Saving the elephant

May 24 2020

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MARGHAZAR Zoo’s sole elephant will be freed. On Thursday, the Islamabad High Court took notice of the poor living conditions at the zoo and condemned the authorities for their cruel treatment of Kaavan, who is said to have been repeatedly beaten and starved, in violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1890, and the Wildlife Ordinance of 1979. For over three decades, the animal suffered in silence in a small enclosure, often chained, and reportedly showed signs of severe mental distress. Elephants, in particular, are complex mammals that experience many of the same emotions as humans: joy, grief, terror, wrath and compassion. They have long memories, build strong family bonds and require companionship. In the wild, they live in herds, but Kaavan was forced to live in solitude for years. His plight gained international attention, most notably of American singer and actor Cher, who sent out a series of ecstatic tweets after hearing of the court’s decision. Earlier, an online petition for his release garnered more than 280,000 signatures.

While Kaavan’s story may have a happy ending thanks to the sustained efforts of animal rights activists, many others continue to languish inside pitiful conditions that are far away from their natural habitats. One of the popular arguments for zoos is that it encourages wildlife conservation. However, it seems as if the animals are brought to Pakistan to die. Many are visibly emaciated or suffering from disease. Just last month, according to one report, Marghazar Zoo authorities said they did not have adequate medical facilities; the year before that, they admitted before the Islamabad High Court that they did not have the funds needed to take care of the animals. Next month, Kaavan may be living in an elephant sanctuary, as directed by the IHC, but there has to be a broader conversation about the use of animals for entertainment, the relevancy of zoos in this day and age, and the limits of our compassion.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2020