The dawn of 2019 broke the harrowing news that Charlie, a pet Labrador, was burnt alive by a grossly inhuman being who doused him with kerosene or petrol while the animal was inside the cage. This heinous crime caused extreme distress not only to animal lovers but to humanity all over the world.  On the [...]

Sunday Times 2

The crying need for the immediate enactment of Animal Welfare Bill


The dawn of 2019 broke the harrowing news that Charlie, a pet Labrador, was burnt alive by a grossly inhuman being who doused him with kerosene or petrol while the animal was inside the cage.

Charlie the Labrador which was cruelly burnt to death: Let's name the proposed Animal Welfare Bill after him

This heinous crime caused extreme distress not only to animal lovers but to humanity all over the world.  On the electronic and print media, the incident was shown with graphic details of the horrendous burn injuries suffered by Charlie. Now it is reported that a neighbour was arrested and released on bail. The sad fact is that even if the suspect was to be found guilty, in terms of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907, he would be fined only a paltry sum of Rs. 100! While a six months imprisonment is prescribed by this Ordinance, no person has been sentenced to jail for an offence under this Ordinance.

While the incidents of cruelty to animals increase at an alarming rate in the country, there remains a marked lacuna in terms of the laws on animal welfare, causing the perpetrators to go unpunished and the victims (our dumb friends) to be left without justice.  Moving forward in 2019, it is imperative and timely to reflect on the current status of the long overdue Animal Welfare Bill.

Animals are considered “sentient beings” experiencing distress, pain, suffering and fear. No longer are animals considered mere chattels: they are fast becoming non-human persons.

At this stage, it is pertinent to recall Mahatma Gandhi’s immortal statement that “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  With its long religious and cultural heritage, Sri Lanka must live up to this mark.

In Sri Lanka, animals are exposed to immense cruelty:

  • Food animals are bludgeoned to death;
  • Conditions in livestock farms are appalling;
  • Zoo animals, caged for human entertainment, undergo severe physical and mental suffering;
  • Pet shops are hell holes;
  • Commercial dog breeders subject bitches to almost gang rape;
  • Pets are chained, confined and left without sustenance when their owners are away;
  • Stray cats and dogs are poisoned;
  • Captive elephants are severely bruised due to heavy chaining; and
  • Thirikkal races, cock fights and other sports which are popular gambling options expose animals to indescribable suffering.

These are only a few instances of such cruelty, abuse and exploitation.

As understanding and compassionate humans, what must we do? We must ensure the five freedoms of animal welfare.  They are:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst;
  • Freedom from discomfort and pain;
  • Freedom from wanton injury and pain;
  • Freedom from fear and distress; and
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour.

Existing legislation

In Sri Lanka, legislation on animal welfare is determined by the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907. The Ordinance was last amended in 1955. Amongst the many shortcomings of the outdated legislation, the definition of the term “animal” is limited and narrow. The 1907 Ordinance applies only to domestic or captured animals which include any bird, fish, or reptile in captivity. Regardless of the increase in urban wildlife at present, the term has not extended its reach to incorporate urban wildlife within its parameters or punishment to offenders. It further excludes animals which are not domesticated or caged. This narrow perspective allows for only a limited species of animals to be protected. In contrast, Section 46 of the Penal Code defines “animal” as any living creature other than a human being, unless the contrary appear from the context. This definition has been interposed in the proposed Animal Welfare Bill.

The concept of duty of care is another major deficiency in the Ordinance of 1907.  This concept refers to responsible ownership of pets by their owners; the lack of which has drastic implications on the welfare of animals. Therefore, the inclusion of this concept is important in ensuring that pet owners will not abandon animals, and will act responsibly towards them by providing uninterrupted basic care. Moreover, the violation of such conduct would lead to legal prosecution and would lessen incidents of abuse at the hands of pet owners.

The draft Animal Welfare Bill states that “no person may abandon an animal” and stringent penalties are imposed on those who do so.

The idea that pet owners have a duty of care to protect their pets is present in laws around the world. This is brought forward due to the fact that there has many cases of abuse, especially by pet owners who have bought pets and have subsequently failed to provide any basic care for them.
Status of the draft Bill

The need for a new legal framework to govern the issues related to animal welfare in the country was noted by many civil society organisations and, as a result, the new Animal Welfare Bill was drafted in 2006 by the Law Commission, with the support of the interested parties.  Almost a decade in the making, the draft bill was open for public comments under the Ministry of Rural Economic Affairs in 2015. Following this, the Cabinet approved the Bill on January 13, 2016. It was then sent back to the legal draftsman for the changes to be incorporated into it. Yet, it has been over three years since the Bill received Cabinet approval and the time for enactment has never been more urgent.

Recent measures

The 2018 National Budget had some measures aimed at animal welfare. They include the allocation for the conversion of the zoo to an open zoo where the animals will be able to move around with more freedom as per international best practices. The budget proposals also contained the restructuring of the Pinnawela elephant orphanage to be ‘Born Free-Chain Free’, initiating mahout training programmes. While these initiatives are commendable, measures aimed at animal welfare will fall short in the long run without a holistic legislative framework such as the Animal Welfare Bill in place.

Importance of animals

In western countries, dogs are used as guide animals for blind people and those with special needs to lead an almost normal lifestyle. It is amazing to see the difference a guide dog brings to the lifestyle of a blind person or one with special needs. They promote independent living. In today’s context when elderly persons live lonely lives, sometimes in homes for the aged, away from kith and kin, guide dogs will help eliminate some of the loneliness in their lives. Other animals also act as therapy animals to provide solace to those who are ailing. These are concepts we in Sri Lanka should embrace.

Salutary provisions to be included in the proposed Animal Welfare Bill or any similar proposed legislation:

1    Compulsory microchipping of all pets: All owners of pets must compulsorily microchip their pets within four weeks of their acquisition. Reason for inclusion of this provision: When the animal is registered and micro-chipped, the duty of care for the wellbeing of the animal will then be the sole responsibility of the owner of the animal. Thus, stray, lost or stolen dogs can be reunited with their owners without unnecessary delay. This provision will act as a deterrent to abandon and/or steal animals — and chances of reuniting with the owner much greater.

2    Animals are to be considered as ‘human companions’ or ‘community animals’. This will help to build a social bridge between animals and humans.

3    The proposed act to be named after Charlie: THE ANIMAL WELFARE CHARLIE’S LAW – the crime against this voiceless animal will always jog our collective memory.

4    The proposed act should make it compulsory to keep people informed of the veterinary practices and animal shelters/sanctuaries in the whole of Sri Lanka by way of a directory. This will save time saving animal lives.

Why the enactment of the Bill needs to be accelerated

In recent years, stories of extermination of stray cats and dogs within public and private premises and the culling of tuskers, cruelty towards captive elephants have become commonplace occurrences.  These horrific acts of cruelty leave no doubt that it is time for more urgent and concrete action on animal welfare in the country.

It is high time that we changed these outdated laws and made sure that the long-overdue Animal Welfare Bill is passed for efficient action against cruelty to animals, so that appropriate punitive action can be taken against offenders and issues relating to urban wildlife and captive animals can be solved in a comprehensive manner.

In conclusion, it is vitally important that the Bill should be passed at the earliest possible time to provide for an effective and efficient legal framework to address cruelty towards animals in Sri Lanka.

Animal welfare is now a pan-global movement. Failure to reform our drastically outdated animal cruelty laws will have a negative impact on Sri Lanka’s image. More importantly, each day delayed means more pain, more suffering, for more animals. We as compassionate and loving human beings owe it to all our animal friends to ensure a better and a secure life for them.

 (The writer is the founder President of Randi Foundation. Established in 2018, the foundation is committed to improving Animal Welfare in
Sri Lanka.)


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