I am so glad to be back in Sri Lanka and eager to get down to work. I know I’ve harped on about the weather previously, but March over here is hot, so unlike last September—Dec. To avoid the hottest part of the day we would be arriving at our study sites either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. I didn’t mind in the least as I’d be back to doing what I loved.
First day of fieldwork and I was up at 5:30am and ready to leave by 6am. We arrived around 7am and as the sun rose in the sky the place was more stunning than I remembered. It was already warm, but at least at this temperature the lizards and snakes should be out basking to raise their body temperatures; not too hot for them and not too cool. With the exception of one water snake, and despite being constantly warned about a cobra that was frequently seen by the workers, last year’s snake sightings at Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Study Park had been poor. Maybe working at these times would be better?
Ten camera traps had been set up in an area of the site where they had previously snapped fishing cats. We wanted to make sure there was still a resident cat and if there still was, then the plan was to catch it and fit it with a GPS collar. So far, 2 out of 3 of Anya’s collared cats had been translocated animals; translocation is the capture and removal of an animal from one location and re-location to another where it will stay –hopefully. We were very interested in seeing if there were any differences in the movements of a resident cat compared to a translocate (excuse the jargon, it’s what we call a translocated cat). It was just a case of sifting through 10 SD cards from the camera traps and, agonisingly, we knew a few had over 3000 pictures on them – this was going to take a while. After hours of sifting through the thousands of photos, finally SUCCESS!!!! Two of the traps had captured a cat! From then on, everything was a GO! We reset all the cameras, collected 2 trap cages, informed the Wildlife Department the traps were out and we just had to go and buy a couple of chickens to entice the cat in. Don’t worry, the chickens would be perfectly safe, they would be confined to their own cage attached to the back of the trap cage and covered on 4 sides with sacking. The cat would have to enter the trap in order to get a decent look at their tasty featheriness.
Sri Lanka, along with much of Asia has next to no animal welfare laws. A Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1907 and the most recent amendment to it was in 1955, to say it’s outdated is an understatement. Coming from a country of great animal lovers where we have been legislating for animal welfare since 1822 (Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act), and our most recent update to the Animal Welfare Act occurred in 2006, it is an enormous shock to the system to see such a lack of awareness of good animal practices. The ‘pet shop’ we arrived at to buy our chickens seemed like something from the dark ages. Small metal cages housing puppies next to kittens, which in turn were next to young rabbits. If the prospect of being housed next to something you want to chase wasn’t stressful enough the heat stress for these animals was stupendous. I have never seen a cat pant and never wish to see one do so again. Everything was provided with water and the same food – cooked rice. I immediately worried for the cats, being obligate carnivores, about the effect it would have on their development. It was heart breaking to see, especially as I walked towards the back of the shop and saw rows upon rows of wild caught birds in cages. I was told that this type of establishment was relatively new in Sri Lanka and that this one was one of the good ones. There is some light at the end of this depressing tunnel though. In 2010 a Bill was presented to Parliament to update and replace the 1907 Act and to establish a National Animal Welfare Authority and draw up Regulations and Codes of Practice. Apparently it is open for public comment but needs to be tabled for Parliamentary approval (I have no idea what that means either). The long and the short of this paragraph is that we picked up our 2 bait chickens.
On the way back to Thalawathugoda, being the competitive spirit that I am, I suggested ‘Chicken Wars’ to Anya. Calm yourselves now; I’m not talking cock fighting, it was a competition to see whose chicken could catch the cat. Now you can’t just have Anya’s chicken and Fi’s chicken, oh no that wouldn’t be fun, there would have to be names. I named my slightly bigger and more colourful chicken Humphrey the Magnificent because, well, he was just fabulous. After Anya initially named hers Stan, Maduranga informed us that ‘he’ was actually a she and so, in an attempt to mock me, she renamed her chicken Sampath. To clarify this mockery, I used to work with a female rusty-spotted cat called Sampath and when I came here I found out Sampath is actually a boy’s name, which everyone thought was hilarious. I have two things to say in my defence, 1) I didn’t name the cat, and 2) the person who did was given the names by a Sri Lankan, so clearly something got muddled in translation. Anyway, we secured our chickens in their respective trap cages with water and food, wrapped the sides not attached to the cage in hessian sack and set the traps.
Let the games begin!