Elephant in the room

13 Jul 2020

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IN May, the Islamabad High Court ordered the release of caged animals that were kept in inhumane conditions at Marghazar Zoo. The news led to an outpouring of joy and a collective sigh of relief by local and international animal rights activists who had been campaigning for the release of the zoo’s long-suffering, solitary elephant. For decades, Kaavan suffered in silence in his small enclosure — chained, beaten, and starved — and showed signs of severe mental distress. Now, according to a more recent report, Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah has hinted at penalisingthe minister for climate change and members of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board for failing to protect the animals under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1890. Just one month before the judgement to transport the animals to a sanctuary, the responsibility for oversight of the zoo was transferred from the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation to the climate change ministry.

Marghazar Zoo, in particular, had become notorious for being a place where animals went to suffer and die. Besides Kaavan, last year, a video of a bear gasping for breath in the scorching heat was widely shared. The year before that, another companionless bear died due to an apparent brain tumour. In 2018-19, several nilgais died from a suspected viral outbreak, though some believed it was due to a lack of warm enclosures to keep them in at night. Some months before that, six deer were killed by a wolf that broke into their enclosure, while intrusions from wild boars and jackals have also been reported. Beyond the capital, similar deaths of wild animals have been reported from zoos in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. The use of animals for entertainment is a cruel and increasingly antiquated concept: exotic animals are brought into the country with great fanfare; only to leave the world prematurely and unceremoniously. If the ‘greatness of a nation’ can be judged by the way its animals are treated, where would we stand?

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2020