A Voice for the Voiceless | Sunday Observer

A Voice for the Voiceless

30 January, 2022

They never pose questions. They will never pass criticism either. Their eyes do speak a greater language unheard by many, but well-listened to by the most sensitive human beings who have been kind enough to spare their precious hours to look deep into their eyes and comprehend the saddest truths.

For centuries, animal Rights activists across the globe have been fighting tooth and nail to prevent cruelty to animals and create a safe and friendly atmosphere for the four-legged. In Sri Lanka too the story is more or less the same and quite recently the local animal lovers heaved a sigh of relief when the much-delayed animal Welfare Bill was approved by the Cabinet.

In a heart-wrenching case of animal cruelty, a pet dog called Charlie from Negombo was set on fire back in 2019. From such gruesome killings or unkindly treatment at pet sweatshops under the scorching sun to brutal handling of farm animals, we have witnessed thousands of dastardly acts over the years. Animal lovers have always called for stricter animal welfare laws and punishment as the existing Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 was archaic and was grossly inadequate to punish the wrongdoers.

The draft Animal Welfare Bill for the consideration of the Law Commission was initially prepared by Animal Rights Activist and lawyer Senaka Weeraratne more than two decades ago.

Calls for reforms

Weeraratne said that for decades there have been increasing calls for law reforms in this area by animal welfare societies and concerned individuals especially due to government indifference since Independence in 1948 towards bringing legislation governing animal welfare in Sri Lanka in line with modern legislation now prevalent in several other countries.

Way back in 1999, he prepared a paper titled “The Requirement for New Animal Welfare Legislation in Sri Lanka” which identified the deficiencies in the existing Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No.13 of 1907, and called for the enactment of modern legislation on animal welfare in Sri Lanka. The research paper was read at the ‘7th Sri Lanka Studies Conference’ held in Canberra, Australia the same year.

Weeraratne who was on a visit to Sri Lanka in January 2000 wrote a letter to the then Chairman of the Law Commission of Sri Lanka Justice Dr. A. R. B. Amerasinghe enclosing a copy of the paper and requested the Chairman to consider the review of laws relating to animals as the existing ones are “archaic and obsolete and required urgent reforms.”

The response was overwhelming, Weeraratne said. At the invitation of Justice Amarasinghe he delivered a speech on “The Requirement for new Animal Welfare legislation in Sri Lanka” at the Law Commission Board Room for members of the Commission, relevant senior Government Officials, and members of Animal Welfare Societies, on February 1, 2000.


Weeraratne said that the very next day he received a hand-delivered letter from Justice Dr. Amerasinghe mentioning the good news that the Law Commission had decided to pursue work concerning repealing the archaic Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No. 13 of 1907, and replacing it with an Animal Welfare Act.

One of the main purposes of the draft Act (Animal Welfare Bill) prepared by the Law Commission back then was the establishment of a new institution, i.e. the National Animal Welfare Authority, that will administer the Act, develop policies, and strengthen and expand the existing enforcement machinery, he said.

He commended the contribution by Chairman Justice Amerasinghe to initiate an examination of the laws relating to animals in Sri Lanka acceding to the call made by him and several other Animal Rights activists and Animal Welfare societies.

Weeraratne said that he is quite content that he sees “some” light at the end of the tunnel now as almost 22 years have passed since he had embarked on this project of drafting a new Animal Welfare Act for Sri Lanka.

“ I feel Legal Education in Sri Lanka must be made more inclusive. It must inspire young law students to become a Voice for the Voiceless,” he added.

Animal Rights activist Lalani Perera has been closely associated with the Animal Welfare Bill from 2002 when the Law Commission initiated the Bill to date, as a lawyer and also in her official capacity when she functioned as Additional Secretary (Legal), Ministry of Justice.

“The Animal Welfare Bill which was initiated by Sri Lanka’s Law Commission in 2002 to replace the archaic Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 was presented to the authorities in 2006. As there was no progress, Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera, M.P. in 2010, presented it in Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill, but with Parliament’s dissolution that year the Bill lapsed.

“It was then, that a group of us animal welfare organisations filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal to get a court directive for the government to proceed with the Bill, and through that case, we succeeded in drawing the government’s attention to the urgent need for this Bill. The draft Bill for the consideration of the Law Commission was prepared by Senaka Weeraratne, Attorney at Law.,” Perera said.

As a key Animal Rights activist and Member of the Animal Welfare Steering Committee Perera has made a commendable contribution in this regard.

In 2002, when the Law Commission commenced its project on animal welfare, Perera served in its Animal Welfare Sub-Committee as representative of the Ministry of Justice, in her capacity as then Additional Secretary (Legal) of that Ministry. In 2010, after the filing of the Court of Appeal case, she had been appointed along with Irangani de Silva, Lorraine Bibile and Sharmini Ratnayake as representatives of the petitioners in the case, to the Animal Welfare Steering Committee of the Ministry of Livestock to which the Bill had been assigned for follow-up action.

“After the discussions at the Steering Committee, certain changes were made to the Bill, but with no prejudice to its contents,” she said.


Among its key provisions are its wide definition of ‘animal’, creation of many new offenses, the introduction of severe penalties, and a special chapter on animal transport, she said.

“As regards the definition of ‘animal’, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance defines ‘animal’ very narrowly to mean only domestic or captured animals, but the Animal Welfare Bill has an exhaustive definition, that is ‘any living being other than a human being and includes a domestic animal, a farm animal, an animal in captivity, a wild animal, a companion animal, a stray animal, and a food animal,” she said.

While the existing law recognises only a few acts as offenses, the Animal Welfare Bill creates many offences, such as abandoning an animal, willfully depriving an animal of food or water, castrating/ sterilising an animal unless by a veterinary surgeon, confining a bird by a ring, chain, string, cord or wire attached to its legs and sport hunting/any other recreational sport involving injury to or destruction of the life of any animal.

Under the current law, the jail term for animal cruelty cannot exceed three months and the fine cannot exceed Rs.100, whereas the punishments in the Animal Welfare Bill are severe. Under this Bill, fines can extend up to Rs. 125,000 and jail terms up to four years.

Under the Animal Welfare Bill, pet shops are required to adhere to several conditions to safeguard the animals in such shops.

While today, only the Police can file court actions for animal cruelty, the Animal Welfare Bill confers that power also on any individual or group.

Animal slaughter

“Today animals are slaughtered alive for human consumption in the most brutal manner. As regards animal slaughter, the Animal Welfare Bill requires any act which is permissible by law, to be carried out in a “humane manner” that is in a ‘manner that causes the least amount of distress, pain, suffering, trauma, anguish or torment to the animal.’ Any violation of this requirement attracts a fine that can go up to Rs. Seventy Thousand and/or a jail term that can extend to two years. “

Perera added that the Animal Welfare Bill has a special chapter on the transport of animals which sets out conditions. Some of these conditions are that injury to animals should be avoided during loading and unloading, that the animal is provided with adequate space, air, hygienic conditions, and reasonable comfort during transportation, that the vehicle used has facilities for the easy observance and inspection of the animals, that a ramp is available to load and unload the animals in a humane manner and that the floor of the vehicle is free from holes or cracks likely to cause injury to the animals.”

“Animals are sentient beings. International instruments define ‘animal’ to mean any non-human mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian or fish,” she notes with a lot of concern.

Publishing in the Gazette

Now that Cabinet approval has been received for the Bill, the Ministry of Agriculture (the Ministry now responsible for the Bill) has to get it published in the Gazette. Once published, the Minister of Agriculture will present it in Parliament for debate and approval.

As the Bill defines ‘animal’ exhaustively it will cover all animal species and many acts of cruelty, she said.

Law enforcement

Once the Bill is passed, the law will be in place to address many animal cruelty issues. “But that is not the only important step,” Perera raised concern.

“ What is equally important is how the law is enforced. The main enforcement authority, that is the police, will have to be sensitised and trained and provided with the equipment.”

“Our Group has also met former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena and incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, all of whom were in agreement with the need for this Bill,” she said with hope.

When asked how soon the Bill will be passed, she sounded quite optimistic.

“We have come a long way; it has been a tedious journey with many challenges. Now that the Cabinet of Ministers has approved it, there are only three more steps ahead – that is gazetting the Bill and presenting it in Parliament for approval and its certification by the Speaker.”

New offences

Chairperson of the Animal Welfare Trust Irangani De Silva too was among the 18 petitioners who went to the Court of Appeal because the current law on animal protection is outdated.

“That Ordinance is not at all sufficient to deal with the horrendous acts of cruelty inflicted on voiceless animals,” De Silva said

She added that the Bill was recommended by the Law Commission of Sri Lanka after wide public consultation.

“It deals with many aspects of cruelty to animals. It introduces a range of new offences and deterrent punishments, like heavy fines and terms of imprisonment that can go up to Rs. 125,000. Under the existing law, a term of imprisonment cannot go beyond three months and the fine is limited to an amount less than Rs.100. Also, the Ordinance recognises only a few offences, “ she said.

She also added that “no law can be said to be perfect. But this is a good start.”

When asked whether sufficient attention has been paid to farm animals she said it does because all the sections in the Animal Welfare Bill applies also to farm animals since animal is defined in the Bill to include farm animals.

De Silva who is in total agreement with the proposal to ban Cattle slaughter emphasized that it has to be implemented without delay.

The Sunday Observer asked her if she is satisfied with the drafted Bill in terms of pet welfare, cruelty against stray dogs as well. She said this is a good start.

“ As I said earlier, once the Bill is in operation only we can see how it works.”

“ The Bill is very comprehensive and animals are given. priority. But its success can be seen only when it is in operation. How the law enforcement, especially the Police enforces the law and the public response to the law will show its success,” she said.

De Silva said that public awareness is very important. Those responsible must make the public aware of the law and be ready to carry out awareness programs without delay. Animal welfare organisations will be happy to assist in such programs, she said.

Being hopeful

Animal Rights Advocate, leading business personality and Embark Founder Otara Gunawardena said that the Bill was a much-needed one.

“ It has taken many years and a lot of work and advocacy by many. It was also approved previously about 4 years ago, but unfortunately many objections and changes happened since then and now we hope this is the final approval before being gazetted and then passed in parliament. So there are still some steps to go which we hope will now happen smoothly.” she said.

While commending the dedicated team of lawyers and activists who drafted the Bill, Gunawardena added that she was involved only many years later from 2015 after she left Odel to focus on Embark

“I did read it at that time and subsequently after changes were made some time ago. I believe there are more areas to be added and improved since it will definitely be beneficial to both animals, also people, and Sri Lanka as a whole as we have to start taking serious steps forward to care for the welfare of animals,” she said.

A long way to go

“A lot of good change has happened by people being more aware of animal welfare and now acting to help animals in distress but a lot of abuse still goes on.”

It is almost 15 years since Embark began and to date, it has found homes for over 6,000 dogs, rescued and treated over 30,000, and done many sterilisation programs across the country. “We do what we can and most of all we have always been focused on changing the mindset of people to be more caring, compassionate citizens and to care for the community animals who live with us,” she said.

When asked where she would place Sri Lanka in terms of Protecting Animal Rights, she said,

“ I think Sri Lanka has a very long way to go with how we treat our animals. It is very strange that a country like ours which was built on compassionate principles since the days of Mihintale, has strayed so far away on how we treat other sentient beings. From caged dogs which is so common, extremely cruel pet shops, inhumane puppy breeding mills, chained elephants, and many other cruel situations for animals are far too prevalent.”

Gunawardena said in 2022 we should be far ahead of other nations and we should set an example to the world on how to care for animals compassionately with the best welfare standards.

DVA views

Dhamma Voices For Animals (DVA) President Bob Isaacson hailed the Cabinet approval.

“The Cabinet’s most recent approval of Sri Lanka’s Animal Welfare Bill was very good news, but not a single animal will be saved until the Parliament passes the bill. The Bill will make a big difference in the lives of countless sentient beings who feel pain and suffer just as humans feel pain and suffer.

As President and Co-founder of Dharma Voices for Animals DVA, the only international Buddhist animal advocacy organisation in the world, I want to thank the President, Prime Minister, and the Cabinet for their leadership regarding the Animal Welfare Bill.

As the Bill is considered by Parliament, I am confident in the strong leadership there which is actively supporting the Bill. I am confident that soon Sri Lanka will join the other democracies in Asia, Europe, and North America and finally pass a modern Animal Welfare Bill after more than 110 years, and finally protect animals.”

PETA Asia Senior Vice President Jason Baker said the recent approval of the Animal Welfare Bill in Sri Lanka signals progresses for the animal rights movement in the country. “PETA Asia welcomes many parts of the bill, including the restrictions on pet stores and the power afforded to individuals to file cruelty cases. However, there is a lot of room for improvement: The bill does little to protect typically farmed animals, such as chickens, who are perhaps the most abused animals on the planet. It also needs to be highlighted that “humane slaughter” is not a reality.”

“You can oppose cruelty to animals by going vegan and joining the rising number of people every year who help animals through their spending habits. Never buy animal-derived products or visit places that exploit and abuse animals, such as zoos and circuses. Ultimately, you would not have to worry about useless “humane slaughter” laws if there were no slaughter, he said.”