by Muhammad Ali Falak/ Oct 29, 2022

In the words of Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century philosopher, when deciding the rights of a being, the question is not whether they can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer. By common sense, it is palpable that all animals inherently can suffer not only in the same way but also to the same degree that humans do. With pleasure, pain, frustration, loneliness, fear and motherly emotions all common between us, it is clear to understand why animals too are entitled to certain rights.

When I was seven, my father would take me and my cousins to the Lahore Zoo — a place that always awed us. We would see peacocks roaming outside their closures; monkeys hanging on the branches inside their cages; and lions sleeping in their savannas. Clinging to the fence, standing on the first level of the railings, raising our small heels to get a better view of these exotic animals, we always felt like sharing our lives with these living beings. I have grown old since then and so has the Lahore Zoo. But the appreciation of the bond and acceptance of these marvelous creatures still exist and have enhanced to manifolds while I am in the USA.

Living in a small town in Texas, you would witness deer walking up to your house’s front door; squirrels coming to your table for a chunk of food; birds sitting on your shoulders; and ducks quacking around you as you walk nearby the pool — a rare happening in our society. According to WWF, Pakistan is home to at least 177 mammal and 660 bird species, making it part of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Unfortunately, conservation and rehabilitation efforts are few and far between. Over the years the sense of chaos, unrest and insecurity prevailing in society can be seen affecting the lives of animals too, who are an easy targets to vent out frustrations, enjoy a sense of control or feel entitled.

News of a domestic animal force-fed acid and then made to work is circulating these days on social media. A few months ago, a man in southern Sindh was beaten to death as he uploaded a video of vulnerable houbara bustard birds being hunted. The illegal hunting occurred despite the Islamabad High Court having ruled that animals have natural rights and are entitled to protection under the Constitution while deciding on a case involving an elephant held in solitary confinement at a zoo, a rescued bear who forced to “dance” and the killing of stray dogs.

State and federal laws usually regard animals primarily as property, so they in turn have little or no legal standing of their own. Pakistan has been graded an overall ‘E’ on the World Animal Protection Index with an ‘F’ in government accountability and a ‘G’ in animal protection, which ranks us lower than our neighbour India and higher than only a few countries where even the human rights situation is abysmal.

To remedy this predicament, the government of Pakistan should improve upon the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1890 with a more focused approach, especially in zoos. Such regulations must include requirements concerning the handling, feeding, housing and farming of animals and promote the internationally accepted five freedoms of animals: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behaviour.

Moreover, it is necessary to create an accountability unit that ensures animal welfare, protecting the five freedoms of the animals. For the case of stray dogs, adopting a humane stray animal population management system involving ownership, mass vaccinations and reproduction control should be encouraged. Animals suffer and their internationally recognised rights must be protected. In civilised countries, animals have rights, and these rights are ensured. We live in times where in some parts of the world, animals enjoy more rights than humans in other parts of the world. It’s time for our society also to learn to give rights to the weak, including animals.

The writer is a Fulbright PhD candidate at Texas A&M University and a graduate of the University of Tokyo