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Society | What fuels animal cruelty in Nepal?

Kumudini Pant

Kumudini Pant

Society | What fuels animal cruelty in Nepal?

For animal rights activists, the outrage has been long overdue. While the government rarely takes action against alleged perpetrators of violence against animals, the society has normalized it on the pretext of cultural and religious norms despite legal provisions against such practices

Arguably, the valley’s street animals were the biggest sufferers during Kathmandu’s previous Covid-19 lockdown. Stray dogs couldn’t find enough discarded food, monkeys living in the proximity of various temples also battled hunger pangs as devotees stopped going to places of worship with their food offerings. Stray cats faced a similar fate. As we stare at another possible lockdown, they are likely to suffer more.

The lives of these stray animals were only marginally better before and after the end of the lockdown.

On April 12, hundreds took to Kathmandu’s streets after a video of two men brutally killing a street dog went viral on social media. According to media reports, the dog named Khairey had allegedly bitten a child, which in turn prompted the men to beat the mongrel to death.

“Justice for Khairey,” the protestors demanded as they stood in line at Maitighar with various placards.

For animal rights activists, the outrage has been long overdue. While the government rarely takes action against alleged perpetrators of violence against animals, the society has normalized it on the pretext of cultural and religious norms despite legal provisions against such practices.

“All we want is justice for Khairey. Why are authorities so reluctant?” 43-year-old Erika Dhungana asks. An appalled Dhungana, who has been working in animal welfare for over half a decade, adds: “If the law has been made, then shouldn’t the guilty be punished?”

The Criminal (Code) Act, 2017, states, “No person shall subject any animal or bird to torture by beating or hitting it”. A breach of this law could result in imprisonment not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding Rs 5,000. However, alleged perpetrators of violence against animals rarely get caught in the act, and if they do, they usually go unpunished.

“Every year or so we hear authorities promising animal abuse is going to be ethically dealt with. And every year is another disappointment,” says Dhungana, who has witnessed countless incidents of violence against animals since the 80s.

No laughing matter

Pramada Shah, founder and president of Animal Nepal, a non-profit working for animal welfare since 2004, confesses that complains about animal abuse is never taken seriously. “There’s been a number of times when I’ve gone to the police station to report cases, but the officials never investigate it,” she says. “Most will take the subject lightly, some will even laugh, saying, ‘it’s just an animal’.”

For young activists, however, the problem is not just lack of laws or their selective implementation. The issue is more deeply rooted. “People have normalized cruelty against animals,” says Sanjivani, 19, the founder of Life with Furs.

“Parents tell their children that animals will hurt them if they get too close. And while they intend to safeguard their kids, it usually leaves a negative impression on the young mind,” she adds. Sanjivani has seen children throw stones at dogs and try to hurt them from a distance. “As these actions don’t raise red flags, they might reinforce children’s indifference to animals’ pain.”

Upama Poudel, psychotherapist at Nava Jeevan Counseling Center and Research Institute, agrees with Sanjivani. “Young people unconsciously imitate the habits and behaviors of elder family members,” says Poudel. “The same with their perception of animal rights.”

The attitudes are further shaped by Nepali lifestyle which has normalized open butcher shops in narrow alleys, dead animals lying around on the streets, and sacrifices in the name of religion, activists say. These are areas even the law is unable to touch.

While The Criminal (Code) Act, 2017 outlaws brutal killings, it condones religious sacrifices. The law states, “No person shall kill any animal or bird in any public place other than a religious place where there is a tradition of animal or bird sacrifice.” However, as the Valley is full of religious places—from stone idols on street corners to large temples—this exemption creates a big loophole.

“Religion does play a role in how people view animals,” shares Irfan Khan, founder of Adopt a Dog Nepal and Paaila, where he also works as a vet in an animal rescue team. “Dogs are often considered impure in Islam. Growing up in a Muslim family didn’t stop me from playing with street dogs. But when I returned home, I was always asked to take a shower and change my clothes.”

Twisting religions

But Karuna Kunwar, psychologist at CMC Nepal, disagrees with the notion that religion is responsible for animal cruelty. “No religion teaches you to be unkind. No god tells you to hurt innocent creatures,” she argues. “People have taken the teachings of holy books and twisted them to fit their narratives. They’ve turned sacred rituals into sadistic festivals.”

Kunwar adds that many religions associate deities with animas and believe they embody divinity. Throughout history, animals have been worshipped as gods in disguise. Buddhist faith builds on the concept of ‘ahimsa’ which denotes that no harm must be inflicted upon any other living creature. Hinduism too teaches that humans and animals are all part of a large family and every animal must be treated with respect. Ancient Egyptian and Iraqi stone carvings show humans and dogs being friends. It was only around 200 years ago that dogs began being associated with widespread diseases and people started banishing them from cities. Thus the idea of them being ritually impure came into being. Religion is not the problem here, Kunwar says, “the way people use it as a tool to justify violence is”.

But more than religion or family, Khan thinks it’s the collective mindset that needs to change. “The way street animals are perceived as ‘dirty’ and ‘untouchable’ sets the tone for how they will be treated by the locals,” Khan tells ApEx. “It’s difficult to get rid the mindset that all street animals are disease-ridden and deadly from a community that has believed it for so long.”

“No normal person would go outside thinking they’re going to hurt someone,” psychologist Kunwar says. “If they do, they have mental health issues. People who beat and kill animals are no different. Violence is not a way to deal with emotions. The issue of animal cruelty in Nepal is largely individualistic and the causes for it cannot be easily generalized,” she adds.

Rohit Shrestha, 22, founder of Four Paws Clinic, seconds her emphasis on the roles of individuals. “As street animals don’t have any owners, anyone can hurt them without any repercussion,” he says. “No one speaks up for them, and culprits can stay anonymous.”

Most people who abuse animals have been found to have faced abuse themselves. “It is usually the oppressed and angry who abuse animals,” psychotherapist Poudel says. “It’s a form of the strong exerting power over the meek.”

People suffer too

In an unequal society like Nepal, there is a lot of pent-up rage against all forms of discriminations, especially economic, she says. “When people are struggling to make their ends meet, they are unlikely to be worried about dignified existence of another species. The resources that developed countries allocate for animal welfare is spent on people here and it’s still not enough.”

Seema Bhandari, 27, founder of Helping Animals of Nepal, seconds Poudel’s statement. “Many Nepalis don’t have the kind of lifestyle that allows them to care for animal,” she says. “They’re busy fulfilling their own basic needs.” According to her, very few people can afford to have pets, and for those who do, they mostly don’t care about their pets.

Shah, however, believes that even if the socioeconomic status of the country were to improve, it wouldn’t lessen animal cruelty. “Instead of being abandoned on the streets, they will be put in cages,” she tells ApEx. “Because we don’t see animals being openly abused in foreign countries, we believe that they aren’t being abused at all. But that’s untrue. Industrialization will only push animal cruelty to greater heights. They’ll be used for consumption and experimentation. Commercialization of livestock sector isn’t going to lessen violence against animals; it’s only going to make it more systematic.”

In fact, Shah adds, that is one of our biggest issues—the way we perceive animals as commodities. “School curriculums that talk about compassion for animals often push a narrative that they are ‘useful’ or ‘profitable’. Cows give milk. Dogs guard us. Hens lay eggs. Because they’re useful, they must be protected and cared for,” she says. “There are no books that talk about respecting animals because they are living creatures. Because they’re important in our ecosystem. It is only when a species is on the brink of extinction that they’re given any attention. But by then, it’s usually too late.”

She brings up the recent incident of at least 67 endangered vultures that died after feeding on the dead bodies of poisoned dogs. “Everything effects everything else,” she says. “The haphazard breeding of dogs, violence against wildlife for tourism, using domestic animals for industrial purpose—every animal that exists in Nepal is being abused. The government needs to step in and put an end to it.”

However, things are changing, if slowly. Dhungana says youngsters today are more involved in taking care of street animals. With non-profits conducting awareness and donation campaigns, more people are taking up the cause.

Khan believes that the youths are capable of ushering in change in attitudes. “Seeing how I’ve built my career on caring for animals, my family is a lot more supportive now,” he shares. “They even go out to feed the stray dogs in our neighborhood.”

Bhandari says media plays a significant role in how cases of animal cruelties are handled. “When animal abuse is a hot topic, it’s very well-covered. People’s outrage is news,” she says. “But protests don’t last forever and eventually the media moves on. But the reason behind the protest, the justice for the abused animal is rarely served.” Khan agrees with Bhandari. “When the protest for Khairey was happening, many news outlets reported that we instigated violence against the child who was attacked by Khairey, which is completely false. We never harmed the child,” he says. “It’s not right that we are being vilified when all we are asking for is for the law to be implemented.”

Meanwhile, animal rights activists are determined to get the perpetrators of violence against animals punished. And they want to begin by getting justice for Khairey.

“We hope the government takes legal action against the two alleged culprits,” Sanjivani says. “Until then, we won’t stop.”

Instances of animal abuse and neglect in Nepal

1. In the 1960s, Nepal’s rhino population declined to under 100 due to habitat degradation and widespread poaching. After conservation plans were put in place, the number rose to over 600. However, poaching started again. A total of 36 cases of rhino-hunting was recorded in Chitwan National Park in 2002. Between 1996 and 2006, 157 rhinos were killed. The cases dwindled around 2014 when government implemented Zero Poaching strategies. However, again in 2020, poachers killed four one-horned rhinos.

Rihno

2. In 2002, tuberculosis was spotted in Sauraha-based captive elephants. It was believed to be a result of reduced immunity, overwork and lack of nutrition. Aside from the disease, elephants were also carrying injuries caused by beatings and inappropriate harness with little to no medical care. Visit Nepal 2020 campaign boosted elephant abuse in Chitwan district as many geared up for elephant safaris, rides and games.

Elephant

3. Until 2009, more than 6,500 equines (donkey, horse and mule) were used in brick kilns, rice mills and milk chilling centers for carrying heavy loads. They were usually overworked, diseased and had unfulfilled basic needs. They are still used in these industries, although their condition has improved.

Donkey

4. According to a 2018 data by Animal Nepal, there are over 1,200 stray cattle in Kathmandu including cows—our national animal—bulls and calves. The number is close to half a million throughout Nepal. Most of them survive by feeding on garbage, drinking toxic water and suffer from vehicular injuries.

5. In the 2000s, culling and poisoning of street dogs was rampant in Lalitpur district. According to a 2005 NHRC research, only 30 percent of dog owners in the Valley were against dog control by poisoning. In 2019, Khotang District Police received a complaint against three officials, including the mayor, for poisoning around 200 dogs, beating them unconscious and burying them alive.

6. In July 2020, a tiktoker uploaded a video of a white dog being thrown off a cliff in Kaski. In March 2021, a street dog named Khairey was beaten to death with an iron rod and a spade in Dhulikhel. In April 2021, at least four dogs were poisoned in Nawalparasi district, and at least 67 endangered vultures that fed on their discarded bodies were also found dead.