Feature Img
Photo: Rainer Ebert
Photo: Rainer Ebert

There is the kind of slavery that is confined behind closed doors: the doors of garments and leather factories, or the doors of our homes. Of course, we all know what happens behind these doors. Yet, we choose not to think about it too much, because we know it would upset us, because it would disturb the idyllic image we have of society. But sometimes, when a human slave is thrown into the public eye, we are forced to pay attention – as happened recently when Aduri was thrown into a dumpster. If that happens, we are outraged, as if we had not already known what happens in our neighbours’ houses. Part of what makes that inhumanity possible is the fact that “they” – domestic workers, garments and factory workers, etc. – are widely considered less-than-“us”. They are mere means to our ends, and their interests are somewhat less important than ours. That’s what too many of us think, or – at the very least – that’s how too many of us act.

There is another kind of slavery. It happens in broad daylight. Unlike human slaves, the slaves in question are considered the legal property of their owners, whose authority over them is absolute and practically never questioned. We are talking about the non-human slaves at the Katabon animal market in Dhaka, whose plight is exemplary for that of billions of other animals across the globe. We visited Katabon in August, and we saw mice cramped in a cage the size of a sheet of paper. We saw dogs and cats, some of them obviously injured and sick, in small cages without water or food, exposed to the merciless summer sun. We saw a cat with a serious eye infection, a rabbit with some nasty skin disease, and dogs frantically walking in circles in order to find the impossible: a comfortable way to sit on the bare iron rods the floors of their empty cages were made of.

Katabon is not a place for the sensitive (and we leave it to the reader to decide whether he or she wants to see the photos we took at Katabon). It is a place where animals are regarded as mere resources, where the “us vs. them” mentality is frighteningly effective. It is frightening, and a moral disgrace, because those animal slaves are, in important regards, just like you or us. The mice, dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and other animals sold at Katabon are sentient beings. They have a psychological presence in the world, just like human beings. What happens to them matters to them. They feel pain, they have beliefs and desires, and their lives are important to them. Do they not then – like us – have a basic right not to be treated as things or property? If so, this right is blatantly violated at Katabon. Such violations could not be justified with respect to humans, and they cannot be justified with respect to non-human animals.

Of course, no slaves would be traded at Katabon if nobody bought animals from there. We talked to Rubaiya Ahmad, the founder of Obhoyaronno, Bangladesh’s largest animal welfare organization, and asked her to help us understand the customer side of the problem. At the latest since her organization successfully campaigned for an end to dog culling in Dhaka, Rubaiya is a hero not only to Bangladesh’s animals, but also to their human friends. She told us that “the main problem is that people from a certain class are hell-bent on having companion animals, and that it has to be a pedigree dog or cat for them as they have a certain social status to maintain. And Katabon is the place to go. But why not instead adopt a stray dog or cat in your neighbourhood, give it a home and a better life?” As long as there are animals on the streets, or in shelters, because no one wants them, it is morally problematic to give breeders a financial incentive to breed more dogs or cats, when one could adopt an animal instead. For that reason, making pedigree animals into a status symbol is not a good thing, and Rubaiya has little positive to say about self-proclaimed “pet lovers” who want their companion animals to be purebred. She says that people often do not see these connections, and hence do not realise what is wrong with buying companion animals.

Even though Obhoyaronno has been able to put an end to Dhaka’s dog culling program and works hard to improve the situation of street animals, many dogs and cats are still suffering and dying on the streets of the capital city. The same is true for other places in Bangladesh. “If you have stray cats or dogs or any other domesticated animals in your area, you should adopt them, if you are looking for a companion animal, rather than buying one.” As the reader probably has noticed by now, “pet” is not one of Rubaiya’s favourite words. “Call them your ‘friends’ or ‘companion animals.’. ‘Pets’ is a derogatory term.” Her simple mantra is, “adopt, don’t shop!”

The shop keepers at Katabon put profit over the well-being of non-human animals. For them, it is simply business, a way to make a living. If it is difficult to explain to the educated elite why the interests of animals should be taken seriously, one would imagine that it must be close to impossible to explain that to Katabon’s animal traders. However, speaking to them, we found that many of them do care for the well-being of their animals but are constrained from improving the conditions in which the animals are kept. “My boss ordered me to keep the animals in such small cages. The money for food and health care comes from the boss and it sometimes just isn’t enough,” said one of the shopkeepers who, for obvious reasons, did not want his name revealed.

It is also from the shopkeepers at Katabon that we learned that the premises on which the pet shops there are built are the property of the University of Dhaka. Bangladesh’s Cruelty to Animals Act makes keeping “any animal in such a manner […] as to subject the animal to unnecessary pain or suffering” a punishable offence, and the suffering of many animals at Katabon is clearly unnecessary, given any reasonable interpretation of necessity. The authorities at the University of Dhaka hence not only have a moral, but arguably also a legal reason to exert pressure to end the animal trade at Katabon or, at the very least, improve conditions at the pet shops significantly.

Before we conclude, a note of caution about private breeders seems in order. Maybe there is someone you know or heard about who privately breeds pedigree animals and seems more responsible than the breeders who supply the shops at Katabon. The truth is that there is no such thing as a “responsible” breeder. For every animal produced by any breeder, an animal living on the street or awaiting adoption at a shelter loses his or her chance at finding a home. To make it worse, many animals sold by breeders – private or commercial – are products of inbreeding. Inbreeding causes painful and life-shortening genetic defects in “purebred” cats and dogs. “Symptoms may not appear when the animal is young, so a seemingly healthy looking puppy or kitten may actually incur serious health problems when he or she older,” warns Rubaiya.

In an effort to limit animal abuse at the hand of breeders and traders, Obhoyaronno and a team of eminent lawyers have redrafted the current Cruelty to Animals Act, which dates back to 1920. If this new law is passed, all breeders and traders will have to obtain a license from the government before they can handle animals.

Companion animals deserve love and respect. Breeders and traders fail to show them that due respect. They are slavers who treat animals as if they were mere commodities, causing them immense misery and suffering. If you care about animals, please take Rubaiya’s plea to heart: Adopt, don’t shop!

Shahnoor Rabbani is a freelance writer and a sports analyst at Radio Shadhin.

Rainer Ebert is a graduate student of philosophy at Rice University, a founding member of the Bangladesh Liberal Forum, and an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

27 Responses to “The slave market of Katabon”

  1. Azur Canvas

    The country’s powerful garment industry has been plagued by a series of disasters in recent months, including a November fire at the Tazreen factory that killed 112 and the building collapse.

  2. Aaqib Hossain

    I agree that hellholes like Katabon should not be commercially supported however, I have a problem with the adopt, don’t buy absolute standard.

    Its great if you adopt, sometimes your needs are specific and will not be serviced by adoption. Its very important for licensed breeders who respect their charges and treat them accordingly to be available to service those needs. Needs such as specific breed (Im sure as hell not going to find a dogo argentino puppy available for adoption anytime soon), such as age range (some people don’t want to bring home an older dog and puppies aren’t always available for adoption).

    And its important that we support those breeders so that they’re available and in business when we have such animal companion needs. Blanket embargoing breeders who treat their non human animal charges well and who run a marginal profit from doing something they love simply because you’re trying to hurt the slavers over at Katabon is just silly and counterproductive.

    Good breeders are the perfect answer to Katabon, so that customers have a better alternative (along with adoption) to turn to.

    • Rainer Ebert

      Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a breeder in Bangladesh who is careful to avoid inbreeding and treats the animals he or she produces with the required respect and care (I don’t believe that there is such a breeder). It is still true that, for every animal produced by such a breeder, an animal living on the street or awaiting adoption at a shelter loses his or her chance at finding a home. You to justify professional breeding by appealing to the “needs” of customers. First, if you want a dogo argentino puppy, that’s a preference, not a need. Second, that preference is rather selfish and has little to do with caring for animals for their own sakes. If you really care for animals, you will choose to adopt an animal who is in a dire situation. By buying a dogo argentino puppy instead, you just reaffirm the false belief that animals are mere commodities whose sole purpose is to serve human desires.

      • Aaqib Hossain

        You’re incorrect on multiple counts. To begin with there are two sets of kennels (Star and Old Town) that I’ve had dealings with in the past which breed dogs, prevent inbreeding and keep them well. Now cross the border to India where you have dozens of such breeders in every major city. Bangladeshis have to import dogs from India and Thailand just because the breed they want (or which suits their needs) are not available in Bangladesh.
        One of the reasons why they’re not available is because there are people who want to professionally breed dogs but its a supply market that has yet to develop in Bangladesh inspire of the existence of a pretty strong consumer base.

        Now to deal with your pogrom against professional breeding. Adoption is admirable and necessary. It is not and should not be the be all and end all of getting animal companions. Your linguistic semantics about “need” and “preference” are moot. To begin with, by your stated standard most people who adopt do so because they “prefer to” and not because they need to. They may not need an animal companion in the first place, even within the context of adoption, their choice of animal may be based on personal preference. Therefore we establish that “preference” is always or often a factor in selection of an animal companion.
        Having said that, people also have “needs” of their animal companions, some need guard dogs, some need seeing eye dogs, some need sniffer dogs, some need working dogs. Physical attributes of different breeds suit them to these needs. I needed a guard dog, therefore I own a German Shepherd. These needs are not always serviced by animals available in adoption centres, we must often turn to professional breeders to fulfill these needs. Some need a puppy they may train themselves to personalize and adoption centres may only provide older dogs (which are also wonderful to many).

        To say none of the above fits into your framework of “caring for the animal for their own sakes” is shallow and stupid. A human – animal companion relationship can be just as enriching, loving and rewarding if the animal is a working animal and there is a symbiotic benefit to the relationship. Working breeds enjoy having work to do as well. The relationship does not have to be one of pure companionship (although those are okay as well). I don’t think this line of thinking terms animals as commodities, it terms them as our partners. To term such as commodities is the flipside of the coin to terming a pure companionship animal a parasite.

        And lastly, let me deal with this notion you have of never breeding or buying animals until each and every animal from a shelter has found a home. This is equally silly, to begin with professionally bred animals have equal right to a loving home. The “niyat” (intention) behind providing a home for an animal companion is irrelevant. What matters is the home you provide.
        Moreover, many individuals for aforementioned purposes would otherwise not provide a home to an adopted animal (doesn’t suit their needs or preference) would do so to a professionally bred animal of their choosing. Doesn’t make them bad people, that’s the equivalent of saying you cannot choose who you hire for an employment position until and unless the entire workforce is employed. And in any case, adoption and purchase are not mutually exclusive, I’ve adopted puppies off the street while raising my shepherd. Ironic that you’d use the argument that human and animal welfare were not mutually exclusive just earlier in this thread

        I’ve always had animal companions, I’ve always loved them. I will likely always have them. Please don’t be a Nazi and try and define a narrow range for us to abide by. People like that are part of the problem.

      • Tannaz

        Rainer Ebert please do tell us what can be done. 🙂 What, according to you should be the first step. Give us an idea we can work on.

  3. Ripon Halder

    i think this is a article should get secondary importance. Now is not an appropriate time to talk about animal rights.

    • Rainer Ebert

      When do you think would be an appropriate time to talk about animal rights? When there are no more human rights violations? But then I’m afraid we’ll never get to talking about animal rights.

      The truth is that animal rights and human rights are two sides of the same coin. It’s about learning to respect others, human or non-human.

      I recently wrote an article in which I argue that ignoring animal rights is not only bad for animals but also bad for us. If you are interested, you can find that article at http://rainerebert.wordpress.com/2013/10/23/the-exploitation-of-animals-a-response-to-muhammad-shafiullah/

      • Tannaz

        absolutely. when people do not want to handle a problem…. they will ignore it instead of solving it. But animal rights violation is a crime openly done and always unpunished, thus, encouraged. Something must be done about it as soon as possible.

  4. Gias Alam

    The govt must look into it. Katabon animal market cannot be torture cell for animals.

    • Rainer Ebert

      I believe that the conditions at the Katabon animal market violate Bangladesh’s Cruelty to Animals Act, and I agree that the authorities hence should review these conditions. If you are in Dhaka, please consider filing a complaint with the police.

  5. PP

    animals too have rights. but we humans seem to be oblivious of that right.

  6. manna

    it’s a good article but the timing is a bit weird. there is a serious political crisis going on in the country. every day people are dying and there is anarchy everywhere. and here you are writing on animal rights and bdnews is publishing it too. i have to say, it is a bit insensitive.

  7. Habiba Nahar

    can you give me the address to obhoyaronno. i have never heard of this place. that’s a very good initiative.

  8. bhito

    bhai amra o shobai kukur biral er motoi. politician ra amader ke tai mone kore. amader ki hobe?

  9. Neha R

    It breaks my heart every time i cross Katabon. Thank you for this beautiful article.

  10. Rajib

    seriously!! people are dying everyday and you are talking about animal’s rights! fight for people’s right first. and then talk about others.

    • Rainer Ebert

      Concern for animals and humans is not mutually exclusive. You can not shop at Katabon and help other people. It’s not like not shopping at Katabon will prevent you from human rights activism. In fact, those who dismiss non-human animals as unworthy of respect are likely to treat their fellow humans with similar disdain. It’s people who have room in their hearts for all animals, human and non-human alike, who make the world a better place for all of us.

    • Imam-Tamim Muhammad Kamaldeen

      Your perspective is right but then I agree with Rainer Ebert that Human Rights might never also be achievable except the same humans learn how to respect the sanctity of lives of all beings, especially the non-humans. Researches have shown that human cruelty against fellow humans is an off-shoot of our attitude towards non-human animals. These creatures are entitled to the same “fundamental (human) rights” that we have laid exclusive claims to.
      I think the best way to relatively achieve human rights is to conscientiously consider animal rights as well.

  11. Akteruzzaman

    I agree animals should be bred and sold in a proper manner. Having a good pet animal trade is better than not having any pet animal trade. If Katabon pet animal market is closed less people will keep pets. Keeping pets is considered a good hobby in developed countries. Taking care of pets helps the growth of kindness and character of children and reduces stress and depression in adults. Also show kindness to the street cats and dogs. There are also poor and homeless children in the streets. Nutering dogs and cats to control numbers is costly and cruel. There is a good way of reducing the reproduction of stray dogs and cats. Collect all the male dogs and cats and relocate them to the north of Dhaka city and collect and relocate all the female dogs and cats to the south of the city. By the time the cats and dogs find their way back, their population will be significantly reduced.

  12. Latif Quader


    Thanks to the writers for raising the issue.

    It is not that, whenever I have passed by Katabon, or have come accross a pet in a household, the thoughts, as expressed in the write up, did not occurred to me too. And then, more often than not, the fatalist streak in me have overtaken and my mind has wondered whether a Special Act of ‘Cruelty Against Human’ would be a priority step that we should be thinking about.

    The social culture that permits celebration of animal sacrifices, that must be executed in the prescribed painful mediavel way, that prolongs the agony of the dying animal surely cannot be condusive to keep and raise animals withing the confines of household.

    Yet, I see a ray of hope in the fact that there exist, albeit antiquated, an Act to prevent cruelty to animals, not withstanding that it was promulgated by our colonial masters. And there are people who are acive in that front to update it. And the work that has been carried out by Obhoyaronno and Rubayia who with their effor have been able to put an end to Dhaka’s dog culling program.

    My heartfelt thanks to them and people like them.

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