Zoos have become akin to death row for these wild animals when the whole idea of setting them up was exactly the opposite.
As of 2013, Pakistan has about eight recognised zoological parks but many believe the actual number to be between 50 to 100 if unregistered facilities are included.
The ethical dilemma of keeping wild animals in captivity has for years been justified by touting the educational and conservation value of zoos. Yet a close examination of zoos across the globe invalidates this argument.
On the grounds of animal welfare alone, the majority of zoos in Pakistan could face closure. Most, if not all, violate most standards for the housing and management of animals in zoos, and there are no laws or rules regulating these facilities.
Visitors routinely tease the animals in captivity by throwing dust and spitting. Almost invariably these animals lack proper food and water facility.
There has never been any enquiry conducted to document the plight of these animals. However, if is ever done, it would be a blood-chilling account of the plight of thousands of animals in the Pakistani zoos, punctuated by numerous images of emaciated, dull-eyed animals lying forlornly in cement cells.
Erratic news items have highlighted the abuse from time to time but it has never been able to get the concerned officials to do the needful.
Conservationists and enthusiasts blame the deaths in zoos mostly on the negligence of the zoo staff.
But it’s the idea of the zoo itself, as a scientific institution, which needs to be challenged.
As it is, animals in captivity exhibit some dysfunctional behaviour but it becomes even more apparent in the absence of enrichment, habitat management and proper nutrition, areas in which Pakistani zoos are clearly deficient. So is it perhaps time to do away with zoos altogether?
Teaching children about wildlife by exposing them to zoos is the equivalent of teaching them about crime by trotting them off to gawk at prisoners behind bars. The concept is inherently flawed.
With scientific advancements allowing us to study wildlife through non-invasive means and in their natural habitats, there is no reason to keep animals captive for educational purposes.
But zoo advocates argue that these institutions hold a safety net for endangered populations and that captive breeding is essential for the survival of numerous species.
There are, however, examples of zoos that truly bring value to education and conservation, both in situ and ex situ.
In Pakistan, zoos are primarily menageries that possess only exhibit value. Hence the well-being of individual animals is often overlooked and even ignored. Having wild animals in captivity could contribute to conservation but is by no means synonymous with it.
The critics say that if the massive resources spent on breeding animals were channeled towards habitat management and law enforcement we may not have to fight extinction at all. In addition, the reintroduction of captive bred animals into the wild is an infinitely complicated process, many a time dangerous and fraught. Also, in the odd case where captive breeding is necessary, zoos need not be the answer. Rescue and rehabilitation has moved on from being a zoo task in the 19th century to one done by specialist centres.
Adding to the woes, now there is gathering evidence that a number of zoos are either involved in the country’s illegal wildlife trade or are unknowingly supplying to it. There are growing stories of “missing animals” from the zoos. Lax security at zoos across the country makes them an easy target for poachers.
Further afield in the West, even world- renowned zoos such as Twycross and Jersey, rightfully lauded for their in-situ conservation work, would be hard- pressed to defend the huge surplus of animals in their care that serve no conservation purpose. Perhaps, the greatest condemnation of keeping wild animals in captivity comes from within the community itself.
Conservationists lay bare the sentiments of those who run the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary. An employee is quoted saying: “As an organisation that has housed monkeys for almost 40 years, the sanctuary is well placed to show, from first-hand experience, how monkeys in even the best captive conditions suffer from their captivity.”
The data available on the wretched conditions of zoo animals highlight the urgent need to recognise zoos in Pakistan as ‘profit-making institutions’ and not ‘conservation centres’.
Paltry entry fees and the disinterest of authorities allow visitors to use zoos as picnic grounds and to harass animals at will. Perhaps better technology and understanding of wildlife coupled with a refined sense of ethics will invalidate the need for zoos one day. Till then, unfortunately, tigers will roam cement platforms and birds will perch on iron hands.