Elephant In The Room - How Pakistan Can Reduce Zoo Animals' Suffering

Elephant In The Room - How Pakistan Can Reduce Zoo Animals' Suffering
While presenting the case for animals’ moral status, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) had argued that the primary question for the consideration should not be “Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

With three elephants’ miserable deaths in its various zoos in less than a decade and critical ailment of remaining last one, Pakistan offers a sad account of elephants’ suffering in the captivity validating almost two centuries old proposition of great philosopher. Animals’ inability to talk or give reasons often leads to more suffering in the form of captivity in a zoo – let alone ensure a moral status. Sadly, in our case, this fact also unravels the bitter truth that by keeping elephants in zoos for education and research purposes, we have learnt all but their suffering.

Of late, elephants’ death in captivity has become a recurring phenomenon in our country. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Anarkali was the first in the line of casualties, who died in Karachi Zoo in 2006; Saheli was the second who succumbed to death in capital city Islamabad’s Zoo in 2012; Suzi died in Lahore Zoo in 2017; and Noor Jehan was the latest one which died in Karachi Zoo in April after suffering for more than a month. This chronicle of deaths clearly foretells what the future holds for Madhubala. Interestingly, we never run short of irony when it comes to giving fascinating names to caged animals. Take the example of Noor Jehan – the young elephant which was named after most powerful empress of the Mughal dynasty, met the same fate of dying in imprisonment like the empress herself. Similarly, Madhubala, named after the 1950s’ Indian sensation Madhubala, is as young as the actress was and fighting much as she was battling a lethal disease before succumbing to it at the young age of 36 years.

The frequent deaths of elephants in our menageries have exposed the scale of the problem. Unfortunately, Pakistan not only lacks the uniform standards of keeping animals safe and healthy, but none of its zoos is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the organisation responsible to provide guidance and support for the care and welfare of the animals while they are in the captivity. On the other hand, it has also brought to the fore the debate on the existence of zoos in the first place.

Generally speaking, there are two pro-zoo ideas prevailing across most part of the world: they are necessary for education, research and conservation purposes. Secondly, in the presence of issues such as habitat loss due to climate change and increase in population, zoos offer protection to the endangered species.

However, the frequent deaths of elephants in different zoos of Pakistan tell a different story. According to WWF, the Karachi Municipal Corporation is facing worst financial crisis and even unable to procure food for animals, which gives impetus to the fact that authorities are unable to feed the captive animals let alone use those for research and education purposes. Our lacklustre approach in dealing with zoo animals is also evident from the fact that apart from Anarkali who died at the age of 65, all other elephants Suzi, Saheli and Noor Jehan died at the young ages of 31, 22 and 17 years respectively – which is an alarming trend because according to groups working for welfare of animals, the average age of elephants in the captivity is 40 years.

In this state of affairs, the task of saving Madhubala is as colossal as the animal itself. The suffering and death of Noor Jehan in the Karachi Zoo and the images of her misery as appeared in print, electronic and on social media have already morphed into a strong narrative which can be a useful tool for mobilisation of civil society and animals’ rights group.

A three-pronged strategy of persuasion involving all stakeholders can help save Madhubala in short term and address the issue of existence of zoos in the larger run. Firstly, the government authorities should be persuaded to take prompt action for release of Madhubala and her safe reintroduction in the wild; secondly, legislators should be persuaded through effective campaigning and lobbying to do the required legislation for permanent closure of the zoo facilities and alternate jobs for people who work in the zoos. And lastly, zoogoers should be persuaded to adopt other ways for recreation and awareness about wild animals such as internet and TV documentaries instead of going to zoos. Remember the American pop icon Cher who played significant role in liberating elephant Kaavan from Islamabad Zoo and its subsequent reintroduction into the wild in Cambodia in 2020.

Empress Noor Jehan, who died while in prison, is buried in Lahore and the epitaph of her tomb reads: “On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly's wing burn nor nightingale sing."

Quite understandably, there would be no apparent grave or tomb of elephant Noor Jehan but the liberation of Madhubala and other caged animals would be a fitting tribute to the deceased animal.