The Slave Market of Katabon

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

This article was co-authored with Shahnoor Rabbani. Versions of it were published under the following titles:
“The Slave Market of Katabon,” English (Bangladesh, 4 November 2013)
“দাস ব্যবসার নিকৃষ্টতম স্থান কাঁটাবন,” Bangla (Bangladesh, 27 April 2014)