By Avanthi Jayasuriya
Last year witnessed an escalation in the incidents of animal cruelty in Sri Lanka, ranging from the culling of strays and the culling of elephants. While the cruelty prevails, there remains a marked lacuna in terms of the laws and regulations that govern issues related to animal welfare in the country, causing the perpetrators to go unpunished and victims to be left without justice. Moving forward in 2018, it is imperative and timely to reflect on the current status of the long overdue Animal Welfare Bill.
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Existing legislation relating to animal welfare
In Sri Lanka, the legislature on animal welfare is determined by the framework provided under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907. The Ordinance was last amended in 1955 and has since seen no changes. Among the many shortcomings of the outdated legislation, the definition of the term “animal” can be highlighted as limited and narrow. The 1907 Ordinance applies only to a domestic or a captured animal which includes 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 very limited species of animals to be protected.
The concept of duty of care is another major deficiency in the Ordinance of 1907. The 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 the 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.
Status of draft Animal Welfare 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 organizations 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 the proposed changes received by the public consultation, the Cabinet approval for the Bill was received on January 13, 2016, after which the Bill was passed to the legal draftsman for the changes to be incorporated into it and for it to be drafted with the changes included. Yet, it has been over a year since the passing of the Animal Welfare Bill and the time for enactment has never been more urgent.
Recent measures taken to address animal welfare
The National Budget for 2018 had some considerations for animals and their welfare including the allocation of Rs. 75 Billion for the conversion of the zoo to an open zoo concept where the animals will no longer be caged, but 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, ensuring animal welfare in the long run will fall short without a holistic legislative framework such as the Animal Welfare Bill in place which mandates the rules and regulations determining the welfare of animals.
Why the enactment of the animal welfare bill needs to be accelerated
In the past year, 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, where 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 pivotal that the Bill should be passed for enactment at the earliest possible, in order to provide for an effective and efficient legal framework to address cruelty towards animals in Sri Lanka.