Founded 118 years ago, Pakistan’s second oldest zoo in Karachi houses around 450 species of birds, 180 mammals and nearly 200 reptiles. Known before independence as the “Mahatma Gandhi Garden”, the zoo also has a Reptile House, with species such as the Cobra Snake, Python, and the Sand Boa, as well as an aquarium, and a Natural History Museum, comprising stuffed animal bodies and various other items.
However, from pumas acquired from blacklisted suppliers to a string of recent animal deaths, the Karachi Zoo has developed quite the negative reputation. After an announcement last December that the Zoo would be cleaned and renovated, I decided to see if the KMC has stayed true to their word.
The meagre entrance fee of just Rs.10 makes the zoo a lot more accessible to the general public, but on the other hand, if the zoo intends to make any improvements, funds may be difficult to come by.
Upon entering the premises, the first thing one notices are the leafy trees planted in abundance by the paths. Since the zoo is situated in the heart of Karachi, in the midst of heavy vehicles belting out smoke, it was probably a wise move to ensure a clean supply of air to the animals, whose sensitive systems could respond badly to the smoke and dirt coming from behind the zoo walls.
The cages, bordered by gravel paths are surrounded by sprawling lawns and some of Karachi’s oldest Banyan trees.
During the early hours of the afternoon, when visitors are slowly beginning to trickle in, zoo staff can still be seen along the paths, innovatively using huge palm tree leaves to sweep up dirt, and donkey carts walk up and down the paths, transporting fish to the storage section.
The walk is quite pleasant, literally a breath of fresh air from our usual city atmosphere. The gardens, surrounded by gates of Mughal-style architecture and sporting species of seasonal flowers and roses, make for an idyllic picnic spot.
However, the closer one gets to the animal exhibits, the more shocking it is, especially for people who have seen captive animals treated with the utmost respect in zoos abroad. When asked where the lion exhibit was, a zoo worker ushered me towards a small cage. Inside, pacing restlessly back and forth, was the king of the jungle.
Outlines of bones could clearly be traced on thin legs. He seemed frustrated, stopping his constant march of the concrete-floored cage only to rub his head forlornly against the cage. For his kind are used to long, limitless runs across grassy plains, never bound by ugly grey bars. A lone piece of meat lay stale in a corner near the stained, discolored walls.
A zoo is meant to house animals in enclosures that resemble their natural habitats. The cramped, smelly cage before me was a far cry from the natural terrain of the Sahara.
Located further ahead, the Elephant House is one of the main attractions of the zoo. Ever since the death of Anarkali, a 65- year old Bengali elephant, the zoo has filled the empty cages with two new baby elephants.
Under the semicircular sign reading, “Elephant House”, the two small wooden cages house the baby elephants, which are also striding back and forth in their small quarters.
When asked about the size of the cages, the zoo worker in charge of their care gestured vaguely towards a plot nearby, littered with plastic bags, and mumbled something about how the zoo intended to build a bigger enclosure for the elephants, “soon”.
Most of the animals seemed drowsy and inactive, some merely slumped in the corners of their cages and some, such as the lion and the Bengal Tigers, paced frantically to and fro. Various items, such as sticks and other bits of rubbish could be seen strewn across the cage floors.
Most zoos have strict rules that forbid visitors from throwing objects into the exhibits. The animals usually are on set diets, and the introduction of any foreign items can cause illness or injury to their delicate digestive systems. In fact, it is rumored that the death of one of the fallow deer in March this year was caused by consuming a plastic bag.
Zoos are meant to promote educational opportunities and provide visitors with an insight into the animals’ lives and habitats. The rusted signs hammered onto the cage fronts did little more than tell visitors the species of the animal on display.
There seemed to be no respect for the animals, as visitors could be seen tapping away at cage bars and making loud sounds in attempts to catch the animals’ attention. Zoo officials were not seen anywhere to stop this from happening. Possibly they are unaware of what mental harm this could cause.
Captive animals, being on constant display, cannot escape from any of these situations and since most of them, such as lions and tigers, have highly developed senses of hearing and smell, they are all the more vulnerable to changes in their environment. But, having no way of escape from noisy crowds, who insist on jeering and taunting them, it only results in the animals becoming stressed and agitated.
The newly arrived white lions seemed settled enough in their spacious acrylic glass enclosure. However, due to the wide media coverage of their arrival, the zoo seemed to have thought it was wise to show that they, a least, were being treated decently. Their other lion, however, was housed in a tiny concrete cage and clearly suffering. In fact, in August of last year, four newborn lion cubs died due to the zoo staff’s negligence.
If the zoo continues to lose precious endangered species due to sheer carelessness, it is questionable whether the care of these animals should be handed over to another organisation which may be able to give them the treatment they deserve.
If we cannot begin by at least treating fellow human beings right, how can we think of extending the courtesy towards animals? If the zoo does not have the budget to give the animals the treatment they deserve, then it should not accept them. Mahatma Gandhi, after whom the zoo was formerly named, is quoted to have said,
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged on the way its animals are treated."
The writer is an intern at Dawn.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.