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Waiting for the Animal Welfare Act

BY Dulki Seethawaka

There is a ray of hope for all animal welfare activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), since the proposed Animal Welfare Bill has finally received approval from the Cabinet of Ministers and is now ready to be presented to the Parliament. If everything goes well (even though it is still too early to predict), the 115-year-old Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907 as amended will be replaced by the Animal Welfare Bill. Since the drafting of the proposed Bill in 2006, the journey towards implementation has been nothing but a road full of thorns for every person who fought for the rights and welfare of animals in Sri Lanka. Despite a number of promises to enact from several former governments, the Bill never reached past the Cabinet. Due to the sensitive nature of protecting animals which can cause conflicts of interests relating to political, religious, cultural, and other concerns, the efforts remained ignored for many years. Therefore, this is a monumental progress and it is important to constantly be aware of the recent developments without losing the interest in the aftermath of this approval. 

This is not the first time the Animal Welfare Bill came into the spotlight. Whenever there was an incident of animal abuse, mistreatment, or cruelty, activists used to voice the necessity of implementing the Bill. The prevalent law relating to protecting animals from cruelties, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 as amended, is no longer adequate to address such circumstances. 

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 as amended in 1912, 1917, 1919, 1921, 1927, 1930, 1945 (Ordinance No. 12), and 1955 (Act, No. 22) is the applicable legislation which comprehends the law relating to animal welfare in Sri Lanka. As a result of all the amendments, the Ordinance contains 14 sections which illustrate on the types of offences of cruelty that are punishable, the penalties, illustrations on various circumstances that may amount to cruelty to animals, the powers of the Minister, the powers to the courts, and interpretations. A brief introduction to the provisions in the Ordinance is as follows. 

Section 2 provides for the offences of cruelty and the penalties. The offences of cruelty only include beating, ill treating, over driving, over riding, abusing, and torturing. The offenders shall be punished with a maximum fine of Rs. 100 and three months of imprisonment. 

Section 3 is for animals that are kept by people, and where such animals are left to starvation, mutilation, or ill treatment, the owners shall be fined with a fine which may extend to Rs. 200 and three months of imprisonment. 

Under Section 4, offenders who have killed an animal in a cruel manner will be punished up to a fine of Rs. 100 and six months of imprisonment. 

Section 5 provides the penalties for using animals unfit for labour. The punishment includes a fine of Rs. 100 and six months of imprisonment.

Section 6 empowers the Minister to appoint infirmaries for the treatment of animals where the animals will be treated and the costs will be borne by the owner. 

Section 7 prohibits the owner of an animal with disease or disability to leave it to die in any street. The offenders shall be fined with a fine which may extend to Rs. 100 and three months of imprisonment. 

Section 8 sets a three-month limitation within which any offence must be prosecuted.

Sections 9 and 10 empower government officials for the direct destruction of suffering animals.  

Section 11 states the power to direct the application of fines. 

Section 12 recognises all offences under the Ordinance as cognisable offences. 

Section 13 empowers a peace officer to detain animals that are likely to have suffered due to an offence caused by an owner under the Ordinance. 

Section 14 provides for the meaning of “animal” and “street”. 

There are several shortcomings in the Ordinance of 1907 which require reforming or rather replacing the existing laws. The meaning of “animal” under the Ordinance of 1907 refers to “any domestic or captured animal and includes any bird, fish, or reptile in captivity”. This is a rather restricted definition which does not include stray animals, wild, or livestock animals. This in turn limits the compassion that needs to be shown to animals to only those animals considered in human custody, which in turn provides space to be cruel to those that are not. There is separate legislation for the protection of wild animals and livestock animals which leaves out the stray animals unrecognised and unprotected. For example, the extermination of stray cats and dogs within the premises of the University of Moratuwa by stunning them with a toxic substance did not fall within the provisions of the Ordinance of 1907 because the interpretation of “animal” did not include stray dogs and cats. 

The Ordinance being 115 years old fails to address the cruelties that animals undergo today. The animals that are chained and caged throughout their lives, the killing of pregnant animals, the wellbeing of stray animals, and the living conditions of livestock and zoo animals are not considered in the Ordinance. The list is not inclusive since there are many examples of how people are mistreating the animals. Chained elephants which are used in religious pageants (or peraheras), is an example of animal cruelty which has gained the serious attention of many animal welfare activists and environmentalists. Perahera is a tradition that has been followed in Sri Lanka since the kings ruled the country. Elephants are used in the perahera to carry the tooth relic. However, there is visible evidence that nowadays the elephants are chained in legs, particularly with metal shackles, causing them much difficulty even to take a step. These chains cause various types of injuries to the animal as well. 

Keeping wild animals as tourist attractions is yet another issue. The first major study of wildlife tourism around the world, which was done by researchers at the Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, found that elephant rides in Sri Lanka are not good for animal welfare. In November 2019, an elephant died of exhaustion after carrying tourists continuously. The researchers rated each type of attraction on animal welfare and conservation. Animal welfare scores were based on factors such as adequate food and water, freedom from pain and injury, the ability to behave normally, and the level of stress. Conservation scores were based on, for instance, where the animals came from and whether proceeds help preserve the species through habitat protection, anti-poaching efforts, and so on. Street performances – dancing macaques and snake charming – received negative scores on both. Elephant rides and sea turtle farms get the highest number of visitors each year, and they all have negative impacts on animal welfare. 

There are sea turtle hatcheries in the southern coastline which assures the care of turtles. However, there are many well-grown and healthy turtles which are kept captive in ponds, rather than releasing them to the ocean. Upon questioning the reason why they are in ponds, the caretaker simply replied that they are for tourist attraction. It is depressing to see that these fascinating creatures have to live their entire life in a pond right next to the sea, where they truly belong. 

Yet another example is backyard breeding or puppy mills. These are facilities that breed puppies in inferior conditions and sell them in commercial markets. There are many puppy mills and pet shops that do not have animal-friendly environmental conditions. Often in such puppy mills, the mother dogs are caged and live their entire life giving birth to puppies from litter to litter. The puppies are separated from the mother as soon as possible to be trained for other foods and often sold away when they are only 45 days old. Such mother dogs are subjected to extreme cruelties at the hands of their owners. For instance, there was a recent incident where a backyard breeder who owned five pit bulls had left the house, and during his absence for days, which was more than he anticipated, four dogs had killed one female dog and eaten her carcass.

There are homes that have dogs locked in cages in which the dogs are unable to even turn around freely. In cities, the guard dogs are often kept captive in a cage amidst its own faeces or chained in a corner of the house. There are people who abandon their animals when they are sick and old. Old bulls and cows are often sold to butcher shops. Puppies born to stray dogs are also abandoned in villages. People refrain from sterilising stray dogs and leave the puppies near temples or in paddy fields where they eventually die due to starvation or accidents. The same situation applies to cats. In some situations, the dogs are not allowed to go inside the house even in bad weather conditions. They are left to stay on the pavement during heavy rains or in cold weather. There are some veterinary doctors who engage in ear cropping and tail docking of puppies without using anaesthetics or pain medications.  

Such circumstances may seem simple, but all of them amount to acts of animal cruelty which often result in causing either physical or emotional pain or both to the animals. Therefore, it is necessary to consider the circumstances which have allowed such inhumane activities to take place in Sri Lanka. It should also be mentioned that after 1955, the Ordinance/Act has not been amended to include any new improvements on cruelty to animals. 

It also fails to provide adequate fines for the offenders who are found guilty. The maximum fine that has been declared in the Ordinance for offences of causing cruelty to animals is Rs. 200. Accordingly, the present law in Sri Lanka relating to animal cruelty provides for a fine of Rs. 200 for any type of torture that can be given to animals. This penalty stands for the offences that were made 115 years ago, which is a fairly large amount at that time. At the present time, the fine of Rs. 200 is not capable of instilling animal protection in the minds of the people. For instance, in March 2016, some photographs of a sea eagle being skinned alive, tortured, and then killed went viral on the internet. There was public outrage and the two offenders were arrested. In 2019, there were two cases of dogs being murdered by neighbours who were apparently disturbed by the barks and howls of these dogs in the night. On 7 May, 2020, a dog was shot dead by a policeman for the mere reason that it urinated on the policeman’s wall. On 23 September 2020, a pet dog was brutally murdered by neighbours who said that they were disturbed by the howling of the dog. However, all these horrendous actions are only subject to a fine of Rs. 200 according to the existing Act. Such outdated laws limit the capacity of the Judiciary and the offenders are not scared to repeat the same offence since the fine is less. 

Yet another major lacuna in the existing law is the non-recognition of the concept of animal welfare, which is now globally accepted. The five freedoms of animal welfare include (1) freedom from thirst and hunger (by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour), (2) freedom from discomfort (by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area), (3) freedom from pain, injury, and disease (by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment), (4) freedom to express normal behaviour (by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and the company of the animal’s own kind), and (5) freedom from fear and distress (by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering). These are recognised as the golden standards of animal welfare and many countries are implementing legislative frameworks to include this definition. 

As a result of such major shortcomings of the Ordinance of 1907, the Animal Welfare Bill was drafted in 2006 after years of discussions, suggestions, public consultations, and efforts of many animal activists, animal welfare organisations, environmentalists, and religious leaders. Unfortunately, the implementation process has taken more than 15 years. This delay is unfair and unjust to all the animals who face constant mistreatment from their owners, caretakers, and even from strangers. Sri Lanka has a proud history of treating animals with utmost care and respect, which has changed due to various reasons in the present. The existing laws relating to cruelty to animals can no longer apply to these circumstances. Therefore, implementing the Animal Welfare Bill without further delay is an essential requirement and the responsibility of the political leaders of the country. 

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and Senior Executive Researcher at the University of Colombo’s Centre for Environmental Law and Policy)