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Meat by any other name is animal flesh

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In India most animal welfare people are vegetarians. We, in People for Animals, insist on that. After all, you cannot want to look after animals and then eat them. But most meat eaters, whether they are animal people or not, have a hesitant relationship with the idea of killing animals for food. They enjoy the taste of meat, but shy away from making the connection that animals have been harmed grievously in the process.

This moral conflict is referred to, in psychological terms, as the ‘meat paradox’. A meat eater will eat caviar, but he will refuse to listen to someone telling him that this has been made from eggs gotten from slitting the stomach of a live pregnant fish. The carnivorous individual simply does not want to feel responsible for his actions. Meat eaters and sellers try and resolve this dilemma by adopting the strategy of mentally dissociating meat from its animal origins. For instance, ever since hordes of young people have started shunning meat, the meat companies and their allies in the government, and nutraceutical industry, have deliberately switched to calling it “protein”. This is an interesting manipulation of words and a last-ditch attempt to influence consumer behaviour.

For centuries meat has been a part of people’s diet in many cultures. Global meat eating rose hugely in the 20th century, caused by urbanization and developments in meat production technology. And, most importantly, the strategies used by the meat industry to dissociate the harming of animals from the flesh on the plate. Researchers say “These strategies can be direct and explicit, such as denial of animals’ pain, moral status, or intelligence, endorsement of a hierarchy in which humans are placed above non-human animals” (using religion and god to amplify the belief that animals were created solely for humans, and had no independent importance for the planet, except as food and products). The French are taught, for instance, that animals cannot think.

Added to this is the justification of meat consumption based on spurious nutritional grounds. Doctors and dieticians, who are unwitting tools of the “nutritional science” industry, put their stamp on this shameless hard sell. 

The most important of all these strategies, and the one that has a profound effect on meat consumption, is the dissociation of meat from its animal origins. Important studies have been done on this (Kunst & Hohle, 2016; Rothgerber, 2013; Tian, Hilton & Becker, 2016; Foer, 2009; Joy, 2011; Singer, 1995). “At the core of the meat paradox is the experience of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory proposes that situations involving conflicting behaviours, beliefs or attitudes produce a state of mental discomfort (Festinger, 1957). If a person holds two conflicting, or inconsistent pieces of information, he feels uncomfortable. So, the mind strives for consistency between the two beliefs, and attempts are made to explain or rationalize them, reducing the discomfort. So, the person distorts his/her perception wilfully and changes his/her perception of the world.

The meat eater actively employs dissociation as a coping strategy to regulate his conscience, and simply stops associating meat with animals.

In earlier hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, people killed or saw animals killed for their table. But from the mid-19th century the eater has been separated from the meat production unit. Singer (1995) says that getting meat from shops, or restaurants, is the last step of a gruesome process in which everything, but the finished product, is concealed. The process: the loading of animals into overcrowded trucks, the dragging into killing chambers, the killing, beheading, removing of skin, cleaning of blood, removal of intestines and cutting the meat into pieces, is all secret and the eater is left with neatly packed, ready-to-cook pieces with few reminders of the animal. No heads, bones, tails, feet. The industry manipulates the mind of the consumer so that he does not think of the once living and intelligent animal.

The language is changed concealing the animal. Pig becomes pork, sausage, ham, bacon, cows become beef and calves become veal, goat becomes mutton and hens become chicken and white meat. And now all of them have become protein.

Then come rituals and traditions which remove any kind of moral doubt. People often partake in rituals and traditions without reflecting on their rationale or consequences. Thanksgiving is turkey, Fridays is fish. In India all rituals were vegetarian. Now, many weddings serve meat. Animal sacrifice to the gods is part of this ritual.

Studies have found that people prefer, or actively choose, to buy and eat meat that does not remind them of the animal origins (Holm, 2018; Te Velde et al.,2002. But Evans and Miele (2012), who investigated consumers’ interactions with animal food products, show that the fast pace of food shopping, the presentation of animal foods, and the euphemisms used instead of the animal (e.g., pork, beef and mutton) reduced consumers’ ability to reflect upon the animal origins of the food they were buying. Kubberod et al. (2002) found that high school students had difficulty in connecting the animal origins of different meat products, suggesting that dissociation was deeply entrenched in their consuming habits. Simons et al. found that people differed in what they considered meat: while red meat and steak was seen as meat, more processed and white meat (like chicken nuggets e.g.) was sometimes not seen as meat at all, and was often not considered when participants in the study reported the frequency of their meat eating.

Kunst and Hohle (2016) demonstrated how the process of presenting and preparing meat, and deliberately turning it from animal to product, led to less disgust and empathy for the killed animal and higher intentions to eat meat. If the animal-meat link was made obvious – by displaying the lamb for instance, or putting the word cow instead of beef on the menu – the consumer avoided eating it and went for a vegetarian alternative. This is an important finding: by interrupting the mental dissociation, meat eating immediately went down. This explains how, during COVID, the pictures of the Chinese eating animals in Wuhan’s markets actually put off thousands of carnivores and meat sale went down. In experiments by Zickfeld et al. (2018) and Piazza et al. (2018) it was seen that showing the pictures of animals, especially young animals, reduce people’s willingness to eat meat.

Do gender differences exist when it comes to not thinking about the meat one eats?

In Kubberød and colleagues’ (2002) study on disgust and meat consumption, substantial differences emerged between females and males. Men were more aware of the origins of different types of meat, yet did not consider the origins when consuming it. Women reported that they did not want to associate the meat they ate with a living animal, and that reminders would make them uncomfortable and sometimes even unable to eat the meat. In a study by Bray et al. (2016), who investigated parents’ conversations with their children about the origins of meat, women were more likely than men to avoid these conversations with their children, as they felt more conflicted about eating meat themselves. In a study by Kupsala (2018) female consumers expressed more tension related to the thought of killing animals for food than men. The supermarket customer group preferred products that did not remind them of animal origins, and showed a strong motivation to avoid any clues that highlighted the meat-animal connection. What emerged was that the females felt that contact with, and personification of, food producing animals would sometimes make it impossible for them to eat animal products.

What are the other dissociation techniques that companies and societies use to make people eat meat. For men, the advertising is direct: Masculinity, the inevitable fate of animals, the generational traditions of their family. For women it is far more indirect: just simply hiding the source of the meat and giving the animal victim a cute name to prevent disgust and avoidance.

Kubberod et al. (2202) compared groups from rural and urban areas but found little evidence for differences between these groups. Moreover, both urban and rural consumers in the study agreed that meat packaging and presentation functioned to conceal the link between the meat and the once living animal. Both groups of respondents also stated that if pictures of tied up pigs, or pigs in stalls, would be presented on packaging of pork meat, or pictures of caged hens on egg cartons, they would not purchase the product in question.

Are people who are sensitive to disruptions of the dissociation process (or, in plain English, open to learning the truth about the lies they tell themselves) more likely to become vegetarians? Probably. Everyone has a conscience. The meat industry has tried to make you bury it. We, in the animal welfare world, should try to make it active again.

 

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in,www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)


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Sat Mag

End of Fukuyama’s last man, and triumph of nationalism

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By Uditha Devapriya

 

What, I wonder, are we to make of nationalism, the most powerful political force we have today? Liberals dream on about its inevitable demise, rehashing a line they’ve been touting since goodness-knows-when. Neoliberals do the same, except their predictions of its demise have less to do with the utopian triumph of universal values than with their undying belief in the disappearance of borders and the interlinking of countries and cities through the gospel of trade. Both are wrong, and grossly so. There is no such thing as a universal value, and even those described as such tend to differ in time and place. There is such a thing as trade, and globalisation has made borders meaningless. But far from making nationalism meaningless, trade and globalisation have in fact bolstered its relevance.

The liberals of the 1990s were (dead) wrong when they foretold the end of history. That is why Francis Fukuyama’s essay reads so much like a wayward prophet’s dream today. And yet, those who quote Fukuyama tend to focus on his millenarian vision of liberal democracy, with its impending triumph across both East and West. This is not all there is to it.

To me what’s interesting about the essay isn’t his thesis about the end of history – whatever that meant – but what, or who, heralds it: Fukuyama’s much ignored “last man.” If we are to talk about how nationalism triumphed over liberal democracy, how populists trumped the end of history, we must talk about this last man, and why he’s so important.

In Fukuyama’s reading of the future, mankind gets together and achieves a state of perfect harmony. Only liberal democracy can galvanise humanity to aspire to and achieve this state, because only liberal democracy can provide everyone enough of a slice of the pie to keep us and them – majority and minority – happy. This is a bourgeois view of humanity, and indeed no less a figure than Marx observed that for the bourgeoisie, the purest political system was the bourgeois republic. In this purest of political systems, this bourgeois republic, Fukuyama sees no necessity for further progression: with freedom of speech, the right to assemble and dissent, an independent judiciary, and separation of powers, human beings get to resolve, if not troubleshoot, all their problems. Consensus, not competition, becomes the order of the day. There can be no forward march; only a turning back.

Yet that future state of affairs suffers from certain convulsions. History is a series of episodic progressions, each aiming at something better and more ideal. If liberal democracy, with its championing of the individual and the free market, triumphs in the end, it must be preceded by the erosion of community life. The problem here is that like all species, humanity tends to congregate, to gather as collectives, as communities.

“[I]n the future,” Fukuyama writes, “we risk becoming secure and self-absorbed last men, devoid of thymotic striving for higher goals in our pursuit of private comforts.” Being secure and self-absorbed, we become trapped in a state of stasis; we think we’re in a Panglossian best of all possible worlds, as though there’s nothing more to achieve.

Fukuyama calls this “megalothymia”, or “the desire to be recognised as greater than other people.” Since human beings think in terms of being better than the rest, the fact of reaching a point where we don’t need to show we’re better lulls us to a sense of restless dissatisfaction. The inevitable follows: some of us try finding out ways of doing something that’ll put us a cut above the rest. In the rush to the top, we end up in “a struggle for recognition.”

Thus the last men of history, in their quest to find some way they can show that they’re superior, run the risk of becoming the first men of history: rampaging, irrational hordes, hell-bent on fighting enemies, at home and abroad, real and imagined.

Fukuyama tries to downplay this risk, contending that liberal democracy provides the best antidote against a return to such a primitive state of nature. And yet even in this purest of political systems, security becomes a priority: to prevent a return to savagery, there must be an adequate deterrent against it. In his scheme of things, two factors prevent history from realising the ideals of humanity, and it is these that make such a deterrent vital: persistent war and persistent inequality. Liberal democracy does not resolve these to the extent of making them irrelevant. Like dregs in a teacup, they refuse to dissolve.

The problem with those who envisioned this end of history was that they conflated it with the triumph of liberal democracy. Fukuyama committed the same error, but most of those who point at his thesis miss out on the all too important last part of his message: that built into the very foundation of liberal democracy are the landmines that can, and will, blow it off. Yet this does not erase the first part of his message: that despite its failings, it can still render other political forms irrelevant, simply because, in his view, there is no alternative to free markets, constitutional republicanism, and the universal tenets of liberalism. There may be such a thing as civilisation, and it may well divide humanity. Such niceties, however, will sooner or later give way to the promise of globalisation and free trade.

It is no coincidence that the latter terms belong in the dictionary of neoliberal economists, since, as Kanishka Goonewardena has put it pithily, no one rejoiced at Fukuyama’s vision of the future of liberal democracy more than free market theorists. But could one have blamed them for thinking that competitive markets would coexist with a political system supposedly built on cooperation? To rephrase the question: could one have foreseen that in less than a decade of untrammelled deregulation, privatisation, and the like, the old forces of ethnicity and religious fundamentalism would return? Between the Berlin Wall and Srebrenica, barely three years had passed. How had the prophets of liberalism got it so wrong?

Liberalism traces its origins to the mid-19th century. It had the defect of being younger, much younger, than the forces of nationalism it had to fight and put up with. Fast-forward to the end of the 20th century, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the shift in world order from bipolarity to multipolarity, and you had these two foes fighting each other again, only this time with the apologists of free markets to boot. This three-way encounter or Mexican standoff – between the nationalists, the liberal democrats, and the neoliberals – did not end up in favour of dyed-in-the-wool liberal democrats. Instead it ended up vindicating both the nationalists and the neoliberals. Why it did so must be examined here.

The fundamental issue with liberalism, which nationalism does not suffer from, is that it views humanity as one. Yet humanity is not one: man is man, but he is also rich, poor, more privileged, and less privileged. Even so, liberal ideals such as the rule of law, separation of powers, and judicial independence tend to believe in the equality of citizens.

So long as this assumption is limited to political theory, nothing wrong can come out of believing it. The problem starts when such theories are applied as economic doctrines. When judges rule in favour of welfare cuts or in favour of corporations over economically backward communities, for instance, the ideals of humanity no longer appear as universal as they once were; they appear more like William Blake’s “one law for the lion and ox.”

That disjuncture didn’t trouble the founders of European liberalism, be it Locke, Rousseau, or Montesquieu, because for all their rhetoric of individual freedoms and liberties they never pretended to be writing for anyone other than the bourgeoisie of their time. Indeed, John Stuart Mill, beloved by advocates of free markets in Sri Lanka today, bluntly observed that his theories did not apply to slaves or subjects of the colonies. To the extent that liberalism remained cut off from the “great unwashed” of humanity, then, it could thrive because it did not face the problem of reconciling different classes into one category. Put simply, humanity for 19th century liberals looked white, bourgeois, and European.

The tail-end of the 20th century could not have been more different to this state of affairs. I will not go into why so and how come, but I will say that between the liberal promise of all humanity merging as one, the nationalist dogma of everyone pitting against everyone else, and the neoliberal paradigm of competition and winner-takes-all, the winner could certainly not be ideologues who believed in the withering away of cultural differences and the coming together of humanity. As the century drew to a close, it became increasingly obvious that the winners would be the free market and the nationalist State. How exactly?

Here I like to propose an alternative reading of not just Fukuyama’s end of history and last man, but also the triumph of nationalism and neoliberalism over liberal democracy. In 1992 Benjamin Barber wrote an interesting if not controversial essay titled “Jihad vs. McWorld” to The Atlantic in which he argued that two principles governed the post-Cold War order, and of the two, narrow nationalism threatened globalisation. Andre Gunder Frank wrote a reply to Barber where he contended that, far from opposing one another, narrow nationalism, or tribalism, in fact resembled the forces of globalisation – free markets and free trade – in how they promoted the transfer of resources from the many to the few.

For Gunder Frank, the type of liberal democracy Barber championed remained limited to a narrow class, far too small to be inclusive and participatory. In that sense “McWorldisation”, or the spread of multinational capital to the most far-flung corners of the planet, would not lead to the disappearance of communal or cultural fragmentation, but would rather bolster and lay the groundwork for such fragmentation. Having polarised entire societies, especially those of the Global South, along class lines, McWorldisation becomes a breeding ground for the very “axial principle” Barber saw as its opposite: “Jihadism.”

Substitute neoliberalism for McWorldisation, nationalism for Jihadism, and you see how the triumph of one has not led to the defeat of the other. Ergo, my point: nationalism continues to thrive, not just because (as is conventionally assumed) liberal democracy vis-à-vis Francis Fukuyama failed, but more importantly because, in its own way, neoliberalism facilitated it. Be it Jihadism there or Jathika Chintanaya here, in the Third World of the 21st century, what should otherwise have been a contradiction between two forces opposed to each other has instead become a union of two opposites. Hegel’s thesis and antithesis have hence become a grand franken-synthesis, one which will govern the politics of this century for as long as neoliberalism survives, and for as long as nationalism thrives on it.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Chitrasena: Traditional dance legacy perseveres

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By Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne

Where would Mother Lanka’s indigenous dance forms be, if not for the renaissance of traditional dance in the early 1940s? January 26, 2021 marked the 100th birth anniversary of the legendary Guru Chitrasena who played a pivotal role in reviving a dance form which was lying dormant, ushering in a brand new epoch to a traditional rhythmic movement that held sway for over two millennia.

“There was always an aura that drew us all to Seeya and we were mesmerized by it,” enthused Heshma, Artistic Director of the Chitrasena Dance Company and eldest grand-daughter of the doyen of dance. She reminisced about her legendary grandfather during a brief respite from working on a video depicting his devotion to a dance form that chose him.

“Most classical art forms require a lifetime of learning and dedication as it’s also a discipline which builds character and that is what we have been inculcated with by Guru Chitrasena, who also left us with an invaluable legacy,” emphasized Heshma, adding that it makes everything else pale in comparison and provides the momentum even when faced with trials.

Blazing a dynamic trail

The patriarch’s life and times resonated with an era of change in Ceylon, here was an island nation that was almost overshadowed by a gigantic peninsula whose influence had been colossal. Being colonized by the western empires meant a further suppression for over four centuries. Yet, hidden in the island’s folds were artistes, dancers and others who held on almost devoutly to their sacred doctrines. The time was ripe for the harvest and the need for change was almost palpable. To this era was born Chitrasena, who took the idea by its horns and led it all the way to the world stage.

He literally coaxed the hidden treasures of the island out of the Gurus of old whose birthrights were the traditional dance forms, who did not have a need or a desire for the stage. Their repertoire was relegated to village ceremonies, peraheras and ritual sacrifices. The nobles, at the time, entertained themselves sometimes watching these ‘devil dancers.’ In fact, some of these traditional dancers are said to have been taken as part of a ‘human circus’ act to be presented abroad in the late 1800s.

But how did Chitrasena change that thinking? He went in search of these traditional Gurus, lived with them, learned the traditions and then re-presented them as a respectable dance art on the stage. He revolutionized the manner in which we, colonized islanders, viewed what was endemic to us, suffice it to say he gave it the pride and honour it deserved, though it came with a supreme sacrifice, a lifetime of commitment to dancing, braving the criticism and other challenges that were constantly put up to deter him. Not only did he commit himself to this colossal task but the involvement of his immediate family and the family of dancers was exceptional, bordering on devotion as their lives revolved around dance alone.

Imbued in them is the desire to dance and share their knowledge with others and it is done through various means, such as giving prominence to Gurus of yore, hence the Guru Gedara Festival which saw the confluence of many artistes and connoisseurs who mingled at the Chitrasena Kalayathanaya in August 2018. Moreover the family has been heavily involved in inculcating a love for dancing in all age groups through various dance classes for over 75 years, specifically curated dance workshops, concerts and scholarships for students who are passionate about dancing.

While hardship is what strengthens our inner selves, there were questions posed by Chitrasena that we need to ask ourselves and the authorities concerning the arts and their development in our land. “Yes, there is a burgeoning interest in expanding infrastructure in many different fields as part of post war development. But what purpose will it serve if there are no artistes to perform in all the new theatres to be built for instance?” queries Heshma. The new theatres we have now are not even affordable to most of the local artistes. “When I refer to dance I am not referring to the cabaret versions of our traditional forms. I am talking about the dancers who want to immerse themselves in a manner that refuses to compromise their art for any reason at all, not to cater to the whims and fancies of popular trends, vulgarization for financial gain or simply diluting these sacred art forms to appeal to audiences who are ignorant about its value,” she concludes. There are still a few master artistes and some very talented young artistes, who care very deeply about our indigenous art forms, who need to be encouraged and supported to pursue their passion, which then will help preserve our rich cultural heritage. But the support for the arts is so minimal in our country that one wonders as to how their astute devotion will prevail in this unhinged world where instant fixes run rampant.

Yet, the cry of the torchbearers of unpretentious traditional dance theatre in our land, is to provide it a respectable platform and the support it rightly deserves, and this is an important moment in time to ensure the survival of our dance. With this thought, one needs to pay homage to Chitrasena whose influence transcends cultures and metaphorical boundaries and binds the connoisseurs of dance and other art forms, leaving an indelible mark through the ages.

Amaratunga Arachchige Maurice Dias alias Chitrasena was born on 26 January 1921 at Waragoda, Kelaniya, in Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, in India, Tagore had established his academy, Santiniketan and his lectures on his visit to Sri Lanka in 1934 had inspired a revolutionary change in the outlook of many educated men and women. Tagore had stressed the need for a people to discover its own culture to be able to assimilate fruitfully the best of other cultures. Chitrasena was a schoolboy at the time, and his father Seebert Dias’ house had become a veritable cultural confluence frequented by the literary and artistic intelligentsia of the time.

In 1936, Chitrasena made his debut at the Regal Theatre at the age of 15 in the role of Siri Sangabo, the seeds of the first Sinhala ballet produced and directed by his father. Presented in Kandyan style, Chitrasena played the lead role, and this created a stir among the aficionados who noticed the boy’s talents. D.B. Jayatilake, who was Vice-Chairman of the Board of Ministers under the British Council Administration, Buddhist scholar, Founder and first President of the Colombo Y.M.B.A, freedom fighter, Leader of the State Council and Minister of Home Affairs, was a great source of encouragement to the young dancer.

Chitrasena learnt the Kandyan dance from Algama Kiriganitha Gurunnanse, Muddanawe Appuwa Gurunnanse and Bevilgamuwe Lapaya Gurunnanse. Having mastered the traditional Kandyan dance, his ‘Ves Bandeema’, ceremony of graduation by placing the ‘Ves Thattuwa’ on the initiate’s head, followed by the ‘Kala-eliya’ mangallaya, took place in 1940. In the same year he proceeded to Travancore to study Kathakali dance at Sri Chitrodaya Natyakalalayam under Sri Gopinath, Court dancer in Travancore. He gave a command performance with Chandralekha (wife of portrait painter J.D.A. Perera) before the Maharaja and Maharani of Travancore at the Kowdiar Palace. He later studied Kathakali at the Kerala Kalamandalam.

In 1941, Chitrasena performed at the Regal Theatre, one of the first dance recitals of its kind, before the Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott and Lady Caldecott with Chandralekha and her troupe. Chandralekha was one of the first women to break into the field of the Kandyan dance, followed by Chitrasenás protégé and soul mate, Vajira, who then became the first professional female dancer. Thereafter, Chitrasena and Vajira continued to captivate audiences worldwide with their dynamic performances which later included their children, Upeka, Anjalika and students. The matriarch, Vajira took on the reigns at a time when the duo was forced to physically separate with the loss of the house in Colpetty where they lived and worked for over 40 years. Daughter Upeka then continued to uphold the tradition, leading the dance company to all corners of the globe during a very difficult time in the country. At present, the grand-children Heshma, Umadanthi and Thaji interweave their unique talents and strengths to the legacy inspired by Guru Chitrasena.

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Sat Mag

UK resident rooting for Sri Lankan street dogs

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Continued from yesterday

He explained that the community receives high-quality service free of charge. “There are many people who cannot afford surgeries and vaccines in the areas we work in. Dogstar offers it for free. We educate the community on rabies control and pet ownership. We help to enhance the health of community dogs, giving them a better chance to co-exist with the community.”

Team Blue, Deputy team leader Duminda Liyanage got to know about Dogstar through his brother-in-law who also works for Dogstar. Liyanage has been with Dogstra for five years. “We help to control rabies, one of the most dangerous viruses in the world. We have processes in place, we use technology to ensure sustainability.” He admitted that the skills and knowledge they acquire through international standard training are irreplaceable.

“We also offer to collect the dogs from owners who cannot travel to a clinic and bring them back,” said Liyanage. He believed that animals that are spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies are more accepted by the community which allows the dogs to live a happy life. “Conflicts that arise due to unwanted puppies and issues related to stray dogs and rabies are mostly reduced. People tend to care for and adopt community dogs that have already been neutered,” he said. Liyanage believes that the programme had made a huge difference at both personal and community levels. “Personally, I have learned more about animal behaviour and welfare which allows me to help people or owners in need. And job security is very reassuring. Especially during the COVID-19 period.

Project Assistant Anjali de Silva joined Dogstar as a volunteer and became a permanent staff member in 2017. “We are very focused on animal welfare and the priority is to control dogs and cat population humanely. Dogstar constantly adopts new ways that could enhance the quality of the free service we offer to the community. Not to mention constant learning opportunities from the international professionals who are at the top of their game,” said de Silva. She is of the opinion that Dogstar has made a significant difference in the areas it operates. “Stray dog population has been controlled to a great extent, not to mention the improved overall health of the stray dogs.” She pointed out that the community education programmes are focused on promoting responsible pet ownership and animal welfare.

She admitted that the programme has made a huge positive impact on her personal life. “I’m constantly challenged to perform better as both my superiors are perfectionists. We are given tools to learn new things, be it animal-related or management related. We are empowered to make decisions to achieve our targets, our ideas and opinions are always considered. And most importantly the opportunities I’m presented with to learn and grow professionally is massively beneficial.”

The major benefits to the community, are the humane control of dog and cat population and rabies control. “And 90% of our staff are locals. That’s because Samantha always gives priority to recruiting Sri Lankans. So as Dogstar grew over the years it has created many job opportunities for locals.” de Silva pointed out the numerous other ways Dogstar is helping the community; donating dry rations to vulnerable families during the lockdown, sponsoring breakfast at an underprivileged local school called Yawajeewa every day and offering work opportunities to its students once they complete their education.

But Samantha couldn’t have done it without her husband Mark, whose role as the Deputy in Country Director is to support Samantha’s vision and help her make it happen. “What Samantha is doing here is making a change to so many people, it’s making communities safe, and it’s improving the welfare and lives of the dogs,” said Mark, who has no regrets about coming to Sri Lanka.

Samantha hopes one day she would be able to pass the torch on to one of her assistants. Her husband’s role is to support Samantha’s vision and help her make it happen. When asked whether he has any regrets about uprooting his life in the UK to start Dogstar, Mark said he has no regrets. “What Samantha is doing here is making a change to so many people, it’s making communities safe, and it’s improving the welfare and lives of the dogs.”

 

Typical day

What is a typical day in Samantha’s life at Dogstar like? Samantha said it varies and no two days are alike. She spends a lot of time in her office budgeting, financial forecasting and coordinating with government departments such as the Ministry of Health, Rabies eradication programme and PHIs. “People often say that they would love to do what I do for a living, ‘being with dogs all day’. In truth it involves a lot more paperwork than people would think.” She admitted that although she makes every effort to spend time with the dogs, often the only dogs whose company she is in are her own pet dogs. Having said that, Samantha admitted that project management skills of her old job were vital to the success of the programme. “It is much like running a business,” explained Samantha. “Products are our services and shareholders are donors.” Hopefully, without further lockdowns, Samantha and her team are looking to sterilize 11,000 dogs and up to 3,000 cats. The current project is keeping her fully occupied with spreadsheets and Gantt Chart.

Their work involves an initial census and awareness campaign. The owners are then given the option of bringing their animals to the clinic or requesting the team to transport the animal to the clinic. Roaming dogs are netted and brought to the clinic. Surgery is performed and the animals are micro-chipped to keep track of all the information from age to their home range. “This way, after they are released, we are able to follow-up on them.” The process is wrapped up with another census, of the number of dogs sterilized. Some dogs are so clever that they skip town for the duration.

“Our target is to sterilize at least 90 percent of the population.” Samantha vouches that this is far more effective than culling, done in certain western countries. There are other advantages of reduced dog population that the average Sri Lankan is oblivious to, such as less fighting among dogs over resources and territory, lower dog bite incidence and resulting change in attitudes. Samantha pointed out that, as the numbers drop and dogs become healthier, they cease to be a nuisance. The community becomes more sympathetic towards them as they are not overwhelmed by a large number of dogs. Consequently, the balance between people and dogs matter, Samantha reiterated. “We have a static dog population now and most of them are vaccinated.”

 

Challenges

Samantha admits that anyone working in animal welfare is faced with many challenges. The major obstacle she has had to face is the resistance on the part of owners to spay neuter their pets. “Their argument is that they don’t want to subject their pet to surgery and neutering is not natural. But they don’t think twice about dumping unwanted litter on the roadside or temples.” Samantha pointed out that the puppies have little chance of survival on the streets. According to her there are too many dogs and not enough good homes.

“There is this idea that imported dogs are better, which is ridiculous,” said Samantha, who sees this as a major reason Sri Lankans do not want to adopt local dogs. “Sri Lankan dogs are amazing. They are possibly healthier than some of the imported breeds and, because of their body weight and short coats, are better adapted to the local climate and far more resistant to disease.”

Dogstar is in the process of creating awareness about the benefits of spay neutering. According to Samantha, getting the services of vets have also proved difficult with only one university, University of Peradeniya, producing 50 to 60 veterinary graduates a year. “Most of them will go into food security, working for the Department of Animal Production and Health or Ministry of Livestock. Some will want to go abroad or continue studies.” There aren’t that many vets for a country of over 21 million people. “Some of the drugs and equipment that we take for granted in Europe are not available here or are very difficult to procure.” While the Dogstar team awaited shipments of supplies, the situation was compounded by cancelled flights and delays at seaports due to the pandemic.

Raising money to sterilize street dogs may not be the most exciting proposition. Thankfully the spay neuter programme is supported by a number of charities and establishments such as Dogs Trust Worldwide, The University of Edinburgh, Worldwide Veterinary Service, Mission Rabies and Foundation Brigitte Bardot. “We have to raise money for everything else from the public, from the UK, Europe and Australia.” Samantha admitted it is difficult to raise all the money required, locally. But with the pandemic putting most of their UK donors out of work, forced to face considerable financial difficulties themselves, times have been difficult for Dogstar.

The Dogstar motto is Eat, Spay, Love. But how does a predominantly Buddhist society, where sterilization of any kind is thoroughly discouraged, take to neutering. Samantha admitted that some do object to it based on their faith beliefs, but many support the programme because their need to alleviate suffering overrides it. Having worked in both predominantly Buddhist and Catholic areas, Samantha said that many places of worship, both Buddhist and Catholic, had offered their premises to conduct clinics. She admitted that the community was naturally suspicious, but are warming up to the concept. “They actually call us for help now.”

Contrary to popular belief, stray dogs and cats aren’t solely responsible for over population and unwanted litter is dumped at temples or roadsides, in which case what may be required is change of attitudes. To address this need, this year Dogstar is stepping up the programme to raise awareness locally.

“There definitely needs to be a change in attitudes,” said Samantha. “For example, one may complain that their neighbour’s dog is barking all the time. Some may be quick to point out that it’s barking because it’s a dog, but the fact is it’s barking because it’s frustrated, because it’s locked in a kennel or chained for 24 hours a day.” She pointed out that people in the community should be encouraged to tackle issues relevant to themselves, working directly with pet owners. She pointed out that owners should also be more attuned to their own responsibilities towards their pets.

She also emphasised the pressing need for legal backing. She said that the proposed Animal Welfare Bill will go a long way in ensuring animal rights. “Everyone in animal welfare is excited about the possibilities a new act could afford us,” said Samantha, who pointed out that the existing laws are archaic and offers hardly any protection to animals. “In any country there are those who are unfortunately cruel to animals. Legislation is the one way that would ensure that animals are safeguarded from such people.” She pointed out that animal rights were non existent 150 years ago. But with the introduction of legislation, people’s mindset was also changed.

To ensure that the work they do is not duplicated Dogstar coordinates with government counterparts such as Ministry of Health and the Department of Animal Production and Health within the Ministry of Livestock and Rural Community Development. And red tape, typical of local government service is nuisance that the Dogstar team has learned to deal with. “Sri Lankan departments have a lot of paperwork that gets moved back and forth a lot. But in the recent past most departments have come on line and conduct online meetings. Although when it comes to reporting most of it is still physical.”

Their programme churns out a lot of data. When asked what kind of an impact the programme has made in Sri Lanka, according to the stats, Samantha said that they have recorded a 32 percent drop in the dog population of the area. Dogstar has currently sterilised 45,802 dogs and 3,632 cats and carried out 67,284 rabies vaccinations. “Data is important to determine the impact of the spay neuter programme, specially to know where we went wrong, to learn from it and share the findings internationally and locally.” Samantha explained that statistics point the way to a targeted organized programme.

When asked how the Sri Lankan government has reacted to the programme, Samantha informed that the Ministry of Health has shown positive interest in their work. Samantha and her team is more than happy to share their experience and technology pertaining to the spay neuter programme.

The first dog she saved at the temple many years ago eventually made a full recovery and was christened Mango. She is long gone now, true to her name, buried under a mango tree. “If it weren’t for Mango and the monk, I would probably be in London, doing a corporate job.” it begs the question, did she save the dog or vice versa.

Pics courtesy Richard Murgatroyd, Dogs Trust Worldwide

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