An interview of Dr Amir Khalil, director of Four Paws’ Project Development on the work of his organisation and their plans for Pakistan
In Pakistan, zoos were in the public domain until around the early nineties, some private entities started keeping wild animals in private zoos. Sadly, these zoos did not meet the international standards of care and maintenance. Recently, the Islamabad Zoo has been in the limelight as perhaps the worst case of the lot. The civil society and media outcry together with international attention to the plight of the captive animals especially Kawan, the elephant, have finally led to the Wildlife Department and the CDA giving the matter serious thought. To this end, they acquired the services of Four Paws, a Vienna-based global organisation for animal welfare focusing on animals under direct human influence.
Dr Amir Khalil, the director of Four Paws’ Project Development visited Pakistan recently to survey conditions and recommend measures for upgrading the zoo facilities. The News of Sunday interviewed Dr Amir Khalil about Four Paws and its plans for Pakistan.
The News on Sunday: How long has Four Paws worked on animal issues? Where did you start from and where are you working around the world today?
Dr Amir Khalil: Four Paws was founded in Vienna in 1988 and initially campaigned to end fur farming in Austria. The organisation has a presence in 15 countries and manages 14 sanctuaries for wild animals globally.
I started by volunteering with them in 1994 but soon joined on a full-time contract, launching the first international project of Four Paws to capture-neuter-vaccinate-return programme for the strays in Romania. I’ve worked with them for over 26 years all over the world to provide solution-oriented interventions.
I initiated a campaign against the abuse of dancing bears in Bulgaria and built a sanctuary for these bears in Belitsa. As a result, there are no more dancing bears there. I’ve travelled to many countries to rescue animals and implement projects. These include Pakistan, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Romania, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iraq. Recently, I’ve worked in Jordan and Myanmar on ongoing projects; however, there is [still] a dire need for rapid response to rescue animals.
I came to Pakistan in 2010 for disaster relief during the floods. And again, in 2016 for an expert report on the Islamabad zoo. This report may have led to the Islamabad High Court ruling to close the zoo in May 2020.
TNS: You’ve also rescued animals from war zones. Approximately how many animals have you rescued over the years?
AK: My team and I have rescued thousands of animals all over the world. Not only in war zones, but also after disasters in Pakistan, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India and the Philippines. I don’t count the number of animals rescued; what matters is the effort my team and I make to rescue even one lion and one bear – like [we did] in Mosul during the war involving the ISIS. The effect on the local communities, exposed to animal welfare for the first time, and the international community messages to commend our work, we feel, are much more important than the number of animals rescued.
TNS: During times of distress people worry about their families and abandon even pet animals, how does this affect the psychological wellbeing of animals?
AK: For animals dependent on humans, the biggest stress is to be left on their own. During calamities, people try to escape; however, animals can neither understand the reason for this nor save themselves. This is especially so for zoo animals, who are left to die in their cages during wars. The stress for animals is never considered vis-a-vis human casualties; I believe we should consider animals to be a part of the society. Showing kindness to animals helps us be better humans. I’ve witnessed how the rescue missions of Four Paws have stopped conflicts, sometimes for a day or two.
When we started rescuing the dancing bears in Bulgaria, we found that they’d never hibernated. Several years into the Dancing Bears Park, built with support of Brigitte Bardot Foundation, not a single one of them missed winter hibernation.
TNS: What does Four Paws have to say about how zoos operate in Pakistan? Are you reviewing all zoos or just the one in Islamabad? How have your suggestions to improve zoo conditions been received?
AK: In 2016, Four Paws visited Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad and submitted a report, detailing the issues and ways to improve. Unfortunately, our suggestions were not implemented. This resulted in the death of many animals while condition of others visibly deteriorated. Although the zoo authorities didn’t take our report into consideration, the Islamabad High Court’s decision to close down the zoo is, to a great part, based on its contents.
TNS: How many animals are waiting to be rescued/relocated from the Islamabad zoo?
AK: Currently, more than 30 animals are waiting for a decision on relocation. The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board asked our help with expert assessment of these animals’ condition and relocation of most. But unfortunately, there is no consensus on where the animals will be relocated, as none of the facilities are willing to accept the ones from Marghazar Zoo. As for Kaavan, the famous elephant, whose fate touched the hearts of millions, our task is to assess whether he is fit to be transported.
TNS: What is Kaavan’s present condition, and where will he be relocated? In case he cannot travel, what other plans are there for him?
AK: It’s too early to say whether the condition of Kaavan will allow his transportation. We have to wait for a final report based on the medical examination by Dr Frank Goeritz of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, who is helping us here and is part of our team.
TNS: Wildlife sanctuaries are seen as a way to keep wild animals in a natural habitat. What benefit do these sanctuaries offer?
AK: Keeping animals in an environment as close to their natural habitat gives them the chance to show their natural behaviour, which isn’t possible in a zoo or in private captivity. For example, when we started rescuing the dancing bears in Bulgaria, we found that they’d never hibernated. Several years into the Dancing Bears Park, built with support of Brigitte Bardot Foundation, not one of them missed winter hibernation. Such living conditions are beneficial not only for animal welfare, but also promote humane treatment of animals in general, and last but certainly not least - from the point of view of science.
TNS: Once rescued from the Islamabad zoo, what veterinary and psychological care will animals need and what can the government and private organisations do in this regard?
AK: The animals in Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad were subjected to very close contact with visitors, who often abused them by shouting and throwing stones resulting in scars of trauma. At the same time the zoo management didn’t take any steps to improve their habitat. Kaavan has been chained and alone in his enclosure for years as he was considered aggressive. When our team came to Islamabad, I started spending time with him from the very first day. I could see not only the joy it brought to him, but also tears to his eyes, literally. After so many years, someone finally wanted to become friends with Kaavan.
TNS: Finally, what cross-dimensional platforms, public and private, can highlight and promote animal welfare awareness and activities in Pakistan?
AK: An important aspect of our work is not only to rescue animals, but also to promote animal welfare. The Four Paws’ team here is putting itself at risk every time we go to a mission to send a message of humanity through use of social media and press. I’m happy to say that I’ve seen how the work that we do is changing the mentality of people who, after seeing what we do, have become better persons.
And, I want to say a kind person should be kind to animals as well as humans. Kindness shouldn’t be divided.
The interviewer is a staff member