The cost of fun

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The sounds of a flute in the distance and then comes a man with a turban wrapped round his head and a cloth bag hanging on his shoulder. A monkey on a chain walks beside him. This is a gypsy walking along the road in search of children to entertain.

What we don’t see is the cobra hidden inside his cloth bag in a box. But if we were to pay the gypsy for his entertainment services, the flute he carries with him becomes the tool he uses to control the cobra hidden inside his box. 

The cobra is trained to come out of the box at the sound of the flute and dance to the tune of the musical instrument. While the cobra slowly and gently moves its body to the commands of its snake charmer little children watch in fascination.

Gypsies have used monkeys and cobras over the years to entertain children and adults as this is a traditional method used by them to earn money.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has allowed these gypsies to keep monkeys and cobras and continue to earn money as this is a practice that has been passed down for generations. However, Animal welfare activists have voiced their concerns with regard to the cruelty imposed on the cobras and monkeys that many people choose to ignore.

Cruel teeth removal

The monkeys are most often under fed and made to walk for miles on the road in search of an interested customer. Just like the monkeys the cobras are also underfed and their teeth removed in a cruel and gruesome way to stop them from biting.

When cobras are caught from the jungle their teeth are removed thereby making the animal unable to eat in a normal manner. They are also kept confined in tiny boxes with hardly any room to move. Their freedom in the wild is taken away from them like the monkeys who are kept on chains for their entire lives.

While some of us enjoy a snake dance we ignore the fact that these creatures live a depressive and cruel life under their owners. But have we as humans, ever stopped and wondered what it is like for a cobra that is used to wandering freely in the jungles to be captured, kept in a small box or cage and forced to dance to the tune of a flute against its will?

These cobras may move forward and backward to the tune of the flute but they do it only because they are forced to by the gypsies. The cobras are kept only so that these gypsies can earn a living by harassing them. The question that therefore needs to be asked is, does a human being have the right to use and abuse an animal or snake purely for human pleasure?

A few months ago an animal welfare activist came across a gypsy who had a cobra with a cello tape wrapped round it’s mouth. The animal was on display and the gypsy saw nothing wrong in keeping the animal all day with a cello tape wrapped round its mouth. The animal welfare activist on questioning the gypsy was told he earns Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 per day by displaying the cobra.

Starving cobra

“The cobra was given one chicken a month and the animal was starving. The gypsy said he had caught the cobra from the jungle. I told him I would come again and check on the cobra and that there should be no cello tape on the mouth of the snake,” the Animal Welfare Activist said.

Sasindu Anushka Wickramakumara, another animal welfare activist said he responds to requests made by people who want to get rid of snakes that come to their houses and offices. “I was once asked if I sell the snakes that I catch and what their prices are. Gypsies earn large amounts of money by keeping cobras and monkeys. But nobody checks on how the animals are treated. If the animals are ill-treated there is no action by the relevant authorities and no follow ups to check on the animals. Gypsies are allowed to catch snakes and monkeys and display them for entertainment purposes because it is their tradition,” Wickramakumara said.

Snake experts say cobras when taken away from their habitats suffer from stress and this in turn could result in the reptiles losing weight and getting malnourished. The gypsies are allowed their traditional methods, but what about the cruelty to the animals. What about the rights of the animals, or are we to assume that these animals have no rights because they are animals.

Cruelty to Animals Ordinance

Environment lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana speaking to Ceylon Today said if a cobra is found with a cello tape wrapped round its mouth a complaint can be made to the police under the Cruelty to Animals Ordinance. “The Police can be contacted on 119 and the Police have to act on the complaint. Whether it is a captive animal, a domesticated animal, a protected or non-protected animal, a complaint can be made under the Cruelty to Animals Ordinance to the Police,” Dr. Gunawardana explained.

He said the cobra is not a protected animal but under section 49A of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) a permit has to be obtained from the DWC for all unprotected animals.

“If the cobra’s teeth were removed those accused of such an offence can be charged under the Cruelty to Animals Ordinance. Under the Dangerous Animals Ordinance a person can be charged for keeping an animal that could cause harm to others and under section 282 of the Penal Code it is an offence to keep an animal that could cause harm to others,” Dr. Gunawardana said.

He went on to say that according to the law animals cannot be used for business purposes and it is prohibited to use animals to earn money.

Meanwhile Zoologist Dilan Peiris told Ceylon Today that if a cobra is taken away from its natural habitat it amounts to animal cruelty. “A cobra is deprived of its regular food and cannot eat at the time it wants to eat when it is taken away from its natural habitat. The reptile has to depend on humans for its food and be satisfied with what it is given to eat,” Peiris explained.

Stress in confined habitat

The zoologist added that food that is given to a reptile while in captivity is different to what it would eat in the wild and a cobra while in captivity is prevented from breeding and is prone to stress due to its confined habitat.

Peiris said gypsies remove the teeth of cobras and then use them to perform in front of the interested public adding that no legal action is taken against these gypsies who freely display their snakes as entertainment to the public.    

“When captured the first thing the gypsies do is to forcibly remove their fangs.  In the early days gypsies used to press the cobras fangs against banana trees and break them. However, from recent times the gypsies are known to use a blade and cut off the fangs of cobras from the bone itself,” Peiris explained.

According to Peiris a cobra has two large fangs and if these two fangs are cut off they grow again. “The gypsies cannot be bothered cutting the fangs of these cobras every time they grow and as an easy way out of a difficult situation they cut off the fangs of the cobras from the bone. When you cut off the fangs of a cobra there is a big wound in the reptile’s mouth. This wound doesn’t heal and in time gets festered. The cobra eventually stops eating due to the festered wound. In some cases when the cobras stop eating they are released to the jungles by the snake charmers,” Peiris explained.

In other situations the cobras die before they are released to the jungles he says adding that in most cases a cobra will survive with a snake charmer for only a month.

“A cobra can live up to 20 years and grow to a maximum of five feet in length. These reptiles feed on raw eggs and small birds and mammals. A cobra lays around 20 to 30 eggs once a year. A cobra can be identified by its hood and is deadly poisonous. Snake charmers always capture cobras with good hoods,” Peiris explained.  

A banana, a piece of bread or an egg

Peiris has ample proof of the cruelty imposed on cobras by snake charmers as he has come across many incidents of cobras with infected mouths. “I found cobras in Panadura, Dambulla and Anuradhapura with infected mouths. In such cases these reptiles cannot be cured and eventually die. Some snake charmers are known to consume liquor and in a drunken state harass these cobras,” Peiris explained.

“Monkeys and cobras are the most common animals held in captivity and used for performing tricks. “Most often these animals are not fed on time and in some cases have to survive on a banana, a piece of bread or an egg for the day. Depending on the owner some performing animals are fed only when they perform a trick,” says animal rights activist Shanthini Sanjaya.

“The DWC doesn’t allow environmentalists to keep animals and reptiles. However when snake charmers treat cobras in a cruel manner DWC authorities turn a blind eye on such incidents,” an animal rights activist said.      

“The DWC has allowed gypsies to keep monkeys and cobras as this is a tradition coming down from generations. However this tradition is slowly dying out as the present day gypsies are not interested in following the traditions of their ancestors. According to the FFPO Wildlife Officials cannot charge gypsies for cruelty to animals,” DWC Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara said.

He said this matter is in the discussion stage as many inquiries are made to the Department regarding cruelty to cobras and monkeys.

(File pix)

By Risidra Mendis