animal rights day
As a schoolchild, I vividly recall my visit to Karachi Zoo. It was a magical experience to see animals we had only encountered in sticker sheets or as plastic toys, now standing before us - storks with their long necks and legs, various types of monkeys (the baboon stood out), crocodiles basking by a green pool, and tigers that sent shivers down our spines from a distance. However, the true thrill was reserved for one particular animal, led by our second-grade teacher, Ms Nazia, we ventured further into the zoo.
In a vast enclosure, a magnificent grey mammoth loomed. His skin resembled a flowing river of dense, watery leather, with four imposing feet, long tusks, and a nose that stretched like a tail, yet thicker and more majestic. He stood tall, raising his trunk in a salute, trumpeting like a passing train’s horn. My heart swelled with awe, and my stomach churned with fear. The man washing him seemed minuscule next to this magnificent creature. The splashing water on the floor resonated with the creature’s laughter as he saw us, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. This was my first encounter with an elephant.
Thousands of children in Karachi have had similar enchanting moments over the years, visiting the zoo. To a child, witnessing a wild animal move about in a cage is nothing short of magical. Young children are closer to the realm of ideals; they feel a deeper connection to the mysteries of existence. Everything appears wondrous and exciting to them, free from the layers of cynicism and fear that adults often carry. In ancient myths, the slow closure of a new-born’s skull showed that their soul is still settling. A Japanese belief reminds mothers to keep children close, as they are not entirely of this world yet. My encounter with the elephant as a child was a glimpse of a world that was awe-inspiring, full of wonder, and brimming with the spirit of life.
However, the wonder of a child’s encounter with wildlife must be balanced against its ethical implications. This year, we witnessed the tragic illness and death of Noor Jehan, one of the two elephants brought to Pakistan as babies from Tanzania, separated from their mothers at an early age. The implications of this act run deep. Do we have any right to take a young calf away from its natural habitat, away from its family and herd, all in the name of providing children with moments of awe and wonder, such as the one I experienced at Karachi Zoo? And if we do, are we sufficiently able to provide for their physical and emotional needs? Sadly, the Noor Jehan incident exposed our profound ignorance when it comes to caring for these colossal and sensitive animals.
In older, animistic cultures, elephants were revered as sacred, kind, and noble beings that bear the world on their four sturdy legs. They symbolise the vitality, the spiritual and physical health of the universe. Scientific research confirms their high intelligence, social nature, emotional depth, remarkable memory, and empathy. Nevertheless, human actions, such as poaching, hunting, and habitat encroachment, have left elephants socially, emotionally, and behaviourally scarred over centuries.
Noor Jehan’s suffering and demise at our local zoo stirred grief and outrage among us, and rightfully so. It became apparent that we held something precious in our care, and more needed to be done to protect it. Posters were created, protests were held, and dedicated individuals visited the zoo daily, bringing healthy food for Noor Jehan, hoping for her recovery. Unfortunately, on Eid day, as most of the city celebrated with family, Noor Jehan was euthanised. It was a sombre and profound day, but it also served as a reminder of the stakes involved and the work left to do.
Through her ordeal and her passing, Noor Jehan became a metaphor for all that is beautiful, precious, and vulnerable in our lives. She symbolises the part of us that remains connected to nature, untouched by a thousand cynical arguments. She represents the stray animals of the city that embody its soul; who are yet unaccepted, sometimes even poisoned by local residents and authorities. She is the homeless and abandoned, who yearn for a helping hand. She even stands in for our natural human sensitivity and collective feeling values that we have had to suppress growing up in our mechanised world. While Noor Jehan may have departed, there are many others still left to nurture.
The remaining elephant, Madhu Bala, has been grieving and unwell since losing her only lifelong friend. In a heart-wrenching news report, we learned of her painful signs of grief, such as incessantly banging against the bars of her cage. It’s hard to imagine a more painful existence for such a beautiful, social creature - trapped, lonely, and drowning in sorrow. Yet, no immediate action has been taken by the zoo authorities or the government.
Our glaring lack of empathy for captive animals reflects our general insensitivity and apathy toward all life, including our own. It serves as a metaphor for the hearts of the people in this city. We, too, find ourselves unsupported in addressing our own needs as individuals and as a community. We, too, are pacing around our cages, struggling to connect with one another, unaware that life could be any different. We, too, grieve for a loss, not realising that what we’ve lost is a part of our own selves: the animal that we are.
This piece extends beyond the animals in Karachi Zoo. It calls for an overhaul of their living conditions and welfare plan (something that is now being considered by the authorities) but it also urges us to recognise the imprisoned creatures in our hearts. To truly find peace, we must harmonise with all life around us. We must look out for the dogs on our street, the crows on our balcony, and the cats by the roadside. Let us not forget the donkeys carrying heavy loads through the city and the poorest of men who rely on them. Helping when we are called upon, to the best of our ability, is the only thing we can ever do - and it matters.
As lifelong activist Clarissa Pinkola Estes wisely said, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”