Legally Protecting Animals

by Hira Jaleel

December 10 marks International Animal Rights Day, an occasion aimed at creating awareness around the plight of animals. There can be little debate about the fact that animals suffer immensely at human hands. Animals are skinned for their furs, hunted for sport, and locked up in cages for the viewing pleasure of human beings. They are subject to cruel and often unnecessary scientific testing. They are shot and poisoned when they inconvenience human beings. And in many parts of the world, animals are raised in horrific conditions in factory farms, before being slaughtered for human consumption. Even when human beings are not directly inflicting pain and suffering on animals, human-driven existential threats such as climate change and biodiversity loss continue to affect and eliminate scores of animals. Despite the existence of animal protection legislation around the world, animal suffering and the destruction of animal lives continues at an unprecedented scale.

The question of whether animals deserve moral consideration has not always been clear cut. The 17th century philosopher, René Descarte, famously thought animals to be mere automatons i.e. machines without feelings or experiences. Such a view would, of course, absolves human beings of all wrongdoing towards an animal, since the animal would not suffer as a result of ill treatment. Fortunately, science has come a long way since then, and it has been established through scientific evidence that animals are capable of experiencing emotions such as pain and pleasure. This recognition of animal sentience has led to animals being accorded moral significance and has resulted in the creation of laws that protect animal interests. However, lawmakers and society continue to grapple with the question of how to protect animals when there are competing human interests — economic, recreational and gustatory — at play.

Unfortunately, animals in Pakistan are short-changed, both at the hands of the public and the law. Pakistan ranks ‘E’ (on a scale of ‘A’ to ‘G’) on the World Animal Protection Index, which ranks countries around the world on their legislation and policy commitments to protecting animals. Pakistan’s predominant anti-cruelty legislation is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1890, a colonial era inheritance that our legislatures have never repealed or amended (save a 2018 amendment to update penalties at the federal level). The PCA Act is little known, outdated and underenforced, with its penalties serving as no meaningful deterrent against cruelty to animals. Only one province in the country, Punjab, has a functioning Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) — a government-affiliated body that enforces the PCA Act in the province. SPCAs in other provinces are either non-existent or defunct, resulting in the PCA Act being a toothless measure against animal abuse.

Furthermore, the PCA Act does not cover all areas where animal interests require protection. For example, recent outrage over collared street dogs being abducted to be experimented on in veterinary universities shed light on the area of animal experimentation, which isn’t regulated under the PCA Act.

On 9th December 2022, the Prime Minister’s Strategic Reforms Initiative, in collaboration with the Ministry of Federal Education, launched Pakistan’s first curriculum on animal rights. While finer details of the curriculum have not been publicly disclosed, the federal government’s attention to the plight and suffering of animals in Pakistan is encouraging.

Lack of robust legislation remains a fundamental issue in the domain of animal protection. Without laws in place prohibiting certain acts directed towards animals, and with no certainty of enforcement even if one were to violate the law, attitudes towards animals are unlikely to change. Both in the case of the animal rights curriculum as well as legislation, while it is promising for the federal government to be paying attention to animal welfare, provincial buy-in is essential to ensure that any reforms are implemented across the board, and are not merely restricted to Islamabad. This is especially since animal welfare is a provincial subject, and each province must pass its own animal protection law.

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