Home >Lounge >Features >Why India's illegal online pet market thrives despite government guidelines

On 9 July, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) wrote a letter to the IT ministry asking it to restrict animals sales via unregistered websites. Without explicitly mentioning any websites, the AWBI noted that “various" e-commerce companies were selling animals without registering with the State Animal Welfare Boards. The IT ministry, it said, should thus limit such trading. Towards the end, it copied e-commerce platforms Quikr.com and Olx.com among the recipients of the letter.

Online marketplaces for animals have been around for at least a decade. A Google search leads to at least a dozen stand-alone websites offering dogs, cats and, in some cases, exotic fish and birds. Then there are also social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and online aggregators like Olx and Quikr, where users post about the pets and animals they wish to sell.

Selling animals online isn’t illegal in India. According to rules, the seller should be registered with the Animal Welfare Board of the states he/she is operating in. The websites enabling such sales need to comply with the relevant guidelines under Pet Shop Rules, 2018, and Dog Breeding and Marketing Rules, 2017. But according to animal rights activists, most sellers and e-commerce platforms in India operate without the necessary licenses and registrations.

“Over the past two years, we have sent Right to Information (RTI) requests to states across India asking for the number of pet shops and dog breeders registered under them," says Mallika Roy, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India’s corporate liaison. “This includes websites as well – anyone wishing to sell or trade animals needs to be registered. As per the responses we received, and to the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t a single website registered with them until January 2020."

Mint couldn't independently verify the claim. When reached for comment over phone, an AWBI official told this reporter that the body wasn't allowed to interact with the media.

But such lack of registration leads to a host of problems. “The Pet Shop Rules, 2018, allows for registration only after the shops comply with certain norms," says Varda Mehrotra, Executive Director of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO). “This includes those pertaining to food, hygiene, clean and adequate ventilation, medical support and the necessary infrastructure. Without registration, there’s no way of knowing how the animals are raised and bred."

This means the sellers and breeders can get away with unethical practices. Pets are known to be kept in small cages, forcibly mated, the young ones turned away too soon from their mothers, and sold without vaccination. It also leads to easy access and sales of exotic breeds like Siberian Huskies or St Bernards – dogs that are not meant to be raised in Indian tropical climate.

Websites like Olx.com and Quikr.com make a slightly different case. These platforms are aggregators, connecting buyers and sellers on a range of items, interests and commodities. Soon after the complaints against the websites surfaced following the 2018 Act, they claim to have been routinely removing content explicitly allowing sales of animals.

As a spokesperson from Olx.com explained, “All advertisements relating to sale of animals which are not allowed to be traded in accordance with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, are prohibited. In addition to wild animals, we also do not allow any advertisements which relate to sale of dogs - which is regulated by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Dog Breeding and Marketing) Rules." The website, the spokesperson added, had also developed an algorithm to flag dubious sales listing, blocked suspected fraudsters and sensitized users.

Yet, at the time of writing this report on 29 July, Olx.com did feature several Persian cats for sale. When pointed out, the Olx team had removed most of them by the evening.

On Quikr.com, users have figured out a way to circumvent the rules. “The sellers here upload animals under the tab ‘Pet Adoption’," said Mehrotra. “When you call them up, they ask for money. With Eid around the corner, we are also getting reports that goats are being sold online."

Mint found over 18,655 listings under the tab ‘Pet Adoption Across India’. When asked about it, a spokesperson from Quikr.com said, "As an intermediary, Quikr does not require any registration or license under the Rules, and for the last couple of years, we don't allow the sale of pets on our platform. Having said that, we are currently working on responding to the notice and will take the necessary steps to promote healthy community practices." It didn’t respond to questions about the misuse of the ‘adoption’ facility.

In 2018, the death of a pup named Bagheera went viral on social media. The Labrador was sold online to a user in Bangalore when it was only 21 days old and not fully weaned away from its mother. After the news of its death was shared on social media a few weeks later, it renewed the outrage against unhygienic breeding practices in pet markets. Several users shared their own stories of buying distressed animals online. CJ Memorial Trust, an animal rights advocacy organization from Bangalore, started an online petition against illegal sales of animals.

“Online sales lead to commodification of animals," says Priya Chetty Rajagopal, founder of the Trust. “Anyone can post an advertisement and sell animals. The sellers are incentivized to produce more. The female animals are used as reproduction machines."

Often, the extant rules aren’t a deterrent enough. “Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act, crimes against pets are bailable. But when it comes to those animals under the Wildlife Act (like tigers and lions), such crimes are non-bailable and include imprisonment. So you often find websites monitoring themselves for wildlife but not pets," she explains.

The only way to rein in such activities, says Rajagopal, is to ensure registration and strict compliance. The AWBI notice restricting illegal online sales, she adds, was a step in the right direction. “If they continue with [the illegal sales], they should face the law of the land."

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