Photo courtesy of NY Daily News

The images are harrowing and all too familiar – an electrocuted baby elephant, a caged dog, a leopard caught in a trap, a butchered dolphin; accounts of animals suffering due to neglect, ignorance and cruelty are regular features on mainstream and social media.

Sri Lanka has a long tradition of kindness and respect for animals from the time when Arahant Mahinda stopped King Devanampiyatissa from killing a deer while he was on a hunting expedition and preached the Buddha’s message of compassion for all living beings. The King accepted Buddhism, created the first animal reservation and outlawed hunting.

After the colonists invaded, they encouraged their subjects to drink alcohol, eat meat and embrace alien cultural practices and religions, abandoning Buddhist teachings of kindness and empathy for all creatures.

The welfare of animals in Sri Lanka is governed by the archaic Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907. Its maximum punishment is just Rs. 100 for a heinous act committed on an animal.

Animal welfare activists have been struggling for 15 long years to revise this Bill to make it more difficult for abusers to get away with their crimes and to increase terms of punishment. But as the Covid-19 pandemic engulfs the country once more, the Bill has been sidelined although it is ready to go before Parliament. While there was some interest in 2020 by Youth and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa to take the bill forward, that momentum has waned.

The bill is going the same way as the ban on cattle slaughter, which was approved by Cabinet in September 2020 but has got no further. By coincidence, the silence ensured after the announcement of the establishment of a huge meat processing factory opened by none other than the Bill’s main proponent, Minister Namal Rajapaksa himself; an essential ingredient for the success of the plant would be – meat. However, the company claims that imported beef will be used and not local slaughtered animals.

While paying lip service to the tenents of Buddhism, monks in temples are responsible for elephants being chained and abused to break their spirits, making them amenable to parade in religious processions.

Wild animals in the national parks are routinely subjected to crowds of tourists surrounding them and taking photographs, oblivious to any stress and discomfort is causes the animals. The same applies to the motor boats that chase dolphins out in the open seas.

The Bill has been strongly opposed by the powerful meat industry that does not want its trade hampered by such mundane considerations as humanely killing animals, making slaughter a more expensive process. While the Butchers Ordinance sets out regulations for humane killing, these are often flouted and fines for breaching them are just Rs. 100.

Since 2006, successive governments have expressed support for the Bill but have never taken the final steps. In 2010, a group of 14 religious and animal welfare organizations filed a case in the Court of Appeal seeking orders to direct the government authorities to introduce law reform for the protection of animals, including the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill. However, lobbying by those with vested interests hampered its progress. After intense pressure by animal welfare activists throughout the past 15 years, the final Bill is ready for submission to Cabinet for approval, and once it is approved there, will come before Parliament. The reasons for the current delay is not known.

What is significant is that the Bill will not only be a strong deterrent but it will promote enlightened thinking about the status of animals, according to lawyer Lalani Perera, an animal welfare advocate and member of the Animal Welfare Steering Committee.

“The bill will sensitize the public of the need to look at animals as sentient beings – beings with feelings, fear and a right to life and not merely as chattels. The law now in force is woefully inadequate to protect animals from cruelty,” she said.

The current law only recognizes a handful of acts that amount to cruelty and the definition of animal is limited to domestic or captured animals while the punishment for cruelty is a fine of Rs. 100 or a jail term not exceeding three months.

The new Bill defines an animal as “any living being other than a human being which includes domestic animal, farm animal, animal in captivity, wild animal, companion animal, aquatic animal, stray animal and food animal”. It also recognizes a wide range of acts that amount to cruelty and prescribes stringent punishments, including jail terms up to four years and fines up to Rs. 125,000, Ms. Perera pointed out.

Another significant feature is that the Bill empowers any person to directly institute a prosecution in a court without making a police complaint.

“With the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill, we will have a more comprehensive, stronger and effective legal regime to deal with the issue. Although there will be no Animal Welfare Authority, the police will have enhanced powers to combat animal cruelty. For this purpose, they have to be more fully equipped,” Ms. Perera said.

Asked whether the Bill went against such cultural practices as halal slaughter and keeping elephants in temples, Ms. Perera pointed out that the aim of the Bill was to prevent cruelty when killing. “We have proposed amendments to the Butchers Ordinance to enable cruelty free slaughter, which we understand have been accepted by the Local Government Ministry which is presently pursuing the amendments, after consulting Muslim religious leaders.”

The attempts to protect elephants in temples are also being met with resistance by vested interests. The Ministry of Wildlife Conservation has formulated regulations for the humane treatment of captive elephants and to assure their welfare during participation in pageants. “Although these regulations received Cabinet approval as far back as 2016, they are yet to be gazetted, giving them the force of law. It is indeed a tragedy that there is a handful of individuals deterring the Ministry from gazetting these regulations,” Ms. Perera said.

She is astounded at the establishment of the meat processing factory in a country claiming to be Buddhist and the assurances that the meat will be imported. “Whether in this country or otherwise, all cattle are living beings. Saving ours and contributing to more slaughter outside the country is incomprehensible.”