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SOCIETY: ZOOS — MARVEL OR MISERY?

December 30, 2018

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A macaw is kept in a small cage in The Eye View Park Zoo in Rawalpindi
A macaw is kept in a small cage in The Eye View Park Zoo in Rawalpindi

The Chirrya Ghar has not always been a place of marvel and joy for me. From Karachi to Lahore to Islamabad, my trips to local private and public zoos are assorted memories of seeing magnificent animals living in appalling conditions.

The shockingly emaciated and agitated black bear at Ayub National Park in Rawalpindi from several years ago; Kavaan, the lone elephant in Marghazar Zoo, Islamabad, whose plight raised an international outcry; the lions in Lahore Zoo confined in small, concrete-floored cages; or the furiously pacing hyenas in a private mini-zoo in Karachi — seeing these caged animals has mostly evoked misery rather than marvel.

THE ZOO EVOLUTION

Historians agree that the first public zoo was set up by Queen Hatshesput in 1500 BC, with animals from all over Africa. The first modern zoo was established in Vienna by King Franz Josef for his wife, in 1752. It is still considered one of the best zoos in the world.

The condition of animals removed from their natural habitats and caged in Pakistan’s zoos should prompt soul-searching

“Zoos grew in popularity after Europe’s industrial revolution, when they were opened for education, research and recreational purposes,” explains Safwan Shahab Ahmed, vice chairman of the Pakistan Wildlife Foundation (PWF). “However, research, in turn, began to prove that animals suffered in captivity.”

With empirical evidence, zoologists and animal rights activists realised that it is arrogant, in fact cruel, to remove innocent wildlife from its natural habitat and reduce it to a spectacle in confinement.

Owing to mounting criticism, many countries have repurposed zoos from the traditional exhibit style to one that seeks to conserve and care for animals. The best zoos of the world have sophisticated research, conservation and education programmes engaging top experts from around the world.

For instance, the San Diego Zoo in the US, spread over the 100-acre Balboa Park, has a sophisticated conservation programme, which has been able to successfully breed endangered species such as the Giant Panda, Galapagos turtles, giraffes, koalas and tigers. It was the first zoo to introduce cage-less, open-air exhibit areas that attempt to recreate natural habitats for animals from the polar region to the African Highlands.

The best zoos in the world, such as the heavily-funded Toronto Zoo, take pride in breeding and rehabilitating endangered indigenous animals, such as ferrets and marmots. The pathology department at the Bronx Zoo in the US studies diagnosis and treatment of diseases transferred from animals to humans, such as the SARS, avian flu and Ebola virus.

THE CASE AGAINST ZOOS

Animal rights activists argue that conservation and breeding of endangered animals benefits only a miniscule percentage of animals compared to the majority that spends a lifetime in confinement. They argue that the exorbitant money spent on reproduction programmes using artificial insemination techniques can instead be used to implement anti-poaching and trafficking laws and improve natural wildlife sanctuaries and parks.

Maheen Zia, an eco-documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (Paws), is fervently opposed to confining animals. “It’s simply unethical to remove an animal from its habitat and imprison it,” she says. “Animals are extremely private creatures and imprisonment destroys their emotional well-being, thereby affecting their breeding and longevity. Our government needs to gradually phase out the existing zoos completely and invite investment to develop more wildlife parks with breeding and safekeeping of indigenous species only. That will be wildlife protection in the truest sense.”

The birds’ enclosure at the Mehmood Ghaznavi Park, Karachi | Asia Waqas
The birds’ enclosure at the Mehmood Ghaznavi Park, Karachi | Asia Waqas

This sounds logical, as building a sophisticated zoo at par with the best international facilities is a multimillion dollar proposition. Developing and maintaining parks such as the Kirthar or the Deosai National Parks, however, will do more to conserve and protect indigenous wildlife. Wildlife parks fare better all over the world in terms of sustaining wildlife reserves. For instance, the Kruger National Park in South Africa has one of the world’s densest endangered wildlife population, including more than 10,000 elephants, 500 rhinos and 9,000 giraffes.

“These [zoo] programmes are extremely expensive,” says Zia. “The percentage of animals successfully bred and released to their wild habitat is tiny and proves that keeping animals in prison damages their health. Moreover, the animals are largely trafficked from the wild for the zoo. It’s a multimillion dollar illegal trade industry that is brutal to innocent creatures, often maiming and killing their parents to capture them,” she explains.

The financial cost of running a well-kept zoo with sophisticated conservation and breeding programmes has to be paid by entertainment revenue in order to make it sustainable. And this happens at the expense of a wild animal’s right to freedom.

The Singapore Zoo, for instance, has performances by the sea lion, rainforest animals and breakfast sessions with the orangutans. The London Zoo started ‘Zoo Late Parties’ — a Friday night event where visitors could come dressed in animal costumes. The parties were stopped after a public outcry over rowdy visitors, especially after an intoxicated visitor poured beer on a tiger.

Visitors at Marghzar Zoo in Islamabad take pictures of Kawan the elephant | Mohammad Asim/White Star
Visitors at Marghzar Zoo in Islamabad take pictures of Kawan the elephant | Mohammad Asim/White Star

According to Ahmed of the PWF, there are other distressing issues that zoos hide behind a façade of recreation, research and education. “A zoo simply cannot provide the habitat of a wild animal,” he says. “Elephants are worst hit by captivity as this social animal lives in herds and walks up to 40kms daily, feeding on hard tree stalks to keep its teeth trimmed. In a zoo, loneliness, cramped space and grass feed makes them obese. Eventually, their teeth overgrow from eating soft grass, leading to toothache, they develop joint-ache from mostly standing and they die a painful death. There are now strong international campaigns to ban confinement of elephants in zoos.”

Many experts predict that the future of zoos will be unconventional with 3D viewing of animals in their natural habitats or the zootopia sanctuaries being planned in Norway where people will go in hidden areas to view wild animals in artificially-created jungles.

THE LOCAL SCENARIO

According to the PWF, there are 10 public zoos, around 25 private zoos and 28 wildlife parks in Pakistan. None of them are accredited with any global zoo and aquarium association. “The consensus is that a zoo must at least have 12 acres of land and a certain number of animal species,” Ahmed explains. “This is, however, not all that is required. At a time when the developed world is moving away from the concept of a caged zoo, we inaugurated a public zoo in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. The absence of a veterinary professional, coupled with a lack of understanding of animal habitat has resulted in a lot of casualties at the zoo. Zoos fall under the responsibility of provincial wildlife departments and you will find the worst of the lot in Sindh and Punjab, thanks to corruption.”

Karachi Zoo | Malika Abbas / White Star
Karachi Zoo | Malika Abbas / White Star

Ironically, the animals not only suffer from neglect but also insensitivity of the visitors. Our local crowds, in general, see animals as objects of ridicule or humiliation rather than creatures that inspire awe and empathy.

According to the PWF, there are 10 public zoos, around 25 private zoos and 28 wildlife parks in Pakistan. None of them are accredited with any global zoo and aquarium association.

Sadly, even the zoos considered better than others have serious issues. The Eye View Park in Rawalpindi, for instance, has a lone white tiger in a small enclosure and the predator looks miserable, especially in the scorching summers, when it’s usually found in its tiny pool. The giant macaw is in a cage so small that it cannot even spread its wings in it.

And then there is the heavily-advertised Danzoo in Karachi, which is claimed to be the country’s ‘first day and night zoo’. One wonders if the management has given any thought at all to the adverse effects of night light exposure on wild animals. There’s a reason why dense forests are able to sustain delicately balanced eco-systems whereas confinement in addition to constant human and light exposure, can completely ruin an animal’s emotional and reproductive health. The zoo management needs to be held responsible. Animals, after all, are unlike the gated community’s human residents; they do not need uniform, illuminated enclosures — be it the lion or the peacock.

The real scourge are the scores of mini roadside, neighbourhood park zoos. The Mehmood Ghaznavi Park in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Karachi, reeks and the few caged monkeys, ostriches, turtles, partridges and cranes live in appalling conditions. These ‘micro’ zoos are way below the radar of any responsible department.

A silver lining for captive animals of Pakistan, though, is the Sindh government’s plan to redesign the Karachi Zoo for improved animal environment and visitor experience. Zain Mustafa, founder of Society for Protection of Animal Rights (SPAR) and architect of this revamp, reveals how the 33-acre zoo is being completely remodelled, following research on 10 top zoos of the world, including the Singapore and San Diego zoos. The revamped zoo will have cage-less enclosures, movable animal furniture and toys, together with conditions specially created to match each species’ natural habitat.

“Zoos started out being places where one could learn about various habitats of the world and see wild animals in splendour,” says Mustafa. “Unfortunately, with time, zoos have become increasingly commercial enterprises with little regard for animal welfare. I wanted to change that and transform Karachi Zoo into a place for learning and seeing animals in better conditions,” he adds, explaining his involvement in the enormous project despite his reservations with the idea of a zoo.

TO SERVE OR BE SERVED

Whether zoos should continue to exist or not isn’t really the root issue. The real issue is our relationship with other creatures. Do we wish to be served by animals, wild or domesticated, for our self-gratification? Or do we recognise our responsibility of environmental stewardship as the most sophisticated creatures on the planet? As long as we wish to be served, wild animals will continue to perish by poachers and traffickers. They’ll suffer in cramped zoos and be insulted by insensitive visitors, inevitably dying a painful death.

And we will continue to lose some really beautiful animal species, thereby putting our own existence at stake on an increasingly barren planet.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 30th, 2018