Karachi Zoo
Karachi Zoo Image Credit: Social media

Nothing changes for the underprivileged humans in Pakistan. Why would the world be kinder for animals? Year after year, it is the same picture of cruelty and apathy, repeated on loop, in zoos in Pakistan. On a much larger scale.

He lay on a cement floor. Still, lifeless. His emaciated body barely had any fur, his skinny tail hairless. The mane around his scrawny neck was a shadow of what it once was. His eyes tightly shut as if grateful to not be forced to look at the human-made cage he had been locked in for years. The beautiful white fur that once covered his body in a velvety cape was crusty, dry, lustreless, thinly layering his sick bones. The magnificent white lion, a rare breed, was dead. Nameless. In the Karachi Zoo. Reason of death given by the zoo authorities: tuberculosis. Date of death: November 24, 2021.

White lion of Karachi Zoo
The picture of the lifeless lion that appeared on social media, creating a huge wave of protest from the public.

Is there a prayer that is said for an animal that dies in human captivity, taken away from their natural habitat, caged for most of their lives for human entertainment? Do they get a memorial for providing joy to millions of human beings who pay a few rupees to stare and gush and comment at them while they pace their iron cells, or lay down, tired in their souls, longing for a loving petting, a comfortable place to rest their body, a proper meal?

I said a wordless prayer for the dead white majestic lion of the Karachi zoo.

On November 23, 2021, a nine-second video of a lion appeared on social media, eliciting massive condemnation from celebrities and ordinary people. Skinny, fur-less, the lion’s ribcage was as pronounced as the bars of his pebbly cage, his breathing that of a chronic asthmatic gasping for oxygen. Was it the lion who died the next day or was it another wretched creature doomed to exist for human pleasure and die uncared for? Irrelevant is the debate whether the video is old or new, or the zoo authorities and zoo food contractor were in a warring mode or not. What matters is that an animal, known as the “king of the beasts”, is caught, caged, starved, uncared for, and so badly treated he looks like a Xerox copy of his original beautiful self.

A tale of cruelty and apathy

The story of apathy to animals in zoos in Pakistan is dark, macabre. It is heartbreaking. For those Pakistanis who are empathetic to all living beings. Those who have compassion in their hearts are kind to all—human beings, old and young, females and children, powerless and hopeless, animals and nature. Amidst us are many who are apathetic to animals’ misery, but they do not inflict pain on them. Many people shrug their stressed shoulders—why care about animals when so many people live subhuman lives?

And then there exist around us those who unleash violence on animals in many forms: keep animals locked up in small places or cages, not feed them enough and not the right food, use sticks when animals in captivity show their unhappiness at their condition, starve to mould them into submission.

All around us, cruelty and apathy to animals abound in countless ways, big and small. Shooting and poisoning of stray dogs; maimed limbs of stray cats and dogs; battered bodies of broken donkeys; skeletal bodies of monkeys on leashes; bears with ropes around their necks and blood oozing from their fresh wounds caused by fights for money with ferocious but a lot smaller in size dogs, also badly injured; wild birds in small cages; pet animals in tiny, enclosed spaces and iron kennels; birds and animals killed in pleasure hunts; maltreatment of animals used for food.

Humanity teaches us to be kind to animals. Our religion has clear instructions about compassionate treatment of animals. There are laws—outdated, insufficient, ineffective but laws nonetheless—against cruelty to animals. Apparently, collective human apathy creates its own guidelines.

A long history 

Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), on January 1, 2009, reproduced on their website a Dawn editorial that made an appeal for better treatment of animals in zoos. Did anything change?

A Dawn report on June 25, 2015 showed a bleak reality of animals in zoos in Pakistan. How they are forced to exist without partners, without companions. I wonder if that appeal for mercy to animals softened any hearts.

On October 23, 2015, Animals.org published a story “Zoos in Pakistan Governed Without Any Laws”, highlighting the plight of Kaavan the “world’s loneliest elephant”. Kaavan, unlike most of the animals locked up in Pakistani zoos, had a happily-ever-after in 2020 after being in captivity for 35 years. Most of the other elephants will die unphotographed, unwritten about.

PAWS reported on August 12, 2016: “’Death by negligence’ –these words are now nearly synonymous with the fates of the numerous animals unfortunate enough to call the Karachi Zoo their home.” Five years later, not much has changed for the animals of the Karachi Zoo.

On September 18, 2018, Daily Pakistan reported on institutionalized apathy shown to animals, resulting in their painful deaths. Zoos are made to provide happiness to human beings. Why does it not matter that the locked-up animals deserve to be treated with kindness?

There was an Animals.org report on July13, 2019 that opened one more debate that had no takers: “Going by the reports of the past few years, it appears that exotic animals are brought to the Islamabad Zoo for no other reason than a quick death—and a painless one isn’t always guaranteed.” Aren’t there any rights for the voiceless in Pakistan?

Kindness to the weak

An Express Tribune op-ed on October 7, 2020 was a deeply empathetic look at the fate of animals in zoos: “A life of confinement and profound despondency has become the ultimate reality of zoo animals depriving them of their natural habitats, needs, and freedom. From psychological disorders to poor health and reduced life spans, zoo animals are left at the mercy of incompetent managements, unsuitable living conditions and extreme and unfavourable climates.” The encapsulation of the fate of animals in zoos in Pakistan, and no hope of a change.

On October 1, 2021, an op-ed in Express Tribune raised some very important points: “Islam also forbids treating animals cruelly or killing them except for food. Zabiha rules stipulate how an animal to be slaughtered must not be mistreated or caused undue pain. Yet, animal cruelty is rampant and exists in varied forms in countries like ours… Just because Pakistan is not a rich country does not provide a legitimate excuse for the rampant maltreatment of animals within our society, and the apathy of state institutions towards this issue.” Kindness to the weak depends on the largeness of your heart not your material resources.

Stray animals, animals caught for human entertainment and treated with cruelty, mistreated pet animals, animals in zoos, their suffering is muffled, their whimpering is ignored, their wounds are invisible. The helplessness of the captured, the pain of the be-zaban, the curse of those who are killed for nothing, who die for nothing. All of it live forever, haunting those who are indifferent to the existence of animals, who watch animals in pain without caring, who cheer for deaths of stray dogs with a-good-riddance, and who never give a thought to the lives of animals in captivity, suffering on the streets, in zoos.

Today, I repeat a wish I have had for a long time: I want all zoos in Pakistan to shut down. I want all animals in captivity to be returned to their homes.

Perhaps that would make the dead white lion smile. The one struggling to breathe with his ribcage barely covered with flesh and fur. All those be-zaban animals who were killed on the streets, died in zoos. I have a dream to see them all loved and free and happy and running and normally breathing and full bellied.

I won’t stop dreaming.