Is there space in our moral universe for inter – species fellowship and justice?
Posted on November 6th, 2020

Senaka Weeraratna

We are all familiar with catchcries’ such as inter – faith dialogue and conferences and inter – ethnic peace talks and the like.

This was being broadcast almost day and night as a panacea for all our mundane troubles ad nauseam, during the period of the previous Yahapalana Govt.

Ever heard of Inter – species fellowship and extension of natural justice to members of non – human species?

If you have not it is time you hear of it and think of exploring it as a worthy moral cause.

Many species of animals have families, have offspring and show love and affection to their loved ones just like humans do.

Some animals even show fellowship and offer companionship to members of other species, including humans.

Though this is evident and acknowledged, however when it comes to giving legal connotations, problems arise.  

The purpose of this article is to explore this area.

Inter – species fellowship and justice

The promotion of inter – species fellowship and justice, is a worthy proposition.

This concept is very much in line with Buddhist doctrine and Buddhist Jurisprudence.

Buddhism views animals as sentient beings and fellow companions in the Sansaric Journey.  Buddhism does not degrade Animals as Chattels as it is done in our courts. ‘Animal constitutes a chattel’ is a legal concept derived entirely from Abrahamic religious thinking and entrenched in our legislation enacted in the colonial era, that tends to view all animals as gifts from God for the benefit of humans and their dominance. An infinite number of animals in their trillions have suffered and died throughout history because of such conceptually flawed thinking and insensitivity to suffering of non – human living beings.

There are enough examples to show affection, loyalty and virtue in animals.

Pets give love, affection and companionship to humans far better than many fellow humans. Our inner lives would be irreversibly crippled if not for the unconditional love we receive from our pets.

A female animal defending her young with her life, a dog remaining with its unconscious master in a burning house rather than saving itself. animals showing devotion to their offspring, being sympathetic to their kindred, affectionate to their mates, self-subordinating in their community are all indicative of behaviour which qualify them to be removed from being segregated as chattels in judicial proceedings in our courts.

Sri Lanka had a pre-colonial legal system (influenced by laws of Manu and Buddhist jurisprudence) which treated animals as subjects of the State. It attributed greater value to the lives of animals than the legal system which we have inherited from our colonial masters (influenced by Abrahamic religious jurisprudence) and which we are unable to reform in a manner that would ensure dignity, protection, fair play and justice to animals, as this country did in the pre-colonial era.    

An enlightened approach requires us at this juncture of our country’s history to abandon judicial concepts that are rooted in Abrahamic jurisprudence and are morally indefensible. If Buddhist jurisprudence offers a better alternative, then the way forward for reformers of our archaic laws governing animals such as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No. 13 of 1907, is to choose the more humane and enlightened alternative.   

Re categorize the Human – Elephant conflict as an ‘ inter – species dispute’

For example, in the context of Sri Lanka, it may be feasible to re- categorize the so called ‘Human – Elephant’ conflict as an ‘ inter – species dispute’, and proceed to resolve it on the principles of natural justice rather on the basis of a one – sided exercise of ‘unbridled power in the hands of humans’.

If promotion of inter – faith and inter – ethnic amity is in order and in the right direction, what would stop us from exploring inter – species fellowship and promoting inter – species justice?

What humans i.e. the British colonial rulers, have done to Elephants beginning from the time of the Waste Lands Ordinance of 1840 have been to steal their lands and destroy their habitats to establish tea and coffee plantations in a manner no different to what the European Colonists did all over the world particularly in America where they stole land belonging to native Indians, colonized the land with European settlers and put the native Indians in reserves.

In the process the British settlers and professional hunters such as Samuel Baker, encouraged and rewarded by the colonial Govt. decimated the elephant population in the upcountry (Kande Uda Rata) causing a loss of over 10, 000 wild elephants. Samuel Baker later published a book titled “The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon” (1857) describing the brutal destruction of Sri Lanka’s wild elephants by him with pride. A man without a heart and lacking in respect for the sanctity of life which is grounded in Buddhism, Samuel Baker nonchalantly illustrated his book with drawings of the massacres he had indulged in.  

Mass Massacre of Elephants in Sri Lanka

Godwin Witane in an article says as follows of Samuel Baker:

According to the description in his book (“The Rifle and Hound In Ceylon”) he had spent days and weeks in the unfriendly jungles enjoying homely comfort in well-furnished spacious tents stocked with imported tinned meat, fish and fruits and also an assortment of imported spirits to mellow the bodily strain undergone during a day’s outing in the unexplored forests of the dry zone. It had been an army of servants and helpers such as carriers, cooks, trackers and horse keepers numbering sixty to seventy he had employed at each safari. A day’s success at hunting was measured by the number of animals killed in one day not sparing even an orphaned destitute baby elephant that strode behind hugging the mother’s heel. Sometimes this figure reached thirty or forty in number. In his narrative he has shamelessly admitted that when a lactating elephant was killed he and his brother did not fail to enjoy the spilling milk from the animal’s udder sucking the nipples with their mouths as it was deemed wholesome. The picture on this page clearly illustrates the heartless cruelty practiced by this alien hunter on freely roaming herds of the champions of our forests. Besides elephants he had killed other game for his food and that of the host of employees that accompanied him throughout his stay in the wilds”.

Furthermore, the British colonial Govt. had no compunction in destroying the lives of both humans and animals. The manner in which they suppressed the Kandyan Sinhala uprising of Uva – Wellassa (1818) and the Sinhala Rebellion at Matale (1848), that resulted in Inquiries being conducted in the British House of Commons (1850) regarding the savagery and barbarity with which the British suppressed the popular rebellion against British occupation of Ceylon, is a sad and poignant tale.  

The British were enthusiastic hunters who destroyed the fauna in their colonies in Asia and Africa in the name of game and sport. In Ceylon they soon began hunting elephants for sport. One British officer, Major Thomas William Rogers, is estimated to have killed over 1,400 elephants during a period of 11 years. It was an atrocious crime against wildlife of the country. It is said that he himself lost count of the number of defenseless elephants that he had killed in the later years.

However, on the 7th of June 1845, Major Thomas William died struck by lightning while staying at the Haputale Guest House. He was buried in Nuwara Eliya and a tombstone was erected on his grave, which too had been struck by lightning many times over the years, leading people to believe that karmic retribution had finally caught up with him for his heinous crimes.

See also

Holocaust of Elephants by the British Raj in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, unfortunately we are doing exactly the same thing to our Elephants in the post – independence era by taking over their habitats under the guise of development and restricting their movements in their own traditional Homelands. There is no end in sight to this brazen and unlawful grab of terrain that ought to be treated as wild life sanctuaries for elephants and other forms of wildlife.

The best precedent comes from our own history when King Devanampiyatissa upon being convinced by Arahant Mahinda in their very first encounter at Mihintale of the blatantly unrighteous and evil nature of hunting (deer and other innocent animals) turned around and in deep regret for causing the death of countless animals established the world’s first wildlife sanctuary.

Legal Aid for non – human species   

In any resolution of inter – species conflict, the non – human species, ideally speaking, must be entitled to and given access to advocacy services like Legal Aid. They too have interests that are precious to them i.e. their life and their natural territory and space. That must be protected. We require a paradigm shift in thinking to accommodate the vital interests of animals in our evolving legal system.  

One sided hearing and biased decision making is a violation of natural justice. Law is an expanding canvas. It is not meant to be static. There is always scope for replacing outdated and archaic laws with new laws that reflect modern standards of treatment such as the Animal Welfare Bill.

Remember the Declaration of Arahant Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa at Mihintale, over two thousand three hundred years ago:  

“Oh! Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the peoples and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it.”

This is one of the greatest declarations ever made in favour of the rights of animals in world history and the fact that it happened in Sri Lanka is a huge boost to the image of the country’s age-old Buddhist civilization.

A long line of Buddhist Kings for over 2000 years have faithfully followed this advice of Arahant Mahinda until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505.

Zoo – a concentration camp for animals

It was during the colonial era that concentration camps for animals called ‘Zoos’ were introduced. The injustice inherent in this colonial legacy of animal prisons is plain to see and understand by anyone with a sense of justice. The very same types of people established ‘Human Zoos’ in European countries and USA exhibiting a wide variety of people brought over from their colonies for the joy and merriment of the locals. These were crimes and affront to the dignity of the subject peoples.  

Zoos and Rule of Law are incompatible. Imprisoning someone for life without committing a wrong is morally indefensible by any yardstick. But that is exactly what Zoos deliver to animals with the sanction, if not indifference, of the country’s rulers.

Rule of Law must ensure natural justice for animals

A ‘Rule of Law’ that overlooks the rights of animals is perverse and immoral. A true Rule of Law must ensure that animals too receive the protection of natural justice.

It must be said that ever since independence in 1948, we have had rulers in this country who never saw fit to look into the plight of animals or raise a voice for them in Parliament or take inspiration from the pages of the Mahavamsa which is replete with instances of how our Buddhist Sinhala Kings cared for the well – being of our animals.

Even the Tamil King Elara (also known as Manu Neethi Chola) who ruled at Anuradhapura in the third century B.C. upheld the laws of Manu while dispensing justice to his subjects, which included all living creatures in his kingdom. It was said that there hung a bell outside his palace gates and anybody seeking justice could ring it any time to bring their case to the notice of the King. The story of how a distraught cow had run and rang the bell when its calf was run over by the chariot driven by the son of the king is well known to be repeated here.  Even the Mahavamsa acknowledges that he i.e. Elara, was a just king and says that the king ruled ‘with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of disputes at law’.


In conclusion, it must be said that we require a paradigm shift in thinking in respect to reforming the law including the Constitution to protect animals who are also subjects of the state. State responsibility for animals cannot be discarded nor palmed off to animal rights groups.

A conflict with any animal species e.g. stray dogs, must be resolved on the footing of an ‘inter – species dispute’ and on the basis of Justice and invocation of the ethical principle of Protection of the Weak by the Strong. Destruction of stray dogs en masse as we saw being done in a neigbouring country a few years ago is not a solution for a civilized state or for any nation aspiring to be recognized as civilized by universal standards.  

All animals including wild elephants and stray dogs, have a right to live on this land and morally speaking, to be treated with understanding and compassion.

Senaka Weeraratna

Former Hony. Legal Consultant to the Law Commission on Animal Welfare legislation

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