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Sunday, 8 February 2015





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Animals and culture - a Lankan perspective

Culture is defined by some as the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. These patterns, traits, and products are considered the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population. (For example, the cultures of India or Sri Lanka).

Animal welfare refers to the action that ensures the well-being mainly of domestic animals. Animal welfare was a concern of some ancient civilisations but began to take a larger place in Western public policy in 19th-century, as in Britain. Today it is a significant focus of interest in science, ethics, and animal welfare organisations.

Chained feet

According to the definition of culture, given above, many animals possess cultures too; they are 'socially transmitted behaviour patterns'. For example, migratory birds, carnivores that hunt cooperatively and tool-using chimpanzees. Most 'cultural' associations with animals in the eastern world are based on religion. In the western world the associations are more symbolic.

Former Kings of Sri Lanka established some of the world's first wild life sanctuaries. Five of the kings governed the country under the Maghata rule, which banned completely the killing of any animal in the kingdom. The five kings were 1) Amanda Gamini (79 - 80 AD), 2) Voharika Tissa (269 - 291 AD) 3) Silakala (524 - 537 AD) 4) Agga Bodhi IV (658 - 674 AD) 5) Kassapa III (717 - 724 AD).

The standards of 'good' animal welfare vary considerably between countries, tribes and even contexts. These standards are constantly reviewed and are debated, created and revised by animal welfare groups, legislators and academics all over the world.

Animal welfare science uses measures such as longevity, disease, behaviour, physiology and reproduction. The mitigation of distress is also a key component. There is however, constant debate about which of these indicators provide the best information.

Concern for animal welfare is often based on the belief that non-human animals are able to perceive or feel things and that consideration should be given to their well-being or suffering, especially when they are under the care of humans. These concerns can include how animals are slaughtered for food, how they are used in scientific research, how they are treated in captivity or in domestication (as pets, in zoos, farms and circuses), and how human activities affect the welfare and survival of wild species.

Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country with around 70 percent of its population nominally subscribing to a Buddhist worldview. The Buddha in his teachings has said, "One must not deliberately kill any living creature either by committing the act oneself, instructing others to kill, or approving of or participating in acts of killing. Completely abstain from the act of killing directly and indirectly, eat only pure vegetarian food".

In ancient times the State protected animals, birds, and other living creatures of the land pursuant to a moving plea made by Arahath Mahinda who brought the message of Buddhism to Sri Lanka from India. This plea was made to King Devanampiyatissa during their very first encounter at Mihintale about 2,300 years ago.

The plea was "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." Based on these words, King Devanampiyatissa established what is believed to be the world's first wildlife sanctuary.

As a result this is now a part of the traditional culture of Sri Lankans who have always had an ethical (if not carefully rationalised) concern for the welfare of animals and who revere all forms of life. However, while a reverence for life is deeply entrenched in society, this does not always translate to a reverence for welfare, which is frequently rationalised as the karmic fate of the animal.

The paradox exists, therefore, that while most people will not kill animals, they would not go out of their way to improve the wellbeing of an animal, either. Examples include temple elephants being kept in chains for much of the time or made to walk long distances on burning hot paved roads; stray dogs being allowed to 'live' on roads and public areas with little or no care. The state, which is constitutionally bound to protect and foster the Buddha sasana, itself undertakes activities that are arguably inimical to the welfare of animals, e.g., through a fisheries corporation, a leather products corporation, a silk corporation etc.

Veterinary ethics

Mahatma Gandhi has said "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated". Historical rock inscriptions and ancient chronicles e.g. Mahawamsa, reveal that state protection was granted to animals and the slaughter of cows was strictly prohibited. However cattle bones feature prominently in archaeological digs all over the country, including Anuradhapura.

Today veterinarians are required to be more than good at their clinical work. They must have a sound understanding of their moral, ethical and legal obligations to the public, their peers and the animals that they treat.

Animal laws are now growing as a legal discipline. This has enormous implications for the veterinary profession. With increasing public and legal attention on issues of animal welfare, it is vitally important that veterinarians have a clear understanding of their manifold duties.

The non-fulfillment of these duties places the veterinary profession and its members at considerable risk, including public criticism and legal liability.

We need to remove the culture of impunity and non-accountability in respect to abuse of animals. Veterinarians should be called upon, as part of good practical ethics, to report suspected abuse of animals as much as the public should.

Sri Lanka's Animal Welfare Bill is now before the Cabinet of Ministers before it becomes law. Many Asian countries will soon follow with their legislation.

"Good laws should not be confined to the statute book or be allowed to remain as a dead letter but should be enforced with the same spirit with which it was enacted". However, the Bill should contain laws that are enforceable.

Current Legislation

The following list is a catalogue of legislation that has a bearing on Animals and Animal Welfare:

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No.13 of 1907

Animals Act, No.29 of 1958

Fauna & Flora Protection Ordinance, No.2 of 1937 (Amended in 1997)

Butchers Ordinance, No. 9 of 1893

Animals Diseases Act, No.59 of 1992

Municipal Council Ordinance, No.29 of 1947

Urban Councils Ord. No.61 of 1939

Pradeshiya Sabhas Act, No.15 of 1987

Rabies Ordinance, No.7 of 1893

Registration of Dogs Ordinance, No.25 of 1901

Diseases of Animals Ordinance, No.25 of 1909

Dangerous Animals Ordinance, No.38 of 1921

Elephant Kraals Ordinance, No.1 of 1912

Dried Meat Ord. No. 19 of 1908

National Zoological Gardens Act, No.41 of 1982

Penal Code, No.2 of 1883


In Sri Lanka, no other animal has been associated for so long with the people in their traditional and religious activities as the elephant.

This important cultural exploitation dates back to the pre-historic era, more than 5,000 years ago. Elephants were often used in warfare, with little concern for their wellbeing. It is not as if elephants became associated with Buddhist culture because of some special relationship: they just happened to be large, conveniently tameable animals. No religious procession was complete without its retinue of elephants, and many large Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka had their own elephants as do private owners.

Crushing by elephant

Ancient Sinhalese kings captured and tamed elephants, which used to abound in the country, for various purposes. Elephants, suitably caparisoned, have and still take part in ceremonial, cultural and religious pageants and processions. Elephants have been used by man in his wars in Europe and Asia. They have assisted him in his logging operations and construction works.

They have also featured in various sports and combat during the celebrations of the Sinhala community in Sri Lanka. They have helped in timber operations and agricultural activities. In India they have provided transportation for sportsmen indulging in shikars.

Historical records show that some ancient Sinhala Kings used elephants to punish wrongdoers. One method was to get the elephant to crush and dismember the victim

It is said that during the time of the Sinhala kings the elephant was afforded 'complete protection' by royal decree.

This really only meant that their exploitation could be sanctioned only by the king. This is not the same as what we mean by 'protection' nowadays. The penalty for killing an elephant was death. With the advent of the British to Sri Lanka this protection was withdrawn. On the contrary large numbers of elephants were killed by the British under the guise of sport.

Not only did the British government encourage and condone killing elephants as a sport but it also paid a bounty for each elephant killed, deeming the elephant an agricultural pest. Elephants were a common element in Sinhalese heraldry for over two thousand years and remained so through British colonial rule.

The coat of arms and the flag of the Ceylon Government from 1875 to 1948 included an elephant and even today many institutions use the Sri Lankan elephant in their coat of arms and insignia - the Police Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation, National Rugby Football Union, Ceylon Government Railway etc.

[email protected]

(The writer is Managing Trustee, Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust

Sri Lanka)

To be continued



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