Caring and feeding for abandoned animals comes naturally to most Sri Lankans and there are many individuals and organizations that work tirelessly to improve the lot of such animals.
However, recent bureaucratic decisions and an Animal Welfare Bill that has been on the shelf for more than a decade has prevented meaningful State intervention in the comprehensive care of animals.
Instead, that task has increasingly being falling on the shoulders of animal welfare organisations and individuals.
One decision that is being questioned is the handing back of the National Dog Sterilization and Rabies Eradication programme to the Ministry of Health nearly eight months after the Department of Animal Protection and Health (DAPH) had been put in charge of the programme sometime in 2017/2018.
Animal welfare activist Champa Fernando questions that decision as she observes that during the brief period when the DAPH was in charge there was better implementation of the project.
When the Health Ministry had been handling the programme previously, although there had been a fair reduction of the street dog population, the project had been fraught with issues. Among them, says Champa, the Secretary of the Kandy Association for Community Protection through Animal Welfare (KACPAW), had been various allegations of fraud and unsatisfactory practices when handling the animals.
The DAPH on the other hand had set up Public Health Veterinary Units in every province and also recruited more Veterinary Surgeons to complement its cadre. Under the Health Ministry, the programme had been carried out by Veterinarians who were hired as outside contractors.
According to the DAPH Annual Report for 2018, a total of 1,191,176 dogs had been vaccinated, while approximately 68,002 dogs had been sterilized and 2, 604 awareness programmes conducted in that year, through its stray dog population control and rabies control activities island wide with the support of its provincial divisions.
The best method to keep the dog population down is to sterilize them, Champs says, and adds that KACPAW too has suspended their shelter programme owing to the difficulty of finding funds, space and man power to sustain the programme; sentiments echoed by all of the animal welfare activists Counterpoint spoke to.
Anusha David, Trustee, Rescue Animals Sri Lanka, points out that in most countries animal shelters are being phased out, Sri Lanka needs to do the same and adopt a more aggressive sterilization programme. The Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release (CNVR) method is the way to go, says Anusha, who added that they are seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister to advocate better implementation of the programme, as the government programme which is expected to run year round has proved to be an utter failure. A female dog can give birth to 25 to 30 pups a year, while there is no count of the number of females a male dog could impregnate, she says, adding that, when governments fail to implement a sustainable programme and owners behave irresponsibly, feeding and caring for street or community dogs becomes the responsibility of animal welfare activists. “But there is a limit to what an individual or organisations could do,” she says.
“Dogs are not the problem it is the socially irresponsible who keep dumping these animals on the streets, who are the culprits,” she points out. Owners must also be more responsible and keep their pets within their premises, she added.
Manoja Weerakkody, who is currently providing shelter to about 50 dogs and has been caring for such animals since she was a child, agrees that there must be a more sustainable plan to sterilize and vaccinate dogs. Most people can’t afford the cost of sterilization but the government programme is free. To ensure all dogs in a given vicinity are spayed and vaccinated, groups conducting these programmes must visit the same location every three to four months, she explains, because some dogs and cats may have been too young, too sick or pregnant to be sterilized and vaccinated in the first round.
Sharmini Ratnayake a member of the steering committee of the Animal Welfare Bill says there is a reluctance amongst people to neuter male dogs. In 2006 the government introduced a ‘No kill policy’ and the health ministry took on the task of neutering and vaccinating dogs in 2007. But most people are reluctant to sterilise the male dogs, especially in the villages, she says. While various stakeholders have had objections to sections of the Animal Welfare Bill, with each change of government or Minister, the department heads, Secretaries etc. change, she points out, and would require more time to study the Bill and hence the delay. In 2010, a group of
people and animal welfare organizations filed a case in the Court of Appeal asking the court to direct the government to reform animal protection laws and enact the Bill without delay. Currently, the steering committee is monitoring the progress of the Bill, she told Counterpoint. Until that happens, an archaic law, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, is the only recourse available. That provides for a fine of Rs. 100 and a three month jail term or both for anyone found guilty of cruelty to animals. The pending Bill provides for a fine of Rs. 75,000 and a two year jail term.
Almost all animal rights groups also conduct their own sterilization programmes, and rely on donations to carry out this work, just as they need financial help to feed and care for the animals they give shelter to, as well as the street dogs they feed. When the country was under curfew, imposed to contain the spread of COVID -19, it was these groups that fanned out around the country feeding the stray cats and dogs.
Sometime in 2019, Justice for Animals launched their “lend a paw; save a life’ initiative which put up 2020 calendars for sale to raise much needed funds. Tashiya Captain of Justice for Animals, told Counterpoint that with funds raised through that initiative and other donations, the group has launched an island-wide sterilization and vaccination programme. Within these six months, a 1601 cats and dogs have been spayed.
Explains Champa, the number of street dogs vary from Urban, Peri-Urban to village, with the least numbers found in villages. More often than not, residents feed these dogs and cats. As well, be it the village or urban area, the female strays far outnumber the males. While 80% of the dog population in a village would be female, in peri-urban and urban areas female dogs make up about 70% of the population. In urban areas the total street dog population could be anything between a 100 to 300, she said.
‘But, puppies and kittens born on the streets rarely or ever survive, as they become victims of prey, the weather or accidents. Those we see roaming around are puppies and kittens born to dogs and cats who have owners, and who have dumped those litters on the streets.” There are also abandoned older animals. She also says that it is in urban areas that people are more intolerant of strays, and that authorities feel more compelled to pander to needs of city dwellers.
KACPAW has been at the forefront in sterilizing street dogs in Nuwara Eliya and Kandy, and both cities have now reduced their street dog population, she added. If the programme is sustained for at least three years, the number of strays can be reduced, she points out, adding that shelters could be maintained for older and disabled animals.
As Anusha told Counterpoint, it had taken 8 years in one instance to convince her neighbours to sterilize their dogs. ‘The dogs kept having puppies and the neighbours simply allowed the pups and the parents to roam free on the streets, and, more often than not, it were the neighbours who fed them.’
Activists say cost of sterilizing can be anywhere between Rs. 1000 and Rs. 3000 when done privately. Under the government programme, only females are neutered.
Meanwhile, the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) that fell afoul of animal welfare activists recently, for removing several dogs that inhabit the Vihara Maha Devi Park area, apparently over complaints by some individuals who use the park, is planning a survey of the dogs living within the city limits to obtain an accurate picture of that population and their needs, a CMC source told Counterpoint. As it is the responsibility of the CMC to ensure that parks and playgrounds are safe for residents and visitors, the official stated that the CMC is planning some programmes such as a sustainable long term sterilization program and half-way homes through which street dogs could be put up for adoption, educating the public on responsible pet ownership, registration and regulation of pet breeders. As a first step, the gas chambers which have not been used for years, has been demolished and the Dog Pound is to be renovated.
In the 2019 budget, Rs. 100 million of the Rs. 232.7 billion allocated for the health sector had been set aside to combat rabies, through the sterilization of street cats and dogs which would also help contain the dog population.
Despite the government programme having at its disposal, such a colossal amount of money and other resources, why has it become necessary for animal welfare groups to also take on this task?