by Faisal Bari

This unfortunate bear is being kept alone in a well like hole at the Islamabad Zoo

SUZI, the lone elephant in the Lahore Zoo died recently. She lived for only 30-odd years. Even if they have lived in captivity, elephants are expected to have a lifespan of about 50 years. Suzi died early.

For the last two and a half decades, Suzi was the star attraction at the Lahore Zoo. Children love elephants. Even adults do. And by the scores that would throng to see Suzi, it was clear she had a lot of admirers. But Suzi was alone. She had been the only elephant in the Lahore Zoo for the last 25 years or so. Without any other elephants to interact with, could she have been happy? Could her life have been better if she had had someone to live these years with? Or is human admiration and interaction enough for animals to have a good life while being in captivity?

The Islamabad Zoo had two elephants sometime ago. Then one of them died. The behaviour of the other changed significantly after the death of his partner. Zoo officials responded by chaining the surviving male elephant. It took a lot of effort on the part of activists and concerned citizens to secure more humane treatment for him. Companionship and interaction with one’s kind matter for most living things. After Suzi’s death, one of the Lahore Zoo administrators said that they would, from now on, only obtain elephants in pairs.

It is not just about elephants, of course. There have been many instances of deaths in our zoos, across Pakistan, where animals have died due to neglect, cruelty, poor treatment or just poor care. The care that we provide in our zoos leaves a lot of to be desired. Do animals get proper sized cages/spaces, is their food nutritious, and are their medical needs taken care of? For those animals that need it, are proper temperature controls available? Knowing all the problems public-sector departments have, it would be a miracle if zoos had proper services for the care of their inmates. We know how our public-sector educational and health institutions meant for Pakistan’s people are performing. Would our zoos be any different?

Immanuel Kant said: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If humans are judged by this standard, given the way most of us treat animals in our zoos, around us and in our homes, we fall short.

Why do we need to cage animals and put them in zoos? I understand that people, especially children, derive some pleasure from watching animals, but is that sufficient reason for taking away the freedom of a living being? Would these animals not be happier in their natural habitat? There is plenty of evidence that shows animals do not like to live in captivity. So, why have zoos?

It is not the case that our zoos are research institutions where we conduct any work on understanding these animals and their lives so as to improve the lives of other beasts. Some people argue that zoos are safe environments for many of these animals and they would not survive if they had to live in their natural habitats. This too is a very tenuous argument. Clearly, zoos have not been made for the benefit of giving animals a safer environment: all zoos together have a minuscule proportion of animals of the total that exists. Zoos are also not for endangered species only. Most of the zoos in Pakistan, in fact, do not have any endangered species.

Even if we want to provide safer and more controlled environments for animals to survive and thrive in, cages seem to be a bad idea for doing that. We need to create more protected nature reserves, safari parks and so on. We need to protect our jungles and the environment in general so that animals can survive the human onslaught on nature. We need to create spaces that are for the benefit of animals. Zoos seem to be places that have been created for human pleasure and satisfaction and most of them have not been designed to be optimal environments for the animals we confine in them.

I have not invoked the issue of animal rights at all so far and have, purposefully, talked only of what is good for animals. But, the issue of rights is a serious one. Do we think animals have direct or derivative rights? If they do, and irrespective of whether these rights are direct or derivative, surely having the right not to be caged would be a part of any bill of rights. Clearly, humans should not be able to confine and cage animals just for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Most of the zoos that we have today were made a long time ago. Thinking, as to why we need zoos or why they might be good to have, dates back from that time too. But our thinking about how we can learn more about animals, about what is good for them and about animal rights has evolved a lot over the intervening period. We should have a dialogue on the need for having zoos again in our society.

Do we need zoos? If we do, what sort of zoos should we have? Are cages in the middle of the city, as is the case in Lahore, the right way to have a zoo or should we be thinking about nature reserves and safari parks? Just because we have zoos already is no reason to continue with them as they are. Suzi’s death, I hope, will trigger some debate on the issue in public as well as amongst policymakers. It should definitely happen before we get another elephant or a pair of elephants.

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

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