Exempts anything done in the names of food production, science, & culture
22-year-old fracas over Depo Provera injections in street dogs lurks in the background
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka––Sri Lanka may be the only nation in the world, and perhaps the only nation ever, in which almost every indigenous animal advocacy organization appears to be frantically, furiously, and desperately opposed to the apparently imminent passage of a new “animal welfare” bill updating an anti-cruelty law more than a century old.
Under the old law, dating to 1907, the maximum penalty for cruelty is a fine equivalent to just 31 cents U.S.
Sri Lanka animal advocates and overseas allies in India, the U.S., and Europe have been lobbying in concert to update the 1907 law since 2006.
This makes the last-ditch animal advocacy push to kill the proposed update all the more remarkable.
“Struggling to get a chance to present concerns”
“We are struggling to get an opportunity to present our concerns to the Parliamentary Oversight Committee and suggest amendments––the last chance to incorporate any amendments in the Parliamentary order of procedures,” explained Champa Fernando of the Kandy Association for Community Protection through Animal Welfare [KACPAW], one of the oldest and largest Sri Lankan animal advocacy groups, headquartered in the city of Kandy, the Sri Lankan capital city before colonization began in 1449.
“This is an utterly democratic right denied to us thus far,” Fernando posted to social media during the last days of July 2023.
Fernando in a typhoon of social media postings sought to counter online support for the bill as it stands from Vets for Future and Dharma Voices for Animals.
Vets for Future represents veterinary interests, including the interests of veterinarians hired by government to do spay/neuter and vaccination work.
Dharma Voices for Animals is a U.S.-based Buddhist entity “which promotes veganism internationally,” Fernando noted, but apparently does not have a boots-on-the-ground understanding of Sri Lankan politics.
“Moral challenge for the people of Sri Lanka”
“The moral challenge for the people of Sri Lanka,” Fernando said, “is to either give effect to the long-suppressed voice of the voiceless animals via an effective piece of animal welfare legislation, or accommodate the demands of those who see animals in an entirely different light, i.e., as fit only for abuse and exploitation for profit, thereby negating the noble purpose of the animal welfare bill.
As amended, the animal welfare bill on the verge of passage “exempts all farm animals slaughtered for food, etc.,” Fernando objected. “None of those animals have any protection from this act.
“While bringing in the utterly inhumane exempting clause,” Fernando continued, the animal welfare bill “brings back the 1893 Butcher’s Ordinance into effect, and fifth century slaughtering practices.”
Exempts slaughter, science, & cultural use
The 2006 version of the animal welfare law, Fernando detailed, encouraged the adoption of what she called “modern humane methods of slaughter, and gave welfare protection to animals at the point of slaughter.”
The current edition of the law also “exempts live animals used in experiments, teaching, etc.,” Fernando said, “denying any ethical treatment of them during and after experiments, and brings back the use of live animals in cosmetics [testing], which was prohibited in the 2006 version.
Co-signing Fernando’s critique were three lawyers and fellow leading Sri Lankan animal advocates: Jeran Jegatheesan, Thanuja Navaratne, and Senaka Weeraratna.
Maneka Gandhi lends voice
Also lending her voice was Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, currently a member of Parliament in India, previously the minister responsible for animal welfare in several different Indian cabinets, and founder, in 1992, of People for Animals, the first national animal advocacy organization in India.
“I am appealing to the president and the government of Sri Lanka not to pass a supposed Animal Welfare Act which is in reality a pro-butcher, anti-animal act,” Gandhi wrote.
“I can understand this happening in any other country,” Gandhi said, “but in Sri Lanka, which is gentle and so close to nature?
“This Act should be one of the finest in the world,” Gandhi continued, “because you could learn from the mistakes made by the Indian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960. In the last six decades, we have done much to improve it by bringing in additional acts.
“Instead,” Gandhi charged, “you are bringing in an act which will increase the suffering of animals and make the animal welfare movement, which is growing fast, much weaker.
“None of the amendments [in the current version of the proposed law] are going to help animals,” Gandhi added. “They are clearly going to help the lobbies that exploit animals cruelly.
“It is useless to make an act protecting dogs and cats and guinea pigs,” Gandhi reminded, “when 90% of the violence to animals is to farm animals. This is utterly retrograde.
“Your act exempts live animals in experiments from protection,” Gandhi warned Sri Lankan colleagues in government, “allowing them to be used in teaching or any experiment without any regulation or thought of their well-being. You have, in this new act, allowed the use of live animals in experiments on cosmetics. Are you going back 30 years? Do you want Sri Lankan monkeys to eat 50 lipsticks at a time till they die?
“Meant for people who bring in foreign dogs & cats”
“Basically,” Gandhi finished, “this is an act that condemns animals to permanent suffering without legal redress, while pretending to do the opposite. Ultimately it is meant for people who bring in foreign dogs and cats and are sometimes mean to them.”
Lisa Bowman of WECare, a Sri Lanka-based organization founded by British veterinarian Janey Lowes, appealed on January 23, 2023 for the passage of the proposed Sri Lankan animal welfare act as it stood then, before disabling amendments.
“In January 2022,” Bowman recounted, “the Cabinet of Ministers finally approved the a new animal welfare bill,” which would have protected owned, wild, farmed, and stray animals, provided a proposed maximum fine for violations of the equivalent of $341 U.S. dollars, “and/or a minimum jail term of three years.
“Fell to the bottom of the pile”
“However, new bills in Sri Lanka have to go through a process of three parliamentary readings before being gazette,” Bowman continued. “The second reading was scheduled for April 5, 2022,” but on April 3, 2022, amid an economic crisis and “following huge anti-government protests, the Cabinet of Ministers resigned en masse on April 3, 2022. This meant the new animal welfare bill fell to the bottom of the pile.
“The new animal welfare bill has ruffled some feathers,” Bowman acknowledged, “especially in the meat industry. There is currently no law in Sri Lanka requiring the humane slaughter of animals bred for food, and the new bill would change that. Many in the meat industry are against it, as they argue that the introduction of humane slaughter would be a huge expense for them.
“There is also fear that the new laws would oppose halal slaughter,” required of Muslims, Bowman mentioned. About 12% of the population of Sri Lanka are Muslim.
“Would affect elephants”
“The new bill would also affect elephants,” Bowman said, “who are often chained up at Buddhist temples and forced to parade in processions––and wildlife safaris, which are a huge moneymaker for the tourism industry.”
Despite the weakness of the 1907 anti-cruelty law, Bowman observed, “The most recent Sri Lanka police performance report, dated 2018, as no reports have been made public since, shows 772 cases were reported under the current animal welfare laws.
“Will there be a higher number of reported cases if the animal welfare bill is brought in and people know there is a chance of justice?” Bowman asked.
“It all depends on how seriously the authorities take the new laws,” Bowman answered herself, “as it will be the police force enforcing them. It is imperative that all police officers receive adequate training and understand the importance of animal welfare,” Bowman concluded.
Cabinet ministers dismantled the original bill
The proposed new animal welfare law at that point appeared to be almost a done deal. Attorney and animal advocate Lalani S. Perera briefed the Ministerial Consultative Committee on Agriculture, a parliamentary body, about the need for the updated law on March 7, 2022.
But at a second Ministerial Consultative Committee on Agriculture held two weeks later, much of the proposed law was dismantled.
Explained the Sri Lankan news web site Adaderana, “Some Members of Parliament stressed that [the new animal welfare law] should not affect the use of animals for agricultural and cultural activities.”
The redrafted version now apparently on a fast track to passage was the outcome of the second meeting.
Lurking in the background to all of this appears to controversy smoldering for 22 years in Sri Lanka over the use of the human hormonal contraceptive drug Depo Provera to control the street dog population.
Depo Provera is not commonly used as a street dog contraceptive in any other nation, and is strongly opposed by most of the Sri Lankan animal advocacy community, but has long been favored by many Sri Lankan government veterinarians as an alternative to killing street dogs outright in hugely unpopular population control and rabies prevention sweeps.
Catch-and-kill dog control is widely considered to be contrary to the teachings of Buddhism, the religion of more than 70% of the Sri Lankan population.
Plan to inject 50,000 dogs
Summarized Mongabay correspondent Hassaan Shazuli on March 8, 2023, “A proposed pilot project to inject a human contraceptive on 50,000 dogs sparked outrage, prompting its immediate suspension,” but though billed as a pilot project, it was yet another revival of a scheme already tried and discarded many times, at least on a local basis.
Use of Depo Provera in dogs often leads to pyometra, a painful infection of the uterus that can eventually kill a dog,
“The Veterinary Drug Control Authority, which falls under the purview of the Department of Animal Production & Health, has not banned the use of this contraceptive for animals,” Sahzuli continued.
In truth, the Department of Animal Production & Health has often advocated the use of Depo Provera to reduce the estimated Sri Lankan street dog population of three to four million, roaming among a human population of about 22.5 million.
Funded to do only 25,000 s/n surgeries
“Calls to ban the injection came after the Public Health Veterinary Services office announced [the so-called] pilot project on January 5, 2023 to carry out chemical sterilization on 50,000 free-roaming dogs.
“The Depo Provera vaccines were to be given to us as a grant by the World Health Organization,” Public Health Veterinary Services director L.D. Kithsiri told Sahzuli, apparently unaware that hormonal contraceptives are not vaccines.
Sazuli said his department “has received only around 69 million rupees [$190,000] for clinical sterilization in 2023, and that allocation is enough to perform the surgery on only 25,000 dogs,” Sahzuli paraphrased.
“In 2022,” Kithsiri said, “the number of dog-mediated human rabies deaths was 28. Each year, around 20-30 deaths occur due to rabies. We need to perform the surgery on at least 100,000 dogs every year to achieve our target of no rabies deaths.”
“Project has only been suspended”
Seeking to ban the use of Depo-Provera in dogs are the Sri Lanka Veterinary Association, the Sri Lanka Veterinary Council, Justice for Animals, Animal Wellness Trust, Adopt a Dog in Sri Lanka and KACPAW.
“The pilot project to use this injection on dogs has only been suspended. This means it can take place sometime in the future,” Champa Fernando warned.
The attorney Lalani Perera explained that, “There is a provision [in the Sri Lanka anti-cruelty law as it has existed since 1907] which considers any act that causes unnecessary pain to an animal as an offense. But that is quite vague and far-fetched with the negative impacts of using the [Depo Provera] injection.”
As the proposed updated Sri Lankan animal welfare law stood before the 2023 amendments, it might have been used to stop use of Depo-Provera to contracept street dogs.
Depo Provera conflict began in 2001
The Depo Provera issue came to public notice when veterinarian Kala Santha of Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka, reported in international media in 2021 that “The regional director of health gave us permission to give contraceptive injections of Depo Provera to dogs, together with anti-rabies vaccination. This is very economical,” Santha wrote, “as one Depo Provera vial costing about $1.00 can be used to prevent three female dogs from having litters. A 50-milligram intramuscular injection is enough.
“My mother and I donated the injections used in our own city,” Santha said. “Now Colombo is using the contraceptive injections too.
“The only disadvantage,” Santha argued, “is that Depo Provera is effective for only six to eight months per injection, requiring that dogs much be caught and re-injected at regular intervals.”
Rebuttals soon followed from World Society for the Prevention of Animals representative Brian Faulkner and Eva Ruppel, a Swiss immigrant to Sri Lanka long involved in animal welfare, better known as simply “Padma.”
Government program overdosed dogs
Santha had used the correct dose for the average 20-pound street dog, Ruppel found, but “P.A.L. Harischandra, the director of Public Health & Veterinary Services, who introduced the use of Depo Provera for street-dogs in Sri Lanka and has already distributed it to many public health workers, is instructing the [workers] to inject 0.7 ml.,” or nearly half again the dose Santha used, “which of course doubles the risk of the dog developing pyometra, which is already high even when the proper dose is given.
“Unfortunately,” Ruppel admitted, “I did not know all this when Dr. Harischandra was posing as an advocate of humane solutions at the 2003 Asia for Animals conference. Otherwise I would not have listened quietly to his presentation of a pilot project carried out by him in the Puttalam District in the North West of Sri Lanka.
“In this pilot-project,” Ruppel said, several months after the conference, “all street dogs were given the anti-rabies vaccination and all females were injected with Depo Provera, which of course eradicated rabies in the district and successfully stabilized the dog population because hardly any one of these female dogs will be alive today.”