Abandoned and Ignored: Plight of Street Dogs in Sri Lanka
By Sandeep Tissaaratchy and Treshan Fernando
Dogs have been an intrinsic part of people’s lives for hundreds of years which have given them the reputation of being man’s best friend. Although cherished by many, several dogs go through intense suffering on the streets of Sri Lanka.
As people pass by these street dogs on their way home to their own pets, they choose to ignore the battered and bruised bodies and desperate faces of animals that are only looking for love and affection.
According to the animal welfare organisation, Animal SOS Sri Lanka, over three million stray dogs roam the streets of Sri Lanka, suffering from starvation and without a place to call their home.
The owner of a small-scale rescue shelter in Mount Lavinia told Ceylon Today that after the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption rates have fallen. More and more street dogs rescued by the organisation are languishing in shelters having not found suitable homes.
He also worries that this overcrowding will limit their ability to look after more street dogs in the future. The more dogs that aren’t adopted must be kept at the shelter, he says, which causes a notable financial strain on shelters as they must provide the animals with food, medication and other necessities.
As a result, he pointed out that small, regional shelters such as his own would face extreme financial pressure to stop accepting stray dogs. While some large-scale shelters remain relatively unaffected, some shelters have reported having to shut down and cease rescue operations in order to focus on the pets they already have.
It was made clear that small shelters were not the only victims of overcrowding when Ceylon Today spoke with Animal SOS Sri Lanka. “We have a huge issue of being over crowded these days due to adoptions being incredibly slow,” Kim Cooling, a founding member of Animal SOS Sri Lanka, said.
When asked if this problem is a result of COVID-19 she said that it is a combination of factors. On one hand, the pandemic has resulted in people not being in a financially stable position to adopt. However, organisations also try to ensure that homes that their pets go to are filled only with love and care, which is hard to find.
Furthermore, this issue is time sensitive. Most families that look to adopt have a preference for puppies. The older the dogs get, the less likely they are to be adopted. This means that most shelters are required to actively advertise to get their animals adopted.
When asked about why it is so difficult to get rescue animals adopted, the owner informed Ceylon Today of a stigma surrounding strays. He said most people incorrectly believe that stray dogs are wild and aggressive and therefore, unsuitable for households.
While he agreed that this was true for some strays, he argued that it is the case for all dogs. He stressed that stray dogs can make great companions and are just as loving and loyal as any pedigree dog.
Additionally, animals in Sri Lanka are often neglected and mistreated by their owners knowingly or unknowingly. The President of the Animal Welfare and Protection Association (AWPA), Hemantha Jayatilake spoke with Ceylon Today and said that many animals are locked in small cages for days with very little food and water. “The worst feeling is seeing those animals and being unable to help them in any way. If people are unable to take care of dogs they must not adopt” she said.
If stray dogs are mistreated, most often than not they run away from the family and are back on the streets. “Animals leave their homes if they are unhappy and they end up back on the streets. Sometimes owners decide to return their pets back to us, which is even more problematic as the animals become attached to their owners and they get depressed and sometimes starve to death by refusing to eat.”
Breeding of pedigree animals has become a major form of animal cruelty in the country, she accused. “Animals are locked in cages throughout their lives and are expected to breed. Once they have aged, the breeders throw the animals onto the street and forget about them,” Jayatilake said. This issue has been around for some time and families are unaware of where exactly their new pets are coming from. As a result of this lack of awareness, people assume that there is no downfall seen in dog breeding.
When asked about laws that protect animals on the streets, Animal SOS mentioned that although many organisations have been advocating for an Animal Welfare Act for years, very little has been done in respect to this issue. “We have been advocating for quite some time and nothing seems to be changing. Without laws that protect animals, they are at greater risk of suffering from abuse and neglect and very little can be done to save them.”
Breeding mainly takes place in areas such as Ja-Ela, Negombo and Moratuwa which are on the outskirts of Colombo. Animal SOS Sri Lanka added that breeding also affects the puppies, who when badly bred, suffer from various ailments and genetic conditions which may result in the animals leading painful and miserable lives.
The unfortunate reality is that the animals are living in these nightmarish conditions and will be treated only as a source of income for the breeders, forgetting the fact that they are living breathing creatures.
The even more frightening truth from all of this is that dog breeding is only increasing in order to keep up with the demand for pedigree animals.
“Vaccination and sterilising programmes are available for animals free of charge and are organised by animal welfare organisations, as well as Government organisations,” Jayatilake said. Taking care of animals is costly and cannot be done without financial stability.
However, help is available and families who are unable to afford vaccinations and sterilise their pets, can go to the nearest animal welfare organisation or receive facilities that are available for animals within Government institutions.
“If pet owners cannot afford to pay a bill after visiting the veterinary clinic, most organisations cover the cost. The help is available and ready for owners who only have to speak to an organisation within the vicinity and help will be provided.”
Although programmes exist, Animal SOS Sri Lanka said “More should be done in by everyone to neuter animals and have more sterilisation campaigns and vaccination programmes. It has been difficult for all organisations that have been hit by the pandemic and have fewer finances to work with”.
The organisation added that the biggest problem they see is owners refusing to sterilise and vaccinate their pets although the resources are in fact available and ready free of charge via multiple Government and Non Government bodies.
How you can help
When asked about the Government’s role, the organisation said that more needs to be done by the Government. “More campaigns have to be done and we need the State to be more active in our efforts to help street dogs”.
In the long-term, sterilisation campaigns can help bring down the population of stray animals. Strong vaccinations programme too can aid in the reduction of rabies infections in the country too.
The simplest way to help the crisis of stray animals in Sri Lanka is to adopt. Many of the shelters told Ceylon Today that what they needed most was for families to be open to adopting strays. This would not only give many deserving pets a caring home, it would ease the financial pressures on shelters. This would allow these shelters to help vaccinate and save even more dogs.
Welfare organisations said that a main method of advocating for animal protection is through the education system. “Teaching the youth how to show love and sympathy for animals,” Cooling noted was vitally important. Implementing such studies within colleges and universities will create a more sympathetic society that cares about the well-being of the animals while simultaneously creating people who are aware of the issues animals face.
The small-scale shelter owners both urged hopeful adopters to look for regional rescue shelters instead of immediately going to large-scale ones. This would help several regional shelters to protect and rescue animals from local neighbourhoods.
If adoption is out of the equation, donations to shelters would also be helpful. The shelter owners said that even small quantities of food are useful to feed many of the animals they house. Additionally, sharing information about such shelters among friends and family makes it more likely that they choose to adopt from local shelters.
Finally, if any member of the public notices a wounded, hungry or ailing animal, contacting the local shelter can help provide healthcare to these animals. Increased awareness about the struggles of stray animals will make families more and more likely to adopt pets from shelters.
Animals only show love and affection expecting very little in return. Humanity receives a companion for life in a pet which then forces us to ask the question, “What more can we do for an animal who gives so much to us?”
There is a long road ahead for animal welfare in Sri Lanka. However, one adoption at a time and a better awareness into what is happening in the country will slowly start to change the narrative and create a better future for animals in our country.