Illegal pet shops & dog breeding industry, worth over Rs 1000 cr, thrive on human avarice, graft in govt

There are over 1 lakh pet shops and dog breeders in India operating in flagrant violations of relevant laws. The industry generates business worth at least Rs 1000 crore a year, all in black

Birds for sale in a cage at a Delhi pet shop
Birds for sale in a cage at a Delhi pet shop

Rahul Gul

Almost two years after PM Narendra Modi appealed to Indians to adopt indigenous breeds of dog as part of the endevour to achieve ‘self-reliance’ in the country in an episode of ‘Mann Ki Baat’ broadcast in August 2020, the ground reality remains much the same, with the fetish for pedigree dogs of foreign origin remaining unabated.

“Next time when you think of keeping a dog, you must bring one of the Indian breed of dogs home. When self-reliant India is becoming the mantra of the masses, then no area should be left behind,” Modi had said.

Following this, the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying floated a proposal to the Cabinet Secretariat to take charge of domestic and stray dogs and cats, to develop and conserve their desi or indigenous breeds and export them. The proposal, drafted by the Animal Husbandry department, included plans for identification, characterisation, registration, survey, and conservation of indigenous dogs and cats and establishing breeding and training units for selective local varieties of these animals.

The department also cited the rising number of dog bite cases in cities and India’s aim to eradicate rabies (mostly caused by the bite or scratch of an infected animal) by 2030 to back the proposal, in line with a United Nations announcement in 2017 to begin a global initiative to end deaths from dog-transmitted rabies by 2030. According to the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) of the Ministry of Health, a total of 55,74,644 dog bite cases in humans were reported in 2018.

As per the 19th livestock census (of 2012), India has a population of 11.67 million domestic dogs and 17.13 million stray dogs, comprising several pedigreed and nondescript local breeds.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) too delved into research on how “to make Indian breeds better and more useful”, as per media reports.

However, nothing ever came of it, and as of today, the situation remains unchanged, thanks in large part to rampant corruption and sheer apathy among government officials, besides the culture of materialism now deeply embedded in the Indian society.

One of the most visible manifestations of this is the proliferation of so-called pet shops in the country which ‘stock’ foreign pedigree dogs to woo ‘clients’ besotted with the idea of owning them no matter what it costs or what it takes to bring up a pet, usually just to flaunt the animal as a status symbol.

The national capital itself is practically choc-a-block with such pet shops, which think nothing of actually displaying dog pups of ‘exotic’ breeds in tiny cages in their premises, without any consideration for their comfort or well-being. Or, indeed, for laws which mandate the same, since they never get penalized by concerned government officials who are on their payroll.

Dog pups on sale at a pet shop
Dog pups on sale at a pet shop

Noted animal welfare activist Gauri Maulekhi, Trustee of People for Animals, India’s largest animal welfare organisation, lamented that a key legislation that came into being after she moved the court, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Pet Shop) Rules, 2018, whose provisions are meant to ensure that dogs and other animal species were dealt with in a humane manner by pet shops, was followed more in breach than otherwise.

Aimed at bringing accountability to the pet shop trade, these Rules require such shops to maintain a record of the different animal species being sold, their procurement and sale; details of veterinarian checks; and other criteria to ensure decent living conditions for the captive animals.

What's more, most dog pups on sale are bred in violation of provisions of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Dog Breeding and Marketing) Rules, 2017, which forbid practices such as unhygienic environs and inbreeding in ‘puppy mills’, and are most often than not, put on sale without being weaned off.

“These Rules make it mandatory for dog breeders to obtain licenses from Animal Welfare Boards run by state governments and ensure that basic requirements are provided in their facilities to ensure the well-being of dogs. Unfortunately, even five years after the legislation was promulgated after we moved court, nothing has changed on the ground. Even a state like Delhi is yet to even identify which authority is to discharge the function of Animal Welfare Board as defined in the Rules,” says Maulekhi.

“The conditions are so bad and the environment so dirty in these breeding facilities that I sometimes fear zoonosis giving rise to deadly diseases, like it evidently happened in the genesis of the coronavirus in China,” she added.

“The problem is that government agencies like Development Department in Delhi, under whose aegis wings like Delhi Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA) function, are completely ineffective in discharging their mandate, because graft is rampant. Everybody from the top to bottom seems to be on the take. Gopal Rai, the minister in charge of the department, remains on his own trip and there are huge allegations of corruption against him. I find it ironic when AAP and its founder Arvind Kejriwal say things like they will eradicate corruption in Punjab by citing the example of Delhi. Their government in Delhi is totally steeped in corruption,” she alleged.

“I met Vijay Kumar Dev, who stepped down as Delhi Chief Secretary recently, umpteen number of times to seek his intervention. Every time he said he will look into it, but nothing ever happened. No action was taken even when animal welfare activists submitted a detailed forty-page report to his office in December 2021, documenting evidence how 30-odd prominent pet shops in Delhi are indulging in brazen violation of laws in plain sight,” she said.

Maulekhi underscored that moneyed people who patronized these shops were equally to blame. “It is shocking how dogs and other animal species have been commodified over several years. It’s a use and throw culture. People just buy these pets without being aware that they need to be looked after just like children, and later, unable to care for them, they simply dump them on the roads like garbage. It is extremely sad and unfortunate,” she said.

Asked if the volume of business could be quantified, she said, “Well, there are at least 500 pet shops in Delhi alone, besides innumerable ‘online stores’. Then, hundreds of veterinarians function as fly-by-night pet providers. You actually have home delivery of pets now!” says Maulekhi, adding that trade in wildlife prohibited under the law too remained unchecked.

Maneka Gandhi, arguably the best-known animal welfare activist in the country, when requested for comments on the issue, said the trade in pets was now an industry in the country in its own right and it cared little for the animals.

“There are over 1 lakh pet shops and breeders. The money runs into crores, possibly over Rs 500-1000 crore a year. All of it is in black with no taxes being paid, no receipts given. Most of these animals are inbred and carry massive diseases. Seventy per cent of all puppies sold die within three weeks of distemper and parvo. Kittens die of kidney disease,” she said.

This figure, incidentally, may be a conservative estimate, considering that a report compiled and submitted to the Centre by the Law Commission of India in August 2015, had pointed out that as per a submission made to it by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA) India, India had a “multi-crore but essentially unregulated pet trade growing at a rate of about 20% per year, with the Indian pet-care market alone estimated to reach about Rs 800 crore in 2015”.

Responding to a question on why government authorities turned a blind eye to this thriving business being conducted openly everywhere, Gandhi said, “Because they make weekly payments to the police and local municipal checkers.”

Asked what could be done to sensitise pet lovers to adopt Indie dogs rather than splurge money on pedigree dogs, she said, “It is not pet lovers who take foreign dogs. It is people who want to increase their status. So, they take unsuitable dogs like Saint Bernards, Pomeranians, Pugs, Huskies etc and then after a few years, when the veterinary bills become too high, they abandon them.”

Gauri Maulekhi pointed out that if Delhi government had constituted an agency as required under the law, mere registration of pet shops at Rs 5000 would have fetched the exchequer valuable revenue.

“Pet trade is a multi-crore business which was completely unregulated till 2018. Now, the Rules provide for each such business to pay a registration fee to the state government, abide by the conditions imposed and provide receipts to the customers. But everyone seems to be bothered only about filling their own pockets,” she reiterated.

She said she had been forced to file petitions Delhi High Court as well as the Supreme Court of India for further directions to the government in the matter, where they were pending.

Calls and messages sent to Vijay Kumar Dev, now holding charge of Delhi Election Commission did not elicit any response. Calls made to the office of Naresh Kumar, the new Delhi Chief Secretary, were answered with the standard response of the officer being in a meeting.

Sandeep Kumar, who holds charge as Secretary-cum-Commissioner, Development Department, Delhi, did not answer a call made to him, but in response to a text message, National Herald received a call from Dr Rakesh Singh, Director, Animal Husbandry, who is also ex-officio secretary of DSPCA.

“As of now, DSPCA has powers to look into complaints of cruelty only. A State Animal Welfare Board is being constituted and the file is with the LG’s office. Once approved, a gazette notification will follow and the rest of the processes will fall into place like authorizing veterinarians/inspectors to visit pet shops. There is also a proposal to constitute DSPCA teams in all 11 districts in Delhi,” he said.

He parried questions on the government machinery being hobbled due to shortage of staff as well as allegations of corruption by officials in the concerned department.

The report on the abysmal state of pet shops in Delhi submitted to Delhi Chief Secretary followed a three-month inspection from October to December 2021 of over 30 pet shops in Delhi by a team of volunteers from Ahimsa Fellowship, organised by a group of animal welfare NGOs.

The team found a number of violation of relevant laws at all pet shops, ranging from the sale of animals prohibited under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, cramped cages, lack of temperature control systems and no separate quarantine areas for injured or diseased animals, among others.

A bird and a rabbit sharing a cramped cage in a pet shop
A bird and a rabbit sharing a cramped cage in a pet shop

Animal rights activist Sunanya Sibal, one of the persons involved in this diligent exercise, during which the team photographed and documented acts of cruelty to animals being perpetuated in the pet shops, said that the problem was systemic and deeply ingrained in our society.

“Ninety-five percent of the pet shops had cages which were too small for the bird or animal they were housing. There were no exhausts or temperature-control systems in most shops, making it uncomfortable for these animals and no pet shop had a separate quarantine area for sick or diseased animals. We also found shops displaying animals outside, leaving them exposed to the elements,” said Sibal.

She said that the team come across at least seven species prohibited for sale under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 openly on display at these shops. “These included the Indian star tortoise, scaly-breasted munias, quails, lesser whistling ducks, parakeets, grey francolins and Indian silverbills among others. An inspection by the concerned authorities would have led to these animals being seized and the shop sealed, but the lack of accountability is causing these animals to be sold openly,” she added.

An Indian star tortoise on sale
An Indian star tortoise on sale

The apathetic attitude of government officials is reflected by a near-total lack of information about the situation. “I had sent an RTI to Development Department of Delhi government in November, 2021 asking for details of all the pet shops in the city registered with Delhi Animal Welfare Board and inspection reports by authorized veterinarians of Delhi govt as mandated by Pet Shops Rules. In response, I just received a one line reply from Dr Rakesh Singh, Director, Animal Husbandry, that ‘no such information was available on date’,” Sibal said.

It may be recalled that the lack of data on Delhi’s pet shops had become a huge problem during the lockdown imposed in the wake of the COVID in March 2020, when many pet shop owners abruptly shut their shops, leaving birds and animals locked up inside. The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) had subsequently issued directions in April, asking State Animal Welfare Boards (SAWBs) to evacuate animals stuck inside pet shops with the help of local administration, but the lack of data on such shops posed a problem.

When contacted, a pet shop owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity claimed that the lack of transparency in the registration process was making it difficult for them complete the process. “The state animal welfare board’s website does not function most of the time. They also do not have a physical office currently, making it difficult to approach,” he contended.

Maneka Gandhi recently suggested a possible solution to the vexed issue through a write-up. “America’s shelters have a kill policy. Abandoned animals in shelters are allowed to live 28 days and if they are not adopted, they are killed. Over the years, a large number of no-kill shelters have come up. But the dogs live in cages for the rest of their lives, unless they are adopted. In 2017, California passed a law, A.B.485, that pet stores will only sell puppies, kittens and rabbits from shelters and rescue centres. Violators will be fined $500 and shut down. This effectively puts an end to commercial animal breeders and brokers, and to the terrible practice of illegal breeding. India too needs to adopt such a policy,” she said.

“So, if we made it compulsory for pet shops to only sell dogs and cats from shelters, we would be able to achieve two things: the abandoned foreign animals would find homes and the shelters would make a little money.
The dogs/cats could be sterilized, vaccinated and made healthy before selling – unlike the pedigreed dogs/cats that come from breeders. They are sold without vaccinations and most of them die as puppies of distemper and parvo. The other thing it would achieve is that pet shops will start selling the cutest Indian puppies supplied to them from shelters. No shelter will breed foreign dogs. So, in the absence of formal retail outlets, the breeding of foreign dogs will go down. People who want dogs will take Indian dogs. People who like buying dogs will buy them from shops,” she added.

It remains to be seen if such well-meaning and practical suggestions are taken cognizance of and implemented by the government.

Sonya Ghosh, a professor in Delhi University who founded Citizens for Welfare and Protection of Animals and obtained an order from Delhi High Court for designation of feeding sites for stray dogs in Delhi and police protection for activists taking care of them, says the core issue is indeed that those who kept foreign breeds instead of indie dogs were looking for a ‘status symbol’.

“The most unfortunate part, of course, is that they discard the animals when they can’t take care of them. This is being seen even in case of those who buy so-called exotic pets like iguanas and certain snakes. What is of concern is the risk of zoonotic spillovers, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and release of some species in the native wildlife and environment may create havoc for it,” she said.

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    Published: 03 May 2022, 10:35 PM