Solving the problem of animal cruelty in Trinidad & Tobago needs more than just legislation

Feature image of malnourished puppy via Canva Pro.

In April 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the black dog of Embacadere, a town on the outskirts of Trinidad’s southern city of San Fernando, pierced the hearts and minds of Trinidad and Tobago social media users after a video of three men brutally performing its hanging emerged on Facebook. Outrage was swift and widespread, with many activists calling for harsh punishment over what they felt was a needlessly cruel and despicable act.

It was not, however, the only one. The websites and social media channels of any local animal NGO or adoption group are typically awash with stories that are seemingly refreshed on a monthly, if not weekly, basis. Accounts of beatings, perpetually leashed dogs, and even kittens being shaken out of boxes from truck windows beg the question as to whether there is an epidemic of domestic animal abuse in Trinidad and Tobago. Even a quick Google search turns up a series of newspaper articles crying out for justice.

While the majority of animal crimes in the country are not as overtly cruel as the case of the black dog, one cannot deny that domestic animals are largely protected only by the good graces of animal lovers. Sara Maynard, a founding member of the Animal Welfare Network (AWN) and operations manager of the Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TTSPCA), says TTSPCA shelters are currently running at full capacity, where they previously ran at three-quarter. “It is common to see boxes [of abandoned animals] left outside [our gates],” she laments.

These experiences are echoed by Elspeth Duncan, who runs a Tobago-based animal rescue/welfare NGO called Venus, Doggess of Love. Sadly, she says, “People see [neglect] as normal.” She recounts a situation involving a severely malnourished dog. “I went to the police with a picture [of the dog] and said, ‘What do you think?’ No flicker, no horror, nothing. And that is because it’s normal to see a mangy dog with tufts of fur and [assume] it is just a stray.”

Physical beatings or choppings are uncommon, but not unheard of. Duncan shared the story of an eight-month-old Siberian Husky that, in 2022, was shot with a pellet gun, then dragged to the road and beaten to death with a shovel. Poisonings are another unfortunate scene; dogs and cats are often at the mercy of disgruntled neighbours or farmers. Furthermore, when animals are either dumped or roam freely, they are at heightened risk of being poisoned.

Trinidad's Caroni Swamp, a popular location for dumping animals — especially when young — has been the location of mass cat poisonings over the years, and homeowners across the country can testify to neighbours poisoning their dogs or cats if they escape the confines of their yard. Duncan says that poisoning is perceived as “almost like getting rid of rats,” especially in Tobago, where the safety of livestock, a common income earner, is prioritised. There is also collateral damage to the bird population in areas where poison has been set down.

Animal activists have been campaigning for years to have animal protections properly enshrined in law. Shortly after the gruesome fate of the black dog, amendments were made to the Summary Offences Act (SOA) via the Miscellaneous Amendments Bill, and proclaimed by then-President Paula-Mae Weekes on May 11, 2020.

The key legislative amendments related to Sections 79, 80 and 83 of the SOA, with the major change being an increase in penalties for acts of cruelty toward animals. Offenders would face fines of up to TTD 100,000 (just under USD 15,000) and a year's jail time, up from TTD 400 (just under USD 60) and two months’ jail time.

Alongside this was an amendment to the Animals (Diseases and Importation) Act, which was intended to supersede the SOA provisions with more direct language and harsher penalties. The amendment, which was made after consultation with a coalition of activists, updated the then 65-year-old law with fines of up to TTD 200,000 (just under USD 30,000) and five years’ imprisonment for animal abuse and cruelty.

The Bill was championed by then Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat, and was passed in Parliament on July 2, 2020, coming into effect in June the following year. While the Animals Act does not cover the full spectrum of cruelty like the laws in the United States and United Kingdom do, it covers the most important aspects.

In October 2020, the offenders involved in the hanging of the black dog were charged with its unlawful and malicious killing under Section 16 of the SOA, and sentenced to pay the then paltry TTD 400 fine or serve three months in prison. In court, their lawyer argued that they had acted out of compassion, a claim hotly contested on social media. Notably, they were not charged with an animal cruelty offence, contrary to Section 79 of the Act.

The contradicting legal provisions on animal cruelty and welfare insert a level of uncertainty into the law, which makes enforcement and protection difficult. As it stands, while the Animals Act repealed the animal cruelty provisions of the SOA, no amendments have been made to the penalties available therein for the Section 16 offence of the unlawful killing of an animal, creating an unfortunate legal anomaly in which one can cruelly ill-treat an animal and face a maximum fine of TTD 200,000 or five years in prison (Animals Act), or unlawfully and maliciously kill an animal and face a maximum penalty of TTD 1,000 or one year’s imprisonment (SOA).

While reflecting on that outcome in relation to the murder of the Husky, Duncan lamented in an editorial, “With legal outcomes like that, how can we have hope that justice will ever be served in [Trinidad and Tobago] when human beings commit such unimaginable atrocities against members of the animal kingdom?” Even with the strong arm of the Animals Act in place, some fear that — in the case of the Husky, at least – justice may have been evaded: a trial date was last set for August 2022, but nothing further has been heard since.

Since the Animals Act has come into effect, no offenders have been prosecuted for animal cruelty under this law — and since those who killed the black dog were charged under the SOA's Section 16 instead of Section 79, it is likely that Section 16 — as yet un-repealed — could be once again called into use.

Despite the TTSPCA's formal request for the regulations of the Animals Act — which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land, and Fisheries — nothing has been forthcoming, even though standards of care were developed by the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee since 2020. Regulations would flesh out otherwise vague provisions in the current parent Act and make provisions to deal with specific, animal-related issues. They could also be more focused and easier to alter, as opposed to an Act of Parliament, which must go through the entire legislative process.

For the time being, activists must work with the current legislation. Though they consider it a hard-won victory, they are all too aware that legislation is only effective if enforced. According to activist Nalini Dial, president of Animals are Humans Too, “We have the legislation, but that’s it. Just sitting there.”

Dial worked with then-Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith to bring an animal cruelty unit to fruition. Under his direction, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) made a commitment in April 2019 to enforce relevant laws relating to the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, and promised to assign officers to work with communities and animal welfare groups to intervene under the law.

This promise was reinforced following a meeting with Animals are Humans Too in October 2019, at which Griffith noted that he had assigned two police officers per division — across all nine divisions — to assist animal welfare organisations in investigating and enforcing laws against animal cruelty. At the time, they were operating under the unamended SOA.

However, plans for the operationalisation for a specialised Animal Cruelty Unit never materialised during Griffith's tenure and have seemingly been abandoned since his departure from office. While Dial attests that the former commissioner “also suggested a court to deal with animal crimes only,” she maintains that “the police never really had officers interested in animal cruelty … they do not see it as a crime.”

Duncan, meanwhile, urges members of the public to drop any misgivings they may have towards the police with regard to animal crimes, as she was able to successfully report several. In one instance, she secured a police escort to feed a dog that had been leashed in its owner’s yard for days on end. In another, after an owner moved to a new home and left his dog leashed in the old yard, police intervened, though they were unable to locate the owner to place a formal charge.

“Do not be afraid!” Duncan says. “Be respectful and go with somebody if you must. Until people start reporting, police will not take it seriously. Don’t do nothing because of a myth that police will do nothing.”

Beyond legislation and enforcement, both of which are sorely lacking, long-term animal welfare also requires government investment and action that goes beyond legislative changes. These include creating a cultural shift, special funding and resourcing to reduce instances of animal neglect, and a multi-stakeholder approach to deal with issues that include police training and sensitisation. Animal welfare does not end at legislation and enforcement. If all the law does is charge offenders, the well-being of the animal after removal from the abusive home is not factored in. These pets often become burdens on already under-resourced shelters or get abandoned entirely. The state, therefore, needs to play a greater role in rehabilitation and care.

Veterinarian Dr. Shirelle Sammy says that not only does spaying and neutering pets curb overpopulation, it can also prevent roaming behaviours, provide long-term health benefits and ultimately, reduce animals’ suffering. Maynard agrees: “If you’re not producing unwanted litters, you won’t have animals dumped or poisoned.” In conjunction with AWN, the TTSPCA hosts a year-round spaying and neutering facility at a cost of TTD 300 (USD 40) per animal, working with vets country-wide — but education is key.

To this end, the TTSPCA has been collecting data on animal abuse, and much of it happens because of ignorance, for example, hunters starving their dogs prior to the season opening, because they think it will make them better trappers or people adopting pets without understanding how to care for them.

Another aspect of animal abuse is noise. Ear-splitting music at Carnival time, for instance, or explosions of fireworks at various celebrations throughout the year are major sources of stress for wild and domestic animals alike. Dial is one of the many voices calling for the government to either mandate the use of noiseless fireworks or ban them completely.

If Mahatma Gandhi was right, and a nation's moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated, Trinidad and Tobago can only improve from here.

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