Little (pet) shops of horrors

2 January 2014 04:50 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Despite the many pet shops operating commercially in the country, the government has failed to introduce legislation to arrest the negatives in this field

A cluster of rather tiny cages chockfull of various birds, kittens, rabbits and puppies crowd the entrance to the wee pet shop located alongside the pavement bordering the busy road, a few feet away from the Jubilee Post junction. The twittering of birds and whines of puppies coupled with the stench of animal faeces and putrefying food set off a rather foreboding tone to anyone who approaches the shop. Nevertheless, it is frequented by many and is even listed in several websites as a popular pet store that not only sells ‘healthy, live animals’ but facilitates every pet need including food and cages.

My friend and I step inside the tiny shop congested with baby animals and stacks of pet food, to make an inquiry about two pigeons bought from the store few days ago. “What do you need?” a young boy who peeps in through a wooden door at the back inquires. My friend confronts him. Priced at Rs. 350 each, she had bought a pair to free them but had soon realised one was unable to fly due to safety pins been stuck through its wings.

“Well, some of our suppliers pin the birds’ wings to prevent them from flying away once captured. But it is usually taken off. This pin must have been accidentally left. Anyhow, the bird is not dead, right?” he questions with a cheeky smile.

Exasperated by his answer, she retorts, pointing out the bird is injured and that they should take better care of the animals. “Look Miss, I am really busy. So if you are not here to buy anything, I suggest you leave without wasting my time,” he says as he slams the door.

His nonchalant reaction to the allegations made was explicable with just one look around the interior of the store. The rancid smell inside was nothing compared to the pitiful sight of the animals; particularly the puppies that were crammed into squalid wire-cages. Most of them were lying lethargically with no space to move while a few clawed away at the wires.

This is quite an ordinary occurrence particularly in Colombo and it is not restricted to the confines of pet shops. Street vendors with cages full of birds, puppies etc are common sights in some parts of Colombo’s outskirts, waiting along the sides of busy roads attempting to lure passers-by into purchasing their ‘merchandise’.
“This practice of animals such as puppies and kittens being crammed into tiny cages and sold off at pet stores is a new development that started about five years ago. Pet stores in Sri Lanka sold mostly animals such as small birds and fish a few years back,” says Buddhika Iddagoda, the administrator of – a cyberspace forum for pet lovers. “There were quite a number of users discussing the appalling display of animals such as puppies that were caged for prolonged hours in pet stores. But it has turned such a commonplace sight that hardly anyone talks about it anymore,” he says.

Iddagoda points out that irrelevant of the type of animals displayed in each shop, over 90% of the pet stores located in and around the vicinity of Colombo are unfit to

Present laws are not directed towards prevention

Senior environmentalist and environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena says the regulations pertaining to animal cruelty at present are mostly directed towards acting on any reported incidents and not towards prevention.

He said, “There are several laws that can be made use of including The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No.13 of 1907 and the Animal Diseases Act to take action against animal cruelty but they are all concerning action that can be taken once an incident is reported. However, local government regulations can be used when providing approval for the operation of pet shops and to ensure that the premises in which they are operating in are fit to hold animals. However, the scope is limited, which is why a proposal was made about a decade ago for the establishment of an Animal Welfare Act which is yet to be implemented and given the present plight of animal trade I would say is a timely need.”
accommodate animals. “I have personally visited most of these pet stores. Due to space constraints, the animals are kept in very small cages that result in stunting their growth. Moreover, they are kept in severely unhygienic conditions that create ample breeding grounds for various diseases,” he adds.

  •  Puppy mills and lack of responsible breeding
Neglect and cruelty to animals in pet stores is only one of the links in the chain of abuse that often begins at the hands of their breeders. The hundreds of ‘puppy mills’ (commercial breeding ventures that place profits above the wellbeing of the animal) operating in the outskirts of Colombo are perfect examples where rampant animal abuse takes place. Yet, they manage to remain undetected due to weaknesses in laws pertaining to the welfare of animals.

The female animals raised in these puppy mills are treated like machines that deliver packages of puppies – repeatedly impregnated and made to produce litter after litter, they are often kept in crude conditions with little exercise or socialising.  

“I own three female pure-bred labradors,” says one such puppy-mill owner who operates in the vicinity of Piliyandala. Despite his pride of the dogs, the conditions in which they were kept were piteous. The three dogs were chained and kept in separate cages that were not big enough to hold them. The putrid smell of urine and faeces and the swarms of flies made it evident that the cages were not cleaned for several days.

“The two young dogs produce litters twice a year. I have a few contacts who own stud dogs so during the mating period, I transport the females to those homes,” he tells me. “What if the mating doesn’t take place right on that particular day?” I ask him. “I can’t afford to transport the dog or pay for the stud dog for several days. So the female is kept tied up until they mate,” he tells me, indifferently.

Once the litters are produced, the puppies are torn away from their mother and sold off like hot cakes – the best of them at Rs. 35,000 each.  “I have no choice but to give away the runts to pet shops because there is no space to accommodate them here. Now I am also saddled with a female who is weak and can no longer breed – she will have to be sold off to someone as well,” he adds.

The repeated breeding and foul conditions in which the animals are held can take a toll on their health. A senior veterinary surgeon who commented on the impacts of low-standard breeding practices said the strength and body conditions of the female will definitely deteriorate if it is not given adequate time to restore strength lost during the pregnancy and nursing period. Moreover, he added the forced mating which the female dogs are subjected to can even result in its death due to stress and respiratory difficulties.  

“Thereafter once the pups are born they are torn away from its mother and cramped up in cages deprived of exercise, love, or human touch which would result in the development of destructive and unsociable behaviour. The cages in which they are held are more like transit homes and they are ideal breeding grounds for various viruses and bacteria to infect new born pups that could even be lethal such as the parvo viral infection. There have been many instances where families have bought pups that had appeared healthy while in the pet store but fell terminally ill immediately after it was taken home,” he added.

“Dog breeding is a good profession but unfortunately I am unable to say the situation is the same in Sri Lanka due to rampant unethical practices,” he added.

  • Profits placed above welfare of the animal
“The present plight concerning the breeding of dogs is a result of the profession being turned into a lucrative business,” says Ceylon Kennel Club (CKC) Secretary, Sunil de Livera Tennakoon. CKC is one of the few kennel clubs in Sri Lanka where pedigreed dogs and their breeders register in order to gain a degree of value and recognition for their animals. At present, a pure-bred animal registered with a recognised kennel club can fetch prices that range between Rs. 35,000 to 100, 000 or higher.

“Dog breeding has turned into a purely money making venture to a majority of breeders as of late. As a result, most of them are no longer interested in maintaining the standards or welfare of the animals,” he says.

With profits being the sole deciding factor, Tennakoon says the animals are not only ill-treated by commercial breeders largely based in areas such as Kandana, Ja-Ela and Negombo but also by their owners. “Dog breeding is a responsible undertaking but today some take it lightly while others do it solely for the money. The puppies in pet shops are not the sole productions of puppy mills but are also those given away by private owners who abandon puppies after breeding the dogs with little understanding of the responsibilities that follows,” he explained, adding, “there were and are breeders who would take the trouble of screening buyers or inspecting potential future homes of the dogs they sell to ensure they are adopted by loving homes. Unfortunately, most breeders don’t bother anymore.”

However, irrelevant of the production source of the ‘merchandise’ all breeders, particularly those who are profit-oriented are  keen on gaining membership at a recognised kennel club since it adds value for the puppies and consequently a higher price. “If they didn’t possess  membership of a club, each puppy would be sold at about Rs. 10, 000 to Rs. 15, 000 less than the market price,” he adds.

  •  Need for government intervention
Although these kennel clubs can be regulating points to ensure the welfare of the animals Tennakoon says they are not equipped with the manpower to undertake such a task.  “CKC alone has about 3000 members, so with our limited staff, it is an impossible task to visit each member and look into their practices. We believe it is time that a separate unit is set up by the government to look into these issues.”

According to Tennakoon a proposal had been presented to the government a few years ago by the CKC, to formulate a national council that would introduce a mechanism and regulations that would help maintain standards of breeders. “The plan was to get breeders to pay a fee to help manage the financial requirements of the council and introduce a set of regulations that would be implemented through the council so that ill-treatment of dogs - not just pure breeds but also community dogs could be prevented while launching welfare programmes for these animals. We presented the proposal about five years ago and we are yet to receive responses from the government.”

  • Lack of public  involvement against animal cruelty
Animal rights activist and founder of Sathva Mithra (Friends of Animals), Sagarika Rajakarunanayake says the awareness and outcry of the public against animal cruelty in Sri Lanka is quite low and adds it has in turn led to the increase of in the abuse of animals.

“It is a well known fact that not only dogs but various species of animals sold in pet shops are kept in pernicious conditions due to being profit oriented. These shops operate publicly but how many of those who see the ill-treatment and exploitation of animals bother to lodge complaints about it with the police? It is true that in Sri Lanka the laws pertaining to animal welfare are archaic and the penalties low. Nevertheless, we do have laws and they should be made use of. Unfortunately, even the police are lethargic in taking action against those who commit animal cruelties due to the lack of adequate public backing,”  Rajakrunanayake points out.

Speaking further she says that it is time that issues concerning animal welfare stopped being topics spoken by animal rights organisations. “I urge the public to take action and become involved in working towards preventing zero tolerance towards animal cruelty at least in this New Year,” she added.

Pix by Waruna Wanniarachchi

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