Almost everyone likes a trip to the zoo, merely because one can see a lot of animals in close quarters, in one place. One such animal everyone enjoys watching is elephant, to be exact elephant dancing which is the most popular event and most probably the star attraction of the visit to the Dehiwala Zoo. It has been there for ages. In elephant shows they hop, stand on tiny stools, walk backwards, balance on their forelegs and trunk, and mahouts follow them closely with henduwa (goad) to poke them if they disobey. Animal rights activists feel, although everyone uses elephants for pride and they are considered legendary, those animals are not given due respect or care. Elephants are not for human entertainment or business and these types of activities are nothing, but a primitive spectacle.
Exploitation and mistreatment of animals can never be justified, and during past few years several organizations have time and again demanded that elephant performances at the Dehiwala Zoological Garden should stop as it amounts to torture. A petition has also been handed over to the relevant authorities.
Animal Rights Activist, Sagarika Rajakarunanayaka of ‘Sathwa Mithra’ expressing her opinion on the issue said that elephant circus in the zoo is a blatant example of cruelty to elephants and that it is unacceptable. She further mentioned that in Sri Lanka the elephant is considered and respected as a majestic creature, and take a great pride in them, but through these types of acts only demean their value.
“Our culture speaks of compassion to animals. The animals too have the right to live free on earth together with us. All such principles and ideas which were there for centuries are rubbed off for entertainment and it is very sad.”
A lot of people point fingers at the officials of the Dehiwala zoo for carrying out these types of acts continuously despite strong objections, criticism of the animal activists and other concerned parties. Dehiwala Zoological Garden Director Anura de Silva speaking to The Nation on the allegations made said that some people say that the elephant dancing is done to earn money and that it is done only for educational purposes and entertainment.
“We don’t charge a cent extra for the show. That is completely wrong. It is just a part of the program. People including kids from villages come to the zoo just to watch this show,” he said.
However, Rajakarunanayaka completely rejected the reasons given by the Director of Dehiwala Zoological Garden as to why the zoo is holding such activities.
Zoos claim to help with conservation. However, hardly any zoo registers their animals on an international species database and most zoo animals are not endangered at all.
“The Dehiwala Zoological Garden officials claim that they have high sounding principles of having a zoo. For example, they say the zoo is established for educational purposes and also for conservation of endangered species. But what they actually do is earn money from that. They do not care for the animals or what they are going through to entertain people,” she said.
The Director also mentioned that they have in fact reduced the number of activities included in the show after receiving complaints and objections. He also said that the purpose of the Dehiwala zoo is to exhibit animals, and it is different to that of places like Pinnawala which is an orphanage.
“This zoo is for the purpose of education and entertainment. We focus more on the educational side to make persons who visit the zoo as to the conservation value of the animals and to provide knowledge to them as well.”
When asked whether they intend to put an end to this issue, he expressed that the authorities hope to reduce these types of activities, and gradually it will be stopped altogether. He also said that even though no policy decision has been taken yet discussions are taking place, and the relevant authorities are aware of the issue.
“In one and a half years, we hope to perform this elephant show only for educational purposes. We are very much aware of the concerns of the people regarding the matter, so therefore we will try our best to stop such activities being carried out in the zoo,” Silva added.
Rajakarunanayaka further elaborating on the amount of torture the elephants face due to this type of heartless and brutal actions mentioned that the elephants start performing the tricks they have been trained to do the moment they see the mahout or the person who trained them, “It shows to what extent fear has been driven into them. But the officials at the zoo take pride in saying that the elephants are well trained.”
She expressed her disgust over the insensitivity of the authorities for not taking any action to stop this type of animal cruelty. “This is nothing, but State promoted cruelty and continuing this will be encouraging animal cruelty,” she added.
Rajakarunanayaka refused to accept the statement made by the Director of the Dehiwala Zoological Garden that they do not earn an income from the event. She said the zoo earns a lot of money from the event since there is a large turnout for the elephant dancing and that is why they do not wish to stop the show.
She was of the view that the present laws are not sufficient to stop animal cruelty, and therefore stringent laws should be introduced, especially, the Animal Welfare Bill needs to be approved by the Parliament which will stop these types of torture to ant type of animal.
Treatment of livestock animals and pets are treated in home. Pet shops kept in tiny cages exhibited in the hot sun are also other forms of animal cruelty.
On social media say ”NO to cruelty to our elephants of Sri Lanka”, “Dehiwala Zoo – Time for Action” and also the online petition “Sri Lanka – Stop cruelty in the Dehiwala Zoo” are there to check on almost every action the authorities take and to raise awareness among the public on cruelty done to animals in Zoo. The petition, Sri Lanka – Stop cruelty in the Dehiwala Zoo in particular aims to achieve several objectives. A ban on pointed goads (ankuses) and the introduction of curved ankuses with the objective of using only as the stick. Stop forcing elephants to have to perform tricks that endanger their lives or the lives of the human spectators whether for reasons of financial gain or otherwise and launch an interactive-educational program for elephant conservation and to provide a habitat for animals that is closer to their natural living conditions and move the elephants to the open enclosure at Wagolla are among the expected outcomes.
Entrepreneur and a person who has been speaking out for animal Welfare, Otara Gunewardene strongly believes that we as Sri Lankans should be ashamed of ourselves for treating animals like this. She was of the view that it is the high time for the country to change.
“It is not something we should expose our children to, and we should make the future generation understand that animals are not for our entertainment. However, it is very good to see that people are actually keen on such issues, the way the public have started to speak for animals and stand against the cruelty are commendable,” she said.
Gunewardene also mentioned that she has met with several ministers and the President on issues relating to animals and how things should be changed in future. “They promised to take action on several matters, and I really hope they keep their promises. Knowing it has to happen and acting to make it happen are different. Things should change,” she added.