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Rethinking zoos

Published May 19, 2017 01:19am

SUZI, the lone elephant in the Lahore Zoo died last week. She lived for only 30-odd years. Even if they have lived in captivity, elephants are expected to have a lifespan of about 50 years. Suzi died early.

For the last two and a half decades, Suzi was the star attraction at the Lahore Zoo. Children love elephants. Even adults do. And by the scores that would throng to see Suzi, it was clear she had a lot of admirers. But Suzi was alone. She had been the only elephant in the Lahore Zoo for the last 25 years or so. Without any other elephants to interact with, could she have been happy? Could her life have been better if she had had someone to live these years with? Or is human admiration and interaction enough for animals to have a good life while being in captivity?

The Islamabad Zoo had two elephants sometime ago. Then one of them died. The behaviour of the other changed significantly after the death of his partner. Zoo officials responded by chaining the surviving male elephant. It took a lot of effort on the part of activists and concerned citizens to secure more humane treatment for him. Companionship and interaction with one’s kind matter for most living things. After Suzi’s death, one of the Lahore Zoo administrators said that they would, from now on, only obtain elephants in pairs.

It is not just about elephants, of course. There have been many instances of deaths in our zoos, across Pakistan, where animals have died due to neglect, cruelty, poor treatment or just poor care. The care that we provide in our zoos leaves a lot of to be desired. Do animals get proper sized cages/spaces, is their food nutritious, and are their medical needs taken care of? For those animals that need it, are proper temperature controls available? Knowing all the problems public-sector departments have, it would be a miracle if zoos had proper services for the care of their inmates. We know how our public-sector educational and health institutions meant for Pakistan’s people are performing. Would our zoos be any different?

‘We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.’ — Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant said: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If humans are judged by this standard, given the way most of us treat animals in our zoos, around us and in our homes, we fall short.

Why do we need to cage animals and put them in zoos? I understand that people, especially children, derive some pleasure from watching animals, but is that sufficient reason for taking away the freedom of a living being? Would these animals not be happier in their natural habitat? There is plenty of evidence that shows animals do not like to live in captivity. So, why have zoos?

It is not the case that our zoos are research institutions where we conduct any work on understanding these animals and their lives so as to improve the lives of other beasts. Some people argue that zoos are safe environments for many of these animals and they would not survive if they had to live in their natural habitats. This too is a very tenuous argument. Clearly, zoos have not been made for the benefit of giving animals a safer environment: all zoos together have a minuscule proportion of animals of the total that exists. Zoos are also not for endangered species only. Most of the zoos in Pakistan, in fact, do not have any endangered species.

Even if we want to provide safer and more controlled environments for animals to survive and thrive in, cages seem to be a bad idea for doing that. We need to create more protected nature reserves, safari parks and so on. We need to protect our jungles and the environment in general so that animals can survive the human onslaught on nature. We need to create spaces that are for the benefit of animals. Zoos seem to be places that have been created for human pleasure and satisfaction and most of them have not been designed to be optimal environments for the animals we confine in them.

I have not invoked the issue of animal rights at all so far and have, purposefully, talked only of what is good for animals. But, the issue of rights is a serious one. Do we think animals have direct or derivative rights? If they do, and irrespective of whether these rights are direct or derivative, surely having the right not to be caged would be a part of any bill of rights. Clearly, humans should not be able to confine and cage animals just for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Most of the zoos that we have today were made a long time ago. Thinking, as to why we need zoos or why they might be good to have, dates back from that time too. But our thinking about how we can learn more about animals, about what is good for them and about animal rights has evolved a lot over the intervening period. We should have a dialogue on the need for having zoos again in our society.

Do we need zoos? If we do, what sort of zoos should we have? Are cages in the middle of the city, as is the case in Lahore, the right way to have a zoo or should we be thinking about nature reserves and safari parks? Just because we have zoos already is no reason to continue with them as they are. Suzi’s death, I hope, will trigger some debate on the issue in public as well as amongst policymakers. It should definitely happen before we get another elephant or a pair of elephants.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2017

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (17) Closed

May 19, 2017 01:31am

Salute you on your soft corner for animals who are more loving then we humans

Amir Dewani-U.S.a
May 19, 2017 05:37am

The other day I heard on the Pakistani TV that a 'dog' was awarded death penalty by the court for having killed somebody, but nothing doing with the owner. Question: Was it to prove that everybody is equal before law? As regards kindness to animals, may be you know that pet owners here in this part of the Western world take their dogs for morning walks, provide them dog- biscuits, get them treated in 'specialized' clinics, and celebrate even their 'birthdays'. Further, just yeaterday I heard a 'big' politician (P.P.P) saying he was imprisoned for eleven long years by the previous dictatorial government. Question: Was he allowed to be there with his companion? Sir, being a research scholar, you will kindly bear me out if I say: "This rubber-band has lost the stretch". Please remember the ongoing Tayyaba torcher case!

R S Chakravarti
May 19, 2017 08:01am

In forests in India, wild elephants sometimes die after swallowing plastic. Could the same thing have happened to Suzi? I have read that the normal life span of an elephant is about 70.

May 19, 2017 09:44am

Thank you sir,Precious thought as usual

May 19, 2017 09:55am

What a wonderful article and great effort to raise awareness for the very important cause of humane animal treatment. Kant is so very right when he says you can tell so much about a person in the way they treat animals.

Sajjad Changezi
May 19, 2017 10:17am

Thanks for highlighting this issue and trying to spark a timely debate, Dr Bari. Human values are transforming and if we are heading to the right direction, we would soon seriously question the very existence of zoos. Only a hundred years ago, even African humans were chained and kept in captivity to please the eyes of Europeans.

During my last visit to Islamabad zoo, I observed the elephant was constantly waving his trunk and front-right leg. Initially I thought it was a gesture to please visitors but after 10 minutes or so I started believing it may have been the temperature or any other factor leading the elephant to panic and making him uncomfortable. The elephant in Islamabad is also alone, he/she should be taken care of before it is too late.

D Lakshminarasimhan
May 19, 2017 10:45am

"Nallaar oruvar ularel, avar poruttu ellorukkum peiyyum mazhai" that is a quote in Tamil saying even if one good person is available on this earth, because of him it would be raining & others will get the benefit of rain. Just after going through this article, I felt the same about the writer, let good prevail all over the world, making this wonderful world habitable not only to mankind but also to other lovely creatures of GOD / NATURE.

Zafar Dahir
May 19, 2017 10:57am

Commendable contribution. The most striking example which evidently supports the contention of the writer is huge safaris in African states n morever Pakistani needs to grow safari n natural environment for for keeping animals . Why do Pakistanis want to go to zoo n why the animals are kept in cages? the writer perspective needs to be evaluated n understood by the concerned quarters in government may it be at federal or provincial level. Or it is just a taboo or to follow the remnants of erstwhile king's mentality.

May 19, 2017 11:08am

Safari parks are desparately needed as we do not have much recreational activities in the Urban congested areas. For instance, in Russia,US every large city has her own disneyland and Safari Park and in Pakistan till today we do not have any such sort of park. However, proposals are on ground from government in Punjab,while one private housing society is commenced work on this significant subject recently in Karachi.Hopefully,soon we shall havemuch required parks although minute in number.

Dr aamir khan
May 19, 2017 11:14am

Top class comment from top class intellectual Dr Faisal.

Tahir A
May 19, 2017 12:28pm

Once we sort out human rights in our community, the animal rights will automatically fall into place. Having said that, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the former to happen in our lifetime.

majid malik
May 19, 2017 12:52pm

In the honor of the new 21st century humane paradigm for the animals we need to close all the zoos across the globe including Pakistan and free all the animals and birds.

That's the least good we selfish humans can do to these helpless creatures.

Aman Wazir
May 19, 2017 03:28pm

Commendable article... Thanks God that I have this worthy sense regarding birds and animals since my childhood. My friends used to make catapults and hunt birds and animals with. I have never used catapult in my childhood b/c I knew that if I was not going to eat my prey then why be its hunting???

May 19, 2017 04:42pm

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Mahatma Gandhi

Majid khan
May 19, 2017 08:30pm

This is really commendable from a person having a background of economics. pakistan should work on the national parks and game reserves. Our wildlife is really in a dismal state. Most of our species are declining. ppl come out kill some endangered species as well. wonder, where is our wildlife department? what is their performance? How many national parks have been made? where are the penalties for illegal hunting. A country where humans are treated with such disgrace, care and protection for animals can't be expected there.

dipak BOSE
May 20, 2017 07:06am

Then, you should not eat any meat at all.

May 21, 2017 01:05am

Modern zoos around the world are not cages for animals. Modern zoos have switched over to "animal enclosures" where animals have space to browse, run, climb and be with other animals like themselves.

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