A video clip was shared on Twitter recently by the ‘Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE)’ movement showing newly born twin elephants and their mother in Pinnawala. The contents of the video have been condemned by many online for allegedly forcing the elephants to bathe for media publicity.
Amongst the criticisms were comments made by global music legend Cher, who spoke out against the Department of National Zoological Gardens and its Director General Shermila Rajapaksa for allegedly exploiting the new baby elephants.
The elephant circus
Cher tweeted: “She (Director General Rajapaksa) is only interested in making money for the zoo, which will exploit them until their premature deaths. Elephants will make the zoo a fortune and then the elephants, the mother nanny will be heartbroken and traumatised forever. Ask the zoo if mom and twins will live together.” This was followed by two further tweets claiming that this is a crime and urging the public to see that this is an inhumane and cruel way to treat the animals.
There have also been recent talks that the ‘elephant circus’ at the Dehiwala Zoo – which was stopped in 2015 – was preparing to make a comeback. According to RARE Communication and Activism Coordinator Panchali Panapitiya, even though in 2015 the ‘circus’ – which included the elephants performing certain stunts like doing headstands, stacking the animals atop of one another, balancing on stools etc. – was removed from the routine, some elements of the performances continued up to the present day.
She stated that these were conducted in the guise of educational programmes, where the elephants were made to shoot a ball in a netball game and stand in line while holding each other’s tails, along with other similar activities. She said that despite these actions, these still remain cruel treatment of the animals as it is not the natural inclination or behaviour of these creatures.
“Elephants do not naturally do these things,” Panapitiya said, adding that what she advocates for is ‘positive reinforcement’ when it comes to the welfare of these creatures in captivity, noting that this method of treatment can be learned and that there are experts who are willing to provide this training.
Cruelty is subjective?
When speaking to Department of National Zoological Gardens Director General Shermila Rajapaksa, she confirmed that while activities had been halted for the time being due to Covid, they do, in fact, have a programme where elephants perform certain activities. However, this is referred to as a ‘elephant meet and greet’ and it is an educational programme for children. Rajapaksa said they have a kind of programme where children are taught about how many toes an elephant has, how we calculate their weight and height, and what they eat. “They do perform certain activities, they shoot a ball and stand around in a line, and these are common practises in zoos around the world,” explained Rajapaksa, noting that the programme which they have implemented here is accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). She shared the view that “much of the ‘activism’” is misleading, as this is an accredited programme and a common practice seen in zoos around the world.
She also noted that with regard to the claims of mistreatment of the animals, and the mishandling of them, the animals are not chained and they are kept in “spacious” enclosures surrounded by an electric fence, stating: “You can come and see for yourself.”
On the same point, however, Panapitiya stated that she has seen the enclosures herself, and she noted that they are not by any means spacious. While there is certainly space, the fencing is limited to a small space, which is the same as if the animals had been chained or tied up. She noted that even in the case of the twins, while they claimed that the twins would have their nanny by their side at all times, upon her visit what she noticed was that the nanny was not around so she is sceptical if even that was entirely true.
There was further conflict with the zoo with regard to the intentions of animal rights activists, where Panapitya stated that they offered their assistance with regard to providing training, which would allow for better elephant welfare in our zoos, but she said that government authorities thwarted this offer. From the State side, Rajapaksa noted that while they, as in the Department of National Zoological Gardens, are open to learning from real experts who can better their processes, the recommendations brought by organisations like RARE are “questionable”. She said: “There was a proposal, we did not outright refuse it, but in the proposal it was said that an animal expert who would conduct the workshop would be provided for free from RARE. However, they would raise the funds for the individual from their donors, this would be about Rs. 1,000 per hour.” She said that this appears to be a dollar earning scheme rather than an actual welfare effort.
While much of the conversation is subjective, and there is a blame game at play with neither of the parties appearing to be entirely transparent, there is one silver lining in all of this, which is the upcoming policy change that can be expected with the newly announced status of the nearly 15-year-long journey of the Animal Welfare Rights Bill.
Animal Welfare Rights Bill
In light of this public criticism, there have been several developments in the animal welfare front in the island as the Sri Lankan Cabinet finally granted approval for the gazetting of the Animal Welfare Rights Bill, which, after being gazetted, will be presented to Parliament for approval.
Speaking with us, animal rights activist and Attorney-at-Law Lalani Perera noted that the Bill in question brings about a considerable upgrade on the archaic Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 13 of 1907 which presently governs animal welfare in the country.
She noted that with regard to the current Ordinance, the penalties are negligible, and only a handful of acts fall under the defined category of cruelty, while the definition of animal being limited to domestic or captured animals is incredibly restrictive.
However, in the new Bill, the penalties for transgressors are far more severe, and the Bill has a far wider definition of animal, which does not stop at merely domestic or captured animals. She said that this is a start, but it would be able to make a difference.
Perera noted that even with regard to elephants in captivity, if persons are genuinely able to build a case that they are being treated cruelly, then action can be taken. She said that ‘cruelty’ is also defined in the Bill, therefore it would leave a lot less room for interpretation, which will be great assistance in the search for justice.
We must note that with regard to the Bill, we are not home free just yet, as the document has only received Cabinet approval. It must now be gazetted. In this time this leaves room for different lobby groups coming up in the next few weeks or months ahead, who would be looking to halt the progression of the Bill, or to strip it of its harsher sentences.