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October 6, 2019

We don’t deserve zoos

Islamabad

October 6, 2019

My first memory of the zoo is punctuated by vigorous feelings of disgust. I remember a weary lion surrounded by the worst kinds of people — hollering, peanut-throwing imbeciles that use the sight of a trapped animal for cheap power trips. Throwing bits and pieces of food, taunting the regal beast with a kind of frenzied enthusiasm. Laughing at him, knowing they were protected behind steel bars.

I don’t know if the excessive drama with which the next scene unfolded has been emphasized by a decade and a half of recollection, but thanks to corroboration from my siblings I know that it did in fact happen.

The lion growled, turned around, momentarily flashing his genitals at the crowd, before unleashing a hearty stream of urine upon them. Children screamed, adults ran, spectators quickly dispersed; I saw the whole thing in slow motion, shocked to a standstill, safely offside. As the yellow stream faltered and retreated, the lion’s act of resistance having had its desired effect, I looked back at the cage and smiled.

“Good job,” I thought.

I could have sworn he smiled back at me.

I’ve always loved animals. Visiting the zoo was supposed to be a tribute to this love, a way to explore it. The animals were supposed to be in on it too, happy. In his unorthodox display of frustrated pride, the dear lion etched into my memory proved to a young child that he was neither unaware of what was happening to him nor was he going to play along. Zoos never felt the same after that; I couldn’t look the animals in the eye. I was tinged with shame, the kind that sticks.

The ethical case against zoos is lengthy, pushed forth consistently by animal-rights activists and others with beating hearts. Their arguments make a great deal of sense: zoos are a breeding ground for profit-motivated neglect and abuse, the animals depressed, suffering for mere entertainment purposes, while all species deserve the dignity to exist without being imprisoned for being exotic (it wasn’t long ago that certain colonizing nations were entertained by human zoos filled exotic ‘natives’ after all) etc. It is a debate that circulates for a while every time something horrendous happens, only for the general population to be lulled back into complacency once all is said and done.

But in the worldwide debate there is a distinction between “good” zoos and “bad” zoos, zoos that claim to care about the animals they hold in captivity and zoos that are clearly just there to exploit animals for money, respectively. But even if there are “good” zoos, they’re not run by Pakistan. Frankly, our government should not be in the business of running zoos for profit at all, and our few competent administrators should be redirecting those energies toward setting up alternative recreational spaces that don’t come at the cost of innocent blood.

The humiliating state of Pakistani zoos is common knowledge. Staff is pathetically untrained, animals are chained and visibly dying in front of you, enclosures are small and filthy, and management is apathetic at best. Annually, there are a string of articles detailing the gruesome deaths of scared, confused animals at the hands of zoo officials in all the provinces, officials who somehow also have the audacity to put up excuses for their recurring negligence. Oftentimes, these animals have just been brought in after long journeys from faraway places, and we’re tasked with providing a new, safe, home for them. Instead, they wither away to nothing while the rest of us watch with eyes glazed over. Giraffes, bears, tigers, birds, elephants, bulls — you name it, we’ve killed it.

For decades, international and local coverage has critiqued the way public zoos are being run by a perpetually-tired bureaucracy that places little value on life, be it human or animal. Unsurprisingly, nothing of note has changed. Animals don’t have the voice or the money to demand their rights, they do not have the backing of feudals or the army, they cannot pen angry letters to the people in charge, they cannot start a trend on Twitter, and they cannot start a movement for freedom. But we can.

Recent scenes at the Islamabad Zoo piqued public interest in our appalling zoos for a hot minute. While our public servants happily passed time scuffling over paperwork, the animals at Islamabad Zoo were abandoned and left to deteriorate. Due to awareness efforts from Pakistan’s few but exceedingly hard-working animal welfare organizations, a video of an injured bear in clear turmoil went viral on Twitter, sparking an outcry. There was a peaceful protest outside of Islamabad Zoo, several hashtags were born, all the journalists got involved, and the DC Islamabad was actually pressured into visiting the bear and assuring us of her health. For a moment, everyone cared, and everyone wanted to help.

You see, despite all the cynical lectures you get from uncles at dinner parties, Pakistani people are empathetic beings too. The majority of us do not want suffering to go unchecked. We don’t even have ourselves in basic functioning order, we definitely have no business playing a thoughtless God. These animals are, at the heart of it, a test of our humanity. Let’s not wait for the next season of animal deaths, the next mutilated bear. Let’s rise to meet their gaze, humbled and without guilt.

The author is an Islamabad-based writer and a freelance journalist.

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