Other city zoos in Pakistan have had similarly troubled histories. A giraffe died several weeks ago at the Peshawar Zoo in northwest Pakistan, and lions were recently discovered starving at the Karachi zoo. The sprawling Lahore zoo, about 150 years old, has lost chimpanzees, Bengal tigers and black bears to disease in recent years, and other animals have reportedly shown signs of severe psychological illness.
Cruel animal practices persist out of the public eye, including dogfighting and bearbaiting. Two Himalayan brown bears at the Islamabad zoo were once “dancing bears” who were forced to perform in public, their teeth removed and their snouts pierced with rope. They were relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in Jordan last month in poor health.
The Islamabad zoo, a high-profile attraction in the nation’s capital since it opened in 1978, has aroused growing concern among animal lovers for years. Last spring, a group petitioned the Islamabad High Court for help. In May, Chief Justice Athar Minallah issued a scathing 67-page ruling, in which he found the zoo had kept its animals in “extremely disturbing” and “shockingly deplorable conditions,” exhibiting them for entertainment while ignoring their health and well-being.
Grappling with one of the petitioners’ demands, that animals in the Muslim nation be declared to have their own “non-human” rights, Minallah quoted from the Koran and noted that “Islam regards animals as sentient living beings and creations of Allah” that “deserve care and compassion.”
He also cited contemporary rulings from around the world in which judges had ordered suffering elephants, orangutans and killer whales freed from captivity. “While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ ” one ruling stated, “there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”
Minallah described in detail the Marghazar animals’ plight. Kaavan’s rocking, he wrote, was an “obvious indication of loneliness, distress and suffering.” The African lions were “visibly malnourished.” The Himalayan brown bears were confined in “extremely small” cement enclosures, with one in need of “immediate medical assistance” for a botched chest surgery that had become badly infected.
Finding the zoo incapable of caring properly for its creatures, the judge ordered Kaavan sent to a sanctuary within 30 days and the rest of its 878 mammals, birds and reptiles relocated within 60.
The ruling aroused an emotional public uproar. Some Pakistanis expressed appreciation and gratitude; others said the judge had brought shame and dishonor to their country. The controversy escalated as plans developed to send Kaavan to Cambodia and the ailing brown bears to Jordan. One critic called the relocations “a shameful endorsement of international propaganda that Pakistan is incompetent and cruel to animals.”
But the frantic effort to relocate so many beasts led to a gruesome tragedy that seemed to reinforce that image. The two lions were slated to move to a private farm in Lahore, 170 miles away. To force them into a travel cage, two untrained handlers lit a fire in their enclosure, then immediately loaded the terrified pair into a truck. Both soon died of suffocation, stress and smoke inhalation.
Today, the lions’ dilapidated cage sits empty, covered with rusty wire and torn cloth. It seems far too small to contain two powerful and lithe creatures, who never left its confines. A nearby sign bears a photograph of two majestic lions in the African wild and describes them as highly social animals whose “roar may be heard over a great distance at sunrise and sunset.”