Despite regulations, illegal pet trade in India remains a haven for undocumented wealth, criminal activity, funding terrorism

Ambika Hiranandani

Markets in India are filled with pet stores that cram hundreds of birds into cages, and puppies and kittens into spaces no larger than shoe boxes. Tanks, too, are overcrowded with fish that stew in their own faecal matter till they are rescued by a purchaser or death. The very same shops also make money selling animals that are protected under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the consumer is often unaware of the crime they are committing by being a party to this commodification of the living.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Pet Shop) Rules, 2018 was passed to protect animals in the pet trade. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Dog Breeding and Marketing) Rules, 2017 was passed to protect dogs in the breeding process. However, neither of these have been fully-implemented by any state in India. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Aquarium and Fish Tank) Rules, 2017 have been withdrawn by the Government, and fish are openly and rampantly traded with no regard for their lives.

Two infant long-tailed macaques are for sale at a pet market in Medan, Indonesia, a known hub of the live animal trade. Image: EPA

Two infant long-tailed macaques are for sale at a pet market in Medan, Indonesia €" a known hub for live animal trade. Image: EPA

Front for wildlife trade, a drain on the exchequer

Among the many ills of pet trade is the fact that finances are hardly ever accounted for. The Government doesn't have the slightest clue as to where traders get funding to acquire animals or where the profits of the trade go. The Elephant Action League (EAL) conducted an 18-month undercover investigation into the link between funds of the illegal wildlife trade and the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. The National, a newspaper in Dubai, recently reported on how the illegal online wildlife trade was fuelling organised crime in the region.

Closer to home are some disconcerting reports on the illegal cattle trade funding terrorism. The Law Commission of India's Report No. 261 highlighted the fact that the global illegal pet trade industry is estimated to be worth millions in US dollars. Undocumented wealth and criminal activity aren't new bedfellows, but certainly needs to be acted against.

An owl mid-trade that was found by the team. Image: Author provided

An owl mid-trade that was found by the team. Image: Ambika Hiranandani

Policy changes have swept the world

World over, animal rights communities and compassionate citizens have been exposing the cruelty behind the pet trade.

These efforts have paid off in part, with significant policy changes over the last couple of years. AB 485, a Californian law that took effect early this year, only permitted retailers from selling cats and dogs from animal shelters and prohibited selling dogs and cats from breeders. Lucy's law, a regulation which prohibited the sale of pups and kittens from third parties making buyers deal with breeders directly in England, was laid before parliament this week.

According to England's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, it is expected to come into force on 6 April 2020. The law was named after Lucy, a dog who died in 2016 after being poorly treated by a commercial breeder.

Pet trade in India

The Animal Welfare Board of India recommended regulation of the pet shops almost a decade ago.

"It took a decade of lobbying, hundreds of FIRs against pet shops, the Law Commission recommending the regulation of the pet trade and a PIL being filed in the Delhi High Court for the Government to pass rules which regulate the trade," explains Gauri Maulekhi, animal rights activist who filed the Petition in the Delhi High Court.

Birds packed into cages in pet shops. Image: Ambika Hiranandani

Birds packed into cages in pet shops. Image: Ambika Hiranandani

The rules task the licensing of pet shops to the State Animal Welfare Board. They mandate an inspection which evaluates the standards for accommodation, infrastructure, housing, general care and veterinary care. They disallow the usage of wire mesh for the floors of the enclosures and have a protocol for the keeping of registers on the health and mortality of the animals. There is a complaint mechanism whereby if an individual sees an animal being treated inhumanely in a pet shop, they can raise this with either the local corporation or the SPCA who are charged with verifying the complaint. Any animal who is found to be ill-treated or sick shall be confiscated and sent to an animal welfare organization for treatment. The pet shop owner shall be liable for any expenses for the care given to the distressed animals.

While the Hon'ble Bombay High Court and Uttarakhand High Court have both passed orders directing the government to implement the rules, the trade is unabated and continues to flourish.

The challenge with implementing the rules is that most states don't have a duly constituted State Animal Welfare Board or the districts do not have Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs). The state of Maharashtra has set up SPCAs in 33 out of 36 districts this year. All of these chaired by the Collector, are composed of representatives of NGOs, the animal husbandry department, the police, and the wildlife department. Their mandate is to prevent cruelty to animals in the district and ensure enforcement of animal protection laws.

Currently, pending a budgetary allocation to carry out their mandate, their activities are limited.

"The first agenda item I tasked my board with was to ensure that each district had an SPCA, to sensitise the officers on the laws to prevent cruelty and seek a budget from the government for animal welfare. While it has not been an easy task we are committed to the implementation of the rules," states Poonam Mahajan, Member of Parliament and Chair of the State of Maharashtra Animal Welfare Board.

What you can do to slash pet trade

Adopt don't shop. There are thousands of dogs in shelters waiting to be adopted. We must understand that a pet is a family member and will live with us for many years. Animals are sentient and a rescued animal has so much love and regard for a family that rescues them. We often don't realise that the breeds we covet are not made for the Indian climate. Indian dogs thrive in our cities and the streets imagine what valuable companions they would make in our homes.

Raise your voice. If you see a shop treating animals badly, raise the issue with your local authority. Write to your local SPCA, District Deputy Director of Animal Husbandry and your Municipal Corporation. Animals cannot speak €" it is the role of every compassionate citizen to speak for them.

The author is an Advocate who filed the PIL against the illegal pet trade in the Delhi High Court and is a Member of the Maharashtra State Animal Welfare Board.

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