Sparring for animal rights in Sri Lanka
Posted on February 28th, 2015

By Oliver Standing Courtesy: Daily Mirror ( May 10, 2003)

Report of Meeting held at Galle Face Hotel, Colombo in May 2003

The mood of the first ever SPAR (Society for the Protection of Animal Rights) press conference was set by the video they played by way of an introduction, entitled ‘Their future is your hands’. The narration was in Sinhala and beyond my ken but, as has been said, a picture is worth a thousand words. There were many, many pictures. Fluffy white polar bear cubs frolicked with mother, endearing baby monkeys fooled about and then a juxtaposed rabbit appeared twitching on a board next to a standing scientist. To put it simply, it was the stuff of cliché, and not the open and unbiased views I had hoped for. Granted, SPAR have a concrete message to propagate, but presenting only one side of the argument can lead it to collapse rather than convince.

SPAR President Penny Jayawardene is introduced and a few words spoken. It is all highly emotive; animals are termed ‘our dumb friends’ and humans the ‘so-called superior species’. Mrs. Jayawardene takes the podium and continues in a similar vein. She used a quote of Mahathera Mahinda who is representative of SPAR. ‘The birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right [to humans] to live and move about the land belonging to the people and all other beings’. Mrs. Jayawardene mentioned two threats as she saw them; private zoos and increased dairy production. She also stressed how dependent an organisation like SPAR is on the media saying they were ‘powerless’ without it. ‘Do what you can to help us’, she urged.

Because of the conference’s link with the law, two policemen spoke next. DIG of crimes Mr. HMS Herath addressed the conference in Sinhala. He was followed by fellow DIG (legal) Mr. J. Thangavelu. He confessed to being largely ignorant of animal rights legislation before attending the meeting. Unfortunately, he said, although human rights are covered in the police curriculum, animal rights are not. They are not adopted as a topic because the legislation regarding animal rights is ‘almost obsolete’ and, presumably, prevents conviction. He was certainly right about their outmoded; the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance (1907) imposes a maximum fine of Rs. 100 on a first offence. Undoubtedly this was a large sum of money in 1907.

The chief guest was Mrs. Irangani Serasinghe. She said that only a ‘handful’ of people were bothered about animal rights whilst ‘an immense number’ were interested in hunting, skinning, eating or keeping them. She went so far as to propose animals having ‘equality’ with humans. The history of Sri Lanka proves interesting in relation to the modern aims of SPAR. The speaker asked if Sri Lanka would still enjoy such a variety of animal and bird life had it not been Buddhist. It seemed a valid point to me, as the words Mahinda spoke demonstrate the Buddhist attitudes to animals. Sadly, Mrs. Serasinghe opined, Sri Lankans have lost their priorities in more recent times. This must be reversed; ‘nothing can function alone’ she said, ‘animals, plants and human beings are all together’. Whilst this inter-reliance is without question many people, no doubt, would argue that this togetherness means we should use animals as our tools, to eat and to do with as we wish. The speaker did admit to some problems with her hard-line stance; Where do we draw the line? she asked. If a cow’s life is sacred, is a rat’s? A cockroach’s? A virus’? At present ‘if an elephant or virus gets in our way you just bump it off’, she said. Whilst her acknowledgement of the dilemma was laudable she sadly offered no answers, gave no indication as to where SPAR would draw its line.

The next speaker was Mr. Senaka Weeraratna who talked with the utmost fluency and learnedness. He is an Attorney-at-Law who has worked in Australia for almost 20 years. He tackled the legal aspects of animal rights; namely the legislation in place and its implementation. ‘The law as it stands can still work well’ he said. However, the track record of convictions is ‘extremely poor, a national disgrace’. From the 15 pieces of legislation in place, only four have ever been implemented in the post-independence era. Mr. Weeraratna also stressed the historical aspect of animal rights in Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa, he said, details five kings under who the killing of all animals was outlawed. People at the time kept away from any jobs that harmed animals, and those who did indulge were marginalised within society.

The speaker was critical of both the police and the judiciary. He said that enforcement is hard for police; many do not have the skills for animal welfare, some forces have insufficient funds whilst some officers are exposed to corruption. The speaker claimed legislation will ‘stand or fall’ on the role of the police. ‘Due empathy was not coming’ from judges either. He cited a case where a man was arrested for transporting overcrowded chickens. The judge took so long to do anything that many of the chickens died. So, the animals became far worse off when their owner was arrested for maltreating them. The speaker concluded with the message that ‘within the law enforcement the idea of justice for animals’, must be bought.

The floor was then opened to questions. A vet raised a valid objection to SPARs passionate policies. If we drink milk, he said, then we must raise dairy herds. What do we do with the 50 percent of calves born that are male? What do we do with the females that stop producing milk? Mr. Weeraratane replied that in one province legislation has just been lifted that previously prevented farmers from killing those cows which could not produce milk. He spoke of a concept of gratitude towards animals which more people should adopt. He used India’s famous love of cows as an example and was quite correct in saying this gratitude is largely absent in Western societies. Mrs. Jayawardene proposed a rather extreme solution. She said Sri Lanka was a victim of ‘aggressive advertising’ from dairy companies. She proposed ‘educating’ school children about the reality of dairy farms, so the demand would decrease. Consequently the amount of suffering would also decrease. The popularity of this with farmers, not to say nutritionists, is unassured.

Very few people in Sri Lanka are ever convicted on charges of violating animal rights, that is beyond doubt. The root of this problem remains, unsurprisingly, contentious. The policeman Thangavelu said very few cases are reported and blamed the outdated legislation. The lawyer, Weeraratna blamed the police and the judges. Mrs Jayawardene was quick to say to Mr. Thangavelu that SPAR was not ‘trying to find fault’ with the police, but aiming at increased co-orperation. The policeman replied, to his credit, that he agreed in principle to working with NGOs (non government organisations) concerned with animal rights.

Their attitude towards vivisection is, I feel, indicative of SPARs policies. They said they were against experimentation on animals and left it that. Yet most people, I’m sure, would be happy see a few baboons killed in an experiment that provided a cure that saved hundreds of lives. It’s an extreme example, of course, but I did not hear a single syllable of compromise from SPAR, not a single sentence that acknowledged the presence of an opposing view. For a fascinating and unbiased account of vivisection on primates I can recommend ‘The Monkey Wars’ (Oxford University Press) by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deborah Blum.

Courtesy: Daily Mirror ( May 10, 2003)

One Response to “Sparring for animal rights in Sri Lanka”

  1. Christie Says:

    Namaste: “He used India’s famous love of cows ” Here it is, cow worshippers are coming. Mr. Weeraratne, some Indians worship Monkeys and rats. The Sinhalese have always respected animals and they will. Have these people ever had a cow. a dog, a goat, a bird, a fish or a pig. As the saying goes pig headed humans. Jai hind.

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