The Animal Cruelty In Pakistan's Zoos Needs To End

The Animal Cruelty In Pakistan's Zoos Needs To End
The unfortunate death of a young elephant, Noor Jehan, has once again ignited the debate about keeping animals in zoos. The elephant, who was a captive of Karachi Zoo, had been suffering from severe physical trauma causing paralysis in her hind legs and muscle degeneration. After her ailing health and the apathetic behavior of the Karachi Zoo management towards her became public, a team of foreign veterinarians called Four Paws was called, who informed the Sindh government and Karachi Metropolitan Authority that the elephant was in critical condition and would require intense medical treatment and aftercare. Her health remained precarious after her fall into the water pond in her enclosure and despite all the efforts to save her by Four Paws, Sindh Government and local NGOs, she breathed her last on Saturday. The elephant Noor Jehan is not the first animal to have suffered from brutal negligence and lack of care. Before her, another elephant Kaavan suffered a similar fate.

It must be noted that elephants are highly social and sensitive animals, capable of showing a range of emotions, including empathy and forming strong family bonds. After Kaavan’s partner died in 2012, he was kept in solitude in desolate conditions and with chains around his legs, that caused deep wounds.  He had conjunctivitis in his left eye, cracked nails, and painful overgrown cuticles. Not just his physical but mental condition had also deteriorated over time, and he was displaying aggressive behavior towards everyone. Kaavan’s story caused a huge outcry from the global community of animal rights activists, especially after US actress and singer Cher took up his case and hired a legal team to advocate for Kaavan’s release from the prison-like zoo he was cursed to spend his life in. In 2020 Kaavan, who was dubbed “the world’s loneliest elephant” was finally sent to an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia where he resides in peace with mates of his species. In the landmark judgment of Islamabad High Court, Chief Justice Athar Minallah recognized the legal and natural rights of animals and ordered the shutdown of Marghazar Zoo, and referred to the animals there as “inmates.”  In August 2020, two lions died of suffocation at the hands of untrained and senseless zoo keepers who callously set their cages on fire during a transfer to a sanctuary in Lahore after the closure of Islamabad Zoo. Not just the ill-fated lions, the irresponsible relocation of the zoo animals in hot and humid weather also cost the lives of a deer, two ostriches, and several exotic pheasants. Peshawar Zoo caused the deaths of more than 30 animals within months after its inauguration, owing to the heart-wrenching conditions they were kept in. Moreover, the zoo neither had trained staff nor veterinarians available to tend to ailing animals.

Under these circumstances, in a historic move, the Government of Pakistan is now considering shutting down all zoos across Pakistan, starting with the Karachi Zoo. Since the management of the zoo falls under provincial authority, the federal government will be holding talks with provincial governments for the closure of these death cells. There are proposals for zoos either to be converted into wildlife sanctuaries or for the animals to be shifted to similar facilities elsewhere.

There is a long global debate regarding zoos; some believe zoos are important for various reasons, while others maintain traditional zoos are nothing but cruel prisons for animals, and are incapable of meeting their physical and emotional needs. Often an animal is kept in small enclosures or cages where the movement is restrictive and prevents adequate mental stimulation. Species that are meant to exist in large social groups are condemned to even more intense suffering in isolation. Extreme sensory deprivation in prolonged captivity can cause zoochosis which can be described as a form of psychosis that leads the animal to display stereotypical behaviors such as bar biting, swaying, excessive grooming, regurgitating, pacing, and self-mutilation. The argument that zoos present a chance to learn more about wildlife also stands on the flimsy ground as they are not in their natural habitat to display natural behavior. Wildlife handling requires specific training that most zoo keepers in Pakistan lack. Furthermore, the economic crises coupled with rampant corruption have led the animals to be underfed and ignored. The government of Pakistan deserves all the accolades for its decision to shut down these slaughterhouses, however this is only a half measure. Pakistan shamefully lacks proper wildlife and animal protection legislation. On the  World Animal Protection Index, Pakistan ranks “E” on the scale of “A to G.”

Lawmakers need to recognize the sentience of animals and make laws as such to prevent the animals from suffering abuse and negligence, especially in captivity. The Act meant to protect animals from cruelty and harmful negligence is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1890, which is a relic of the colonial era with outdated laws and punishments. Although PCTA in Section 3(a) states that any person who Overdrives, beats, or otherwise treats any animal to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering shall be punished with a fine of one hundred thousand rupees, but shall not be less than ten thousand rupees, the wild animals and zoos are largely considered the responsibility of the provinces.

Pakistan lacks any proper accountability and regulation policy or legislation that would control the zoos and sanctuaries. Even the incredibly weak provincial wildlife legislation does not have any specific laws about animals in captivity. Punjab has a functioning Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), but that too falls flat on its face when it comes to the prevention of animal abuse. Section 429 of Pakistan Penal Code 1860 deals with animal cruelty and makes offense the act of committing mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc., of any value or any animal of the value of fifty rupees punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or fine, or with both. Since the section does not specify the fine, it is left to the judge’s discretion who seldom gives a harsh sentence in animal abuse cases.

Both at federal and provincial levels, laws to protect animals in captivity need to be made, and harsher fines and longer imprisonment sentences should be ordained for those who hurt these voiceless creatures. Through legislation, animals must also be recognized as being sentient and granted rights to proper food, air, medical treatments, companionship, and space that closely mimics their natural habitat. Strict criteria need to be maintained for their handlers, providing them with special training for a profound comprehension of the psyche and behaviors of wild animals. Measures for proper check and balance also need to be implemented to ensure the animals are being treated in accordance with the laws. Meanwhile, all zoos need to be closed and animals relocated to wildlife conservation reserves where they can live their lives in peace. Glorified misery and suffering should not be so freely available for public consumption.

The writer is an Advocate of the High Court, a lecturer of law and a rights activist. She works at B.R.U Law Associates and NGO ProNature. She can be reached at