mini fish farm owner, revealed to us the dark truth.

“Sometimes, when we have an excess of breeds or sick fish, we release them to a stream.” Manoj was quite confident that he does well for the fish by doing so, but environmentalist Weeraratne said that it does no good either to the fish or the ecosystem. These fish cannot survive if weak; if it is an invasive species, it can pose a major threat not only to the other fish, but also to many kinds of fauna and flora. The sick fish would transmit their diseases and more often than not, they are not curable as some such diseases would be alien to that specific environment.

What does the law say?

Lawyer Lalani Perera stated that the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in effect, which prohibits commercialisation of animal, should ensure more legal measures see the light of the day. She was hopeful for the Animal Welfare Bill that is in shaping. However, law itself is only one aspect, and the efficiency of law enforcement depends on the mindset of the masses.

What can we do as citizens?

Please report these acts to the Police that has taken remarkable action at certain times. But more importantly, boycott animal cruelty. Do not buy such animals. Do not encourage such sales. Please share what you read about animal cruelty of this nature with others. Create awareness and be a responsible citizen. Then you could drive home with a smile on your face, knowing that you have given freedom to an animal who loves a free life as much as you do.

*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identity.