Amid COVID-19, Are We Really Looking Out For Stray Animals & Pets?

Author-journalist Pragya Tiwari interviews animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi, to clear your doubts during COVID.

9 min read
Hindi Female

COVID-19 has affected animals in five ways:

  1. Lack of veterinary healthcare facility
  2. Starvation of street animals who depend on small eateries and feeders
  3. Animals stranded in pet shops and breeding godowns
  4. Pet food and fodder supply chains interrupted
  5. Abandonment of pets by people fearing spread of COVID

To mitigate each of these, the central government has issued orders well in advance. Sadly, the state governments, reeling under other pressures, is keeping animals and livestock very low on priority, which is what happens during every calamity. COVID may not kill or even affect animals, but they still fall victim to human apathy.

I interviewed Gauri Maulekhi, an animal rights activist, member of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and Maneka Gandhi's protege, in light of many questions on animal welfare arising amid COVID. Here is the full interview:


Animal Feed & Fodder Fall Under ‘Essential Items’

There is some confusion about whether feeding and taking pets out is recognised as an ‘essential’ activity – could you clarify this?

Animals in our environment and our homes depend on us for food and shelter. In these tough times, it is our responsibility to continue taking care of them. This has been clarified by the Animal Welfare Board of India, in a letter to Chief Secretaries of all States and UTs on 23 February 2020, and later by the Prime Minister himself, during his message to the nation, during the lockdown.

Are pet feed shops allowed to be open? What about supply chains?

When the lockdown was first announced, there was a lot a confusion regarding veterinary care facilities and animal feed distribution and retail outlets. However, in the addendum issued to the Guidelines by the Ministry of Home Affairs, on 25 March, and a further order issued by the MHA on 26 March, it was clarified that animal feed and fodder is an ‘Essential Item’, and its interstate supply chains are exempt from the lockdown. However, there are challenges and situations being reported, where pet food or animal fodder is in short supply, or transport of fodder is being prevented across states. Things seem to have settled down more or less now, but a strict check needs to be kept on prices to ensure that there is no undue price rise.


Coordinate With Animal Husbandry Department Officers

While the rules might be clear, the implementation is less so – what efforts can be made by states to help spread awareness about this amongst the administration as well as public?

Every state has an Animal Husbandry Department, which must dedicate its resources to provide veterinary health care and other allied services, even during calamities. At this time, they must also ensure supply of feed and fodder. The implementation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 and Rules thereunder, also lies with the Animal Husbandry Department. Hence, they need to assist the Police and animal welfare organisations to ensure animals and birds are not locked up to die of starvation in pet shops and breeding godowns.

What can people do if they require permissions or are being stopped?

Movement passes or curfew passes are issued by the Police or the District Collector’s office in each district, for persons who need to step out of their homes to feed animals. There is an online pass application which can be filled in most states. People can visit the websites of the Police Department or District Administration for details. In most cases, animal feeders are not being prevented from doing so, if all necessary precautions such as social distancing are followed diligently.

Coordinating with the animal husbandry department officers will also help. If an animal is to be taken to a veterinary hospital for emergency medical help, a pass may not be required, if the emergency is explained to the authorities.


Infected Humans Must Isolate Themselves From Pets

There are a lot of concerns about whether taking pets out might expose owners to the virus – what precautions can they take?

Walking the dogs on the roads may be avoided, and terrace, by-lanes can be used which are frequented by fewer people. The paws of the dog can be sanitised once it’s brought back home. I suggest keeping a tub of water with some liquid soap/Dettol at the door, in which the dog may be made to stand for 20 seconds before taking it in. Same biosecurity protocol applies to people who step outdoors. However, there is nothing to prove as of now, that dogs bringing back droplets carrying COVID can spread it to people.

In light of the big canines found to have contracted the infection at the Brooklyn zoo, what precautions can human beings take so as not to infect animals?

We know very little about the virus, and it would be too soon to conclusively say how it spreads. However, infected humans are so far known to have infected only 3 animals in over a million confirmed cases.

It can be advised that persons confirmed or suspected to be COVID-19 positive must isolate themselves completely from other humans and animals. Recently, a young man confirmed of COVID in Noida had to send his dog to a shelter, where it was given a bath and kept till the owner recovered and was reunited with the pet.


Animals Can’t Transmit COVID, But Unhygienic Wet Markets Need to Be Shut

There is also some confusion about whether animals can be carriers. What are the WHO guidelines on this?

The WHO guidelines have categorically stated that companion animals have no role to play in the spread of COVID-19. The same has been reiterated by the Indian Veterinary Association and the Animal Welfare Board of India. Still, there are all kinds of rumours and misinformation because of which pet owners may be harassed by neighbours or RWAs. We are providing assistance to those who are contacting us, by connecting with the authorities.

When animals are not shown to be carriers yet, why is there a demand to shut illegal pet and meat markets? How can that help prevent the pandemic?

Animals are not carriers or transmitters of COVID-19, but unsanitary meat markets are. However, if several species, especially birds, are kept in close confinement in filthy conditions, without any biosecurity, vaccination etc, there is every chance of zoonotic outbreak. Disease-causing pathogens thrive in filthy environs of wet markets, slaughterhouses, meat markets where food safety norms are not followed.

Frankly, the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 and Regulations thereunder are flouted with impunity across the country, and the malpractices in industrial animal agriculture for meat and eggs is responsible for outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as bird flu, tuberculosis etc.

At present, five states are reeling under outbreaks of Avian Influenza in addition to coronavirus, which only exacerbates the situation. There is evidence that in Wuhan, the genesis of the coronavirus, was a wet market where flesh of various animals was sold. This is a highly unsanitary practice that must be stopped immediately.


Illegal Trade of Meat Rampant, Hygiene Standards Flouted

What do you make of China banning trade and consumption of wild animals in the wake of COVID-19?

China and the world is paying a heavy price for ignoring what is only logical. Interfering with the natural order and industrialising animal agriculture is an open invitation to disasters. The world should learn from this crisis. China seems to have learnt a lesson from its mistakes.

Is wildlife meat trade rampant in India as well? Is it legal? What steps can be taken?

Bushmeat is illegally sold in some parts of Tamil Nadu and north eastern states. It is illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Moreover, carcass of any animal can serve as a fertile breeding ground for disease causing pathogens, hence there are elaborate laws laid down for veterinary check-up before and after slaughter and detailed protocol for handling the meat. These are not followed anywhere in any state or UT in India. This I can say with some authority, being a member of Slaughterhouse Monitoring Committees of several states, and a petitioner in several courts on this subject.


Nearly All Pet Shops in India Operate Sans License

A lot of pet shops in our cities are illegal – could you explain what are common illegalities in this scenario?

The Dog Breeding & Marketing Rules, 2017 and Pet Shop Rules, 2018 promulgated under The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 to regulate the pet shop and dog breeding industry.

This requires both pet shop owners and dog breeders to register for a license under the State Animal Welfare Board. In other words, both pet shop owners and dog breeding establishments are prohibited from operating without a license, which can be obtained by them only after being registered with the State Animal Welfare Board. Almost all pet shops and dog breeding establishments in India are unregistered, and do not have a required license.

The Rules also require the pet shops and dog breeding establishments to comply with basic animal welfare norms pertaining to provision of adequate infrastructure (housing, ventilation, lighting), proper veterinary care and nutrition, abolition of cruel practices like cropping of ears, tale docking or any other form of bodily mutilation, prevention of overcrowding and hoarding of animals, ensuring vaccination, documentation, emergency veterinary care. None of this is taken care of in the pet shops at all. Sick, mutilated, drugged animals are exploited for commercial gains in violation of all laws.


Sale Of Exotic Birds / Animals: Onus is On Pet Shop Owner

What kind of animals, that are commonly found in pet shops, are in fact illegal to sell and hold captive?

Rose-ringed parakeet, love birds, budgerigar, hill mynas and turtles are the most commonly found wild animals being sold in pet shops.

It is illegal to sell any wild animal or bird protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Section 39 of the Act specifies that wild animals are Government Property and it is illegal to acquire, keep in possession, custody or control, transfer or destroy and damage such Government Property.

With respect to imported and exotic breeds of birds and animals, the onus is on the pet shop owner to ensure that the supplier who supplies/imports these animals does so after obtaining all necessary approvals or license from the Director General of Foreign Trade, Sanitary Import Permit and Permission from Regional or State Animal Quarantine and Certification Services. The import of live animals is however, never done through legal and appropriate channels, and illegal smuggling of parrots, snakes, even primates is common through the eastern border of India.


Leaving Animals In a Closed Pet Shop to Die Is Illegal

There have been reports of pet shop owners – legal or otherwise – shutting their animals in during the lockdown. What steps can be taken by citizens if they come across such shops?

If there is a pet shop that one knows about and it has not been checked if there are animals inside it, a call may be made to the police and an online complaint registered. If there is an SPCA in the District, then they can be informed too.

The directions to evacuate animals from pet shops have been issued by the Animal Husbandry Department, Government of India, hence, the animal husbandry Department of the State/District may also be alerted.

Running a pet shop is not an ‘Essential Activity’, hence, the shop cannot be kept operational – and there cannot be any live animals inside it. The animals can be sent to the zoo or any shelter which can take them in. Locking up live animals in a pet shop and leaving them to die is also a violation of the Section 3 and 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960.

Only the Police or the SPCA has the power under Section 32 and 34 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, to break open the shop, to search and seize the live animals.


Above ‘Acceptable’ Limits of Sodium Hypochlorite Can Be Toxic for Animals Too

What can the government do to help rehabilitate the animals in this scenario? What are the provisions in place?

Rehabilitation can be done with the assistance of local animal welfare organisations/ local animal shelters registered with the Animal Welfare Board of India. Zoo authorities may also be contacted to take in animals like budgerigars, parakeets etc.

Can legal animals on sale be reclaimed post lockdown?

If the pet shop is registered and animals were locked up, an opportunity for hearing or appeal will be granted by the State Animal Welfare Board to the pet shop owner regarding the decision of the Secretary, Animal Husbandry, state government. The appeal can be either rejected or allowed, with reasons recorded in writing and communicated to the pet shop owner. If the pet shop is unregistered, and a case has been registered under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the animals cannot be returned to the accused till the pendency of the trial.

Roads and compounds are being disinfected with sodium hypochlorite – can this be dangerous for animals?

Sodium Hypochlorite or bleach has limited environmental impact as being highly reactive in nature it rapidly degrades before it can be absorbed by living beings. However, above acceptable exposure limits is a cause of concern, as it leads to poisoning. This applies only to rare cases of direct ingestion by dogs/animals. Timely veterinary intervention leads to full recovery. The substance is also known to be very toxic to aquatic organisms.

(Pragya Tiwari is a Delhi-based writer, who was formerly with Vice India. She tweets at @PragyaTiwari. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Pets   Animal welfare   Lockdown 

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