It’s truly a dog’s life in there

Whether selling puppies, birds, guinea pigs or rabbits, the state of many of the pet shops in the city of Colombo has been of concern to animal lovers.
Dhananjani Silva and Vimukthinie Nonis check some of them out, on a tour around the city

Puppies in small cages; parrots, sparrows, rabbits, ducks, and pigeons forcibly removed from their natural habitat and crammed into tiny cages, inside which they fight and injure one another. They languish in unhygienic conditions, often exposed to the hot sun just so that they can catch the attention of passers-by. Often the animals are kept without adequate food or water.

On a tour around the city, The Sunday Times caught many glimpses of such inhuman handling of animals at city pet shops in Kirulapone, Thalawathugoda and Mount Lavinia. However, despite the fact that these animals are shabbily treated, customers do patronise these shops and shop owners sell the animals, especially the pups of different breeds for high prices.

Caged and miserable: Puppies, birds, rabbits. Pix by Mangala Weerasekera

At a pet shop in Kirulapone, the Sunday Times witnessed how five puppies inside a small kennel were fighting each other. According to the vendor, puppies are locked up in this manner only while they are at the shop but released once they are taken back to the owner’s home in the evening. The other animals available for sale - guinea pigs, rabbits, parrots remain in the shop throughout the day. The puppies are often as young as four weeks old, and sold at a prices ranging from Rs. 10,000 - Rs. 25,000. The inhuman handling of parrots was another distressing sight - 12 parrots clinging on to the sides of the cage with no space to move was indeed heartrending.

Birds such as munias (Vee Kurulla) are in high demand as they are used for various poojas. People consider it meritorious to set these birds free, the Sunday Times was told by one of the traders in Thalawathugoda. “We usually sell about five or six pairs for a week,” the vendor said.

Another example of cruel treatment of ducks and pigeons was evident at a pet shop in Mount Lavinia. Asked why the ducks are not kept in water, the owner says it is not necessary and the customer can go home and put them into water directly.

Apart from the discomfort and pain the birds and animals feel when held in captivity, the impact it has on their overall growth is something prospective buyers should bear in mind. Director of the Pet Vet Clinic Dr. Nalinika Obeysekera says the separation of puppies from their mothers will have an impact on the young animals. Puppies should remain with their mothers for at least four to six weeks, she stressed.

During the first five to eight weeks puppies learn dog language and dog related behaviour, eating habits etc from their mother. If they are taken away and not brought up with other dogs they will not learn these important ‘social skills’. This will also have a psychological effect on them which would in turn result in abnormal behaviour, aggressiveness and other undesirable traits,” she cautioned.

From the nutrition aspect too, it is necessary for the puppy to stay with its mother during this period because mother’s milk is vital for their growth. Ideally pups should be with their mothers for eight weeks. Therefore the public, when buying puppies to be reared as pets, should not go in for those younger than six weeks.

Not having adequate food, water, and exercise can have a negative impact on their health. Further when they are kept with other animals in pet shops there is a risk of them contracting diseases. The same issues apply fundamentally to other animals when they are removed from their normal habitat. They need to interact with their environment, she stresses.

Commenting on laws applicable to safeguard the rights of such animals, Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardana says according to Section 49 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, no one can sell any indigenous animal or part except with the permission of the WildLife Department. “Animals are of two types- wild and exotic / domesticated. In terms of selling wild animals, a permit from the Department of Wild Life is required while exotic animals can be sold with a trade licence from the respective local authority (Pradeshiya Sabha/Municipal Council/ Urban Council). He said 90% of the animals sold in pet shops are exotic types – these are animals not indigenous to Sri Lanka -such as guinea pigs, cockatoos, love birds, white/black rabbits, etc. However, parakeets, munias-- both white, black and spotted (vee kurulla) and blue rock pigeons fall under the wild animal category.

When it comes to exotic species, the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance does not come into play but they come under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance. This is an antiquated British Act with the last amendment being passed in 1955.

According to this Ordinance, nobody can keep animals in conditions painful for the animal or confine them in a cruel manner. The Act stipulates that animals should be given adequate food, water and space; and for birds perching places will have to be provided. They should not be exposed to sun or other circumstances painful to the animal.

Mr. Gunawardene said all offences under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are cognizable – which means the offenders can be arrested. The Police is empowered to take action with regard to such offenders.

Maintaining the hygiene of the place is another requirement as unhygienic pet shops pose a threat to the neighbourhood spreading diseases to human beings, he said, “The bad odour may cause a nuisance to people and some conditions that animals develop can affect human beings as well. For example parrot fever can be contracted by humans. The tortoise Red-eared terrapin, widely traded locally, carries a bacteria that causes dysentery,” he added.

When the Sunday Times contacted the Department of Wildlife, Director General of Wild Life Conservation Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja said the Department has the authority to take action against those who keep animals listed as protected under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance while the police can take action under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance. However whether it was a priority is questionable. Asked if there had been instances where the Wild Life Department has conducted raids on persons violating the law he said both Police and his department have cracked down on such persons and warnings have been given. “In most of the instances we have created awareness,” he said.

If the public has any complaints they could make them to the Wild Life Department hotline, - tel: 2888585.

You have a role to play too, says animal rights activist

Animal Rights Activist Sagarica Rajakarunanayake says the public too has a duty to speak out when they see an act of cruelty against animals. “In Sri Lanka people do not come forward. Instead they leave it to the animal welfare organisations. Sometimes when people alert us about an incident they request us not to reveal their identity. But when will the people’s voice be heard?

“As citizens, we have the power to go to the police station and lodge a complaint,” she says adding that the public should also bring the matter to the notice of politicians. Citing a particular incident, this animal rights activist said she once came across a pet shop in Kirulapone which keeps birds in the scorching sun. Birds are kept outside in this manner throughout the day so as to catch the attention of those passing by. “Following my request to the police to take action they warned the shop owners and the cages were taken into the shop, she said.

According to her it is equally important to discourage the sale of pets. If someone wants to buy a puppy they can contact a person who breeds puppies at home instead of going to a pet shop, she said.

It is a pity that people tend to follow the same practice of caging animals like rabbits and dogs once they are taken home from the pet shop, she said, adding that this should not happen.

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