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Where angels fear to tread

September 23, 2013

THIS morning, I was confronted by an angry wife who pointed out a large ad in the Guardian I had missed yesterday. It displayed a photograph of a tethered bear being savagely attacked by two dogs, and carried an appeal for rescue. Here is an excerpt from the text:

“This picture shows the cruel reality for bears like Bonnie trapped in the brutal blood sport of bear baiting in Pakistan. Snatched from the wild as a cub, her teeth and claws probably pulled out, rendering her defenceless against the dogs trained to attack her. Weak and injured, Bonnie will be spared from death, only to fight again.”

The ad, placed by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), went on to appeal for funds to save Bonnie (you can donate at This cruel ‘sport’ was banned in British India in 1890 under the Cruelty to Animals Act, but like so many other laws, this one, too, is largely ignored. For some reason, bear baiting in Pakistan has seen a resurgence since 2004.

Few things infuriate the Brits as much as cruelty to animals. While they view the ongoing mayhem in Pakistan with sorrow and bemusement, our routine callousness towards animals appals and angers them. For many young Pakistani boys and men, the first instinct on seeing a stray dog is to bend down to pick up a stone to throw at it. Horses, camels and donkeys are often beaten and half-starved by their owners. The savage cull of imported Australian sheep is still fresh in our memory.

Bear baiting was a popular form of entertainment in Britain in the Middle Ages. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were both keen on the spectacle, and the latter even quashed a law proposed to ban these events. But as awareness about the suffering of bears spread, resistance grew and culminated in a complete ban in 1835.

In Pakistan, the ‘sport’ is limited to the more feudal parts of Sindh and Punjab where bears are tethered with a three-metre rope or chain to prevent it from fleeing. Two or three large, ferocious dogs are then set upon it, and dragged off after they have inflicted enough damage. In many cases, the bear’s fangs and claws have been removed, so it can’t defend itself. Often, another ‘bout’ is organised the same day.

WSPA’s partner in rescuing bears in Pakistan is the Bioresource Research Centre (BRC). The Centre’s website ( tells us about the Balksar Bear Sanctuary that was established after the original site at Kund was ravaged by the 2010 floods. A further search indicates that BRC’s founder and driving spirit, Fakhar Abbas, has visited nearly 2,000 schools and 5,000 mosques to spread the message about kindness to animals and the pressing need for conservation.

In the past, whenever I have written about animal rights, I have been flooded with indignant emails from readers who asked how I could devote a column to animals when so many people in Pakistan were in such dire straits. In my replies, I pointed out that human beings could speak for themselves, and had recourse to legal channels to redress wrongs. Animals had no such options, so unless we protected them, they would continue to suffer.

In Sri Lanka, we have adopted four beach dogs that have repaid our care and affection with loyalty and love. They make great guard dogs, and thus far, we have had no security issues, largely thanks to them. Here in the UK, our Jack Russell terrier, Puffin, often jumps on my lap while I’m on the computer. I like to think it’s because he wants to be close to me, but in reality, I think he wants to look out of the window for passing squirrels.

In Karachi, my son Shakir has four handsome Boxers who, despite their threatening appearance, gambol with my grandsons, and allow the little boys to take outrageous liberties with them. My brother Navaid has a lovely looking Dalmatian who is good-natured to the point of being silly. In spite of his size, he insists on jumping on my lap when I’m in Karachi. My father loved dogs, too, and had a succession of them over his lifetime. His last one was a collie named Sundal who spent much of his time at my father’s feet. When a witless interviewer from PTV inanely observed that he seemed to be very fond of Sundal, my father replied: “Yes, I prefer him to most people.”

Many South Asians have acquired an irrational dislike for dogs. In fact, some Muslims even believe that angels will not enter a house where dogs live. Well, in that case, I suppose they will stay well away from our home. I am consoled by recent research indicating that regular tactile contact with pets enhances the owner’s lifespan by a couple of years.

In the UK, many animal charities receive millions of pounds every year. Elephants, bears, donkeys, dogs and cats are among the beneficiaries of this generosity. It was estimated that over its lifetime, pets cost their owners a lot of money over their lifetime, something reflected in the fact that last year, Britain’s 26 million owners spent around 15 billion pounds on their pets.

The reality is that the Brits are mad about their pets. Currently, there are 8.5 million pet dogs in the UK, and as many cats. Around 25 million fish swim in tanks, and a similar number is kept in pools. Millions of parrots and other birds inhabit cages across the country. Monkeys, ponies, hamsters and lemurs abound.

Given this devotion to animals, it is easy to understand my wife’s ire over the WSPA ad in the Guardian. On her visits to Pakistan, nothing angers her more than the sight of monkeys tied to the arms of beggars. As it is, Pakistan has a very negative image due to what we do to each other. Must we make it worse by what we do to animals?