Today I am aware that there is much anxiety among many civil society groups engaged in animal welfare and humane treatment of animals to see the enactment of the proposed legislation on animal welfare by the Government of Sri Lanka. This new interest on animal welfare in Sri Lanka by many animal activists in particular, and the general public to a great extent, brings to my memory my good friend Dr. Santha Karunaratne, fondly known as ‘S K’ or ‘Karu’, who left this world 26 years ago.
It was a time when for most of us in Sri Lanka the animals were just another group of creatures, though the situation in many developed countries as well as some of the developing countries even then, was totally different. For many veterinarians at that time the animals were just another subject, which when brought to them for any veterinary intervention were handled very professionally, but the welfare aspect of the animals was not an issue which received much attention. It was also a time when even at the veterinary faculty of veterinary science of the Peradeniya University, animal welfare was not a subject discussed or taught in the veterinary teaching.
Karu was a strict disciplinarian and a person to observe finer details as a professional. This character of ’Karu’ was amply noticeable at every place where he worked, be it the Thalathuoya vet office, the vet hospital or the PD’s Office
However, I can remember SK meeting him for the first time at the veterinary faculty, that S K was different to animals than many of his batch mates. This difference was the way he cared for animals and his love for animals was evident right from his undergraduate days. This character helped him later in his life to become a veterinarian to be admired by many as a truly professional veterinarian of that time.
S K, educated at Richmond College, Galle, entered the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the Peradeniya University in 1966, in his first attempt itself at the GCE (AL). His intrinsic values on animals and the humane disposition he had towards animals, made him take up the veterinary studies with great interest and he completed the degree in veterinary science, with ease, in the year 1970.
Dr. Karunaratne then joined the Department of Agriculture in 1971 (the present Department of Animal Production and Health was only a division of the Agriculture Department at that time), as a veterinary surgeon. He first served at the Government Livestock Farm at Polonnaruwa, where he mastered the art of working with large domesticated animals. He was then transferred as a range veterinary surgeon to Thalathuoya, where he had to interact with private farmers, and soon he was a vet sought after by many farmers even from outside Thalathuoya.
While he was at Thalathuoya, he also had to serve as the veterinary surgeon at the Haragama Animal Quarantine Farm, which was specially set-up to undertake the first ever large importation of temperate cattle to the country. Recognising his potential to develop as a good clinician, he was selected by the Department to do his Post Graduate Diploma in Preventive Medicine in Denmark and also he was trained in China, in veterinary acupuncture, which was an emerging area of veterinary intervention that was gaining importance during the 1980s. Not only was he sent for this training, his skills in veterinary clinical methods was soon rewarded by giving him the responsibility as the Veterinarian-in-Charge of the veterinary hospital at Peradeniya.
In addition to the office being a place for administration of veterinary work in the central province, ‘Karu’ made that space into a place where the range veterinarians could also meet as a group to discuss professional matters and share each other’s experiences in their professional work
Unlike today, the facilities, tools and methods available for veterinary practice in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and also just coming out of a closed economic policy regime of the 1970s, were very basic. But ‘Karu’ with his far reaching vision knew how the veterinary hospital can be better upgraded to serve the voiceless creatures. Transforming his vision into action was not easy, because the budgetary planning for animal health activities in Sri Lanka at that time was more aligned for preventive animal health work, mainly immunisation of contagious animal diseases.
Upgrading the veterinary hospital did not come within this planning framework. However, ‘Karu’s love for animals, and his humane disposition towards animals in his veterinary practice was soon appreciated by Dr. Winter, the Team Leader of the GTZ funded Goat Development Project in Sri Lanka. Dr. Winter used to take his pet to the veterinary hospital for treatment, and he felt pity on the facilities Dr. Karunaratne was having at the veterinary hospital and yet discharging a remarkable service to all classes and species of animals that are brought to the veterinary hospital.
Dr. Winter offered to help ‘Karu’ to arrange financial assistance from Germany, outside the official budget amount allocated from Germany to Sri Lanka, to upgrade the veterinary hospital. It was a time when the internet was unknown to Sri Lanka, and collecting information and specification for medical equipment and supplies was no easy task. He got down printed manuals and catalogues on veterinary equipment and instruments, collected materials on new veterinary approaches and prepared a well integrated plan for the veterinary hospital. The GTZ was very happy to fund ‘Karu’s plan for the upgrading of the veterinary hospital. Soon the veterinary hospital with the new facilities and most importantly, dedicated service by ‘Karu’, became the centre of excellence for veterinary intervention in the country.
Demonstrating his skills as a good planner and a manager, ‘Karu’ was soon made the Provincial Director of Animal Health of the Central Province. When he took over the functions of the Provincial Director, the PD’s office was housed in an extension to the former veterinary vaccine’s laboratory. The master planner soon went into action, and the result was a fully refurbished structure to accommodate all the divisions of the Provincial Director of Animal Health. In addition to the office being a place for administration of veterinary work in the central province, ‘Karu’ made that space into a place where the range veterinarians could also meet as a group to discuss professional matters and share each other’s experiences in their professional work. Karu was a strict disciplinarian and a person to observe finer details as a professional. This character of ’Karu’ was amply noticeable at every place where he worked, be it the Thalathuoya vet office, the vet hospital or the PD’s Office.
His next goal was to be the Director of Zoological Gardens at Dehiwala to be upgraded to the position it deserved. The Zoological Gardens, prior to that, has had eminent zoologists as Heads of the Institution, but in the late 1980s it was slipping out of the development trajectory it followed, and was the subject for much criticism by the public. Karu though not an animal scientist, but because of his strong love towards animals, knew that he could turn around things at the Zoological Gardens at Dehiwala and make it another centre of excellence like the veterinary hospital at Peradeniya. The Head of the Zoological Gardens was not a post designated for a veterinarian.
However, given the track record of ‘Karu’as a doer and a manager par excellence, the decision makers considered ‘Karu’ to take control of the management of the Zoological Gardens.
However, God’s plan for ‘Karu’was different. A good athlete both at Richmond College and at the University of Peradeniya, a very active veterinarian, a go-getter and a good manager soon started to retard. His health condition rapidly started to deteriorate and his health did not support his will to pursue his vision of transforming the Zoological Gardens to an institution to be proud of and of service to society. Being a veterinarian he knew he was fighting a fast debilitating condition, and even on his sick bed he never showed disgust or frustration. He only showed his strong faith on the will of Our Lord Almighty. Dr Karu left this earthly life at a very early age, leaving his University Sweetheart Sujatha, and three children. Sujatha, not only brought up the 3 children who were schooling at the time of ‘Karu’s demise with great courage, but continues to be serving the society and the church. Karu’s children inheriting the father’s noble characters are today mature citizens holding responsible positions in the society and leading exemplary lives.
May the Almighty grant him eternal rest.
Dr. Sam Daniel