Shut down the zoos

Pakistani film and TV star Hamza Ali Abbasi this week joined the rising chorus of voices all over Pakistan demanding the closure of zoos across the country. Abbasi recently tweeted: “IHC rules that zoos are concentration camps for non-human living beings. It’s TRUE. Caging animals for public entertainment is CRUEL & EVIL.”

In another tweet he added: “Pakistan has a chance to earn respect of the world & make God happy by freeing all the animals in captivity & #CloseAllPakZoos PLEASE!”

The actor’s tweets come after two Himalayan bears were found living in poor conditions at the Islamabad Zoo. The brown bears, Suzie and Bubloo, have now been rescued and flown from the capital to Jordan.

This week finally, Islamabad Zoo also shut down, prompting many animal rights activists to demand that all zoos across the country be closed as well. To be fair, in most instances, animals across Pakistan who live in a variety of zoos usually suffer because of very poor living conditions and this demand may not be without merit.

Prior to the Himalayan bear saga, we had the story of Kaavan. Dubbed the “world’s loneliest elephant”, in November, Kaavan left Pakistan for Cambodia to start a new life with fellow pachyderms at a local sanctuary.

Kaavan’s departure was the culmination of years of campaigning for his transfer by animal rights activists, including American singer Cher. She had written songs pressing for Kaavan’s release from his grim, isolated conditions at Islamabad Zoo and had spent the last few days with him in Pakistan.

Kaavan spent his entire life in the Maraghazar Zoo in Islamabad, where animal rights activists say he was badly mistreated. He had been on his own since his only companion died in 2012. A campaign to get him freed had been running for at least five years. One petition demanding his release gained over 400,000 signatures.

The Islamabad High court in a historic judgment finally granted the 33-year-old Asian elephant the chance to relocate in May 2020. Following the IHC ruling, dozens of other animals — including lions, birds and brown bears were planned to be relocated.

The IHC ordered all 878 animals to be relocated to conservation centres. The court also ordered that the zoo’s management be handed over from the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation (IMC) to Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), on whose recommendation the Ministry of Climate Change decided to convert the 82-acre space into a wildlife conservation centre.

But mistakes continue to be made. Two lions died during their relocation from Islamabad Zoo when zookeepers attempted to pry them from their pen by setting ablaze piles of hay. An ostrich also died in the move. One can only wonder about the state of animals in other zoos when the zoo in the capital city is so poorly run.

In 2018, for example, some 30 animals died within months of a new zoo opening in Peshawar, including three snow leopard cubs. The question now is — what to do with the zoos and the animals they house.

All over the world there is a growing debate on the utility of zoos. Depending on whom you ask, a world without zoos and aquariums is either a glorious heaven or a gloomy dungeon.

These opposing ideologies make keeping animals in captivity a controversial topic. The issue has two sides: those who believe keeping animals in captivity promotes conservation and education, and those who believe it supports animal cruelty.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an American body, conducted a study over the course of three years after which it concluded that zoos and aquariums teach visitors about nature and, by giving them a memorable experience, makes them want to protect it.

In contrast, animal rights activists say if you truly want a learning experience then one must go and see these animals in the wild. There is nothing more magical than observing wild animals in their natural habitat. Instead of putting all endangered species in captivity we need to preserve their natural habitats, from hunters, global warming and polluting the oceans and rainforest deforestation, they say.

Pakistan needs to start moving away from zoos as well. It is time to make use of our vast stretches of land and create habitats where animals can run free. It is a tall order but one we can work towards.

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