Pakistan has traditionally been extremely callous with its behavior toward animals, with proponents often arguing that animal rights should take a backseat to the implementation of human rights. This belief betrays an intrinsic misunderstanding of the importance of the rights of animals, who have the ability to suffer in the same manner and degree as that of humans. A recent decision to ban animal testing in Islamabad aims to reverse this.
Despite a growing culture of pets as companions, animals in Pakistan are no stranger to misery: from lack of care from pet owners to poor habitats and maltreatment in zoos, or even the simple lack of empathy, animal cruelty—the infliction of pain to animals—is rampant. As recent as November 2021, Dawn News reported the death of a white lion after suffering a severe illness of pulmonary tuberculosis and pneumonia. The “king of the jungle” was reportedly badly mistreated and underfed. He was not the first to die of neglect and is sadly unlikely to be the last.
“Cruelty towards animals directly results from lack of education and poor socioeconomic status of majority people dwelling in Pakistan,” says veterinarian Dr. Usman Munir, noting the animal cruelty often seen in Pakistan also goes against Islam. “Our religion forbids mistreatment towards animals and encourages people to treat animals with compassion but yes cruelty towards animals is rampant in Pakistan because people are always in a crucial state of mind and don’t have time to think for animals. Same goes for animals in zoos,” he says, noting that despite multiple successful attempts to shut down improper zoos, several remain operational in dilapidated conditions due to lack of government attention. Harrowing images of dogs being tortured in the name of science finally reversed this.
In June, pictures of dogs—some pets, other strays—being brutally tortured at Islamabad’s Pir Mehr Ali Shah (PMAS) Arid Agriculture University went viral on social media, with Anila Umair, the founder of Critters Ark Welfare Organization, leading the charge to mass support among animal rights activists against the brutal practices. Detailing her involvement, Umair said a local had informed her that a stray dog she had fed regularly had been abducted by men on a motorcycle who were later revealed to be providing animals to the varsity as teaching aides. The healthy, vibrant animals were being dissected, many of them still conscious, with veterinary students seemingly oblivious to their pain.
As outrage mounted, Salman Sufi—head of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Strategic Reforms Unit—took notice and sought advice from activists on how to proceed. Working with global animal rights advocacy group PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], he announced that there would be a complete ban on “live testing of animals in vet colleges and industrial complexes” in the federal capital. He also said citizens could forward any complaints and report offenders through a hotline, with violators to be fined up to Rs. 15,000.
This is a step in the right direction, but that is all it is: a step. The reforms apply to the federal capital but have not been similarly implemented in the rest of the country, giving people outside Islamabad free reign to continue animal testing. It is imperative that authorities now focus on improving the quality of life for animals in zoos; legislating national reforms to animal rights laws; and changing the mindsets of people. Renowned veterinarian Dr. Hammad Ahmed Hashmi says Pakistan should aim to end apathy toward the plight of animals through “seminars, lectures on animal welfare and against cruelty towards animals.” People, he stressed, should be sensitized to adopt and not purchase pets. NGOs, he added, should also play their role in combating animal abuse. One thing is clear: no progress can be achieved without a significant change to the mindset of Pakistanis.
Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer once declared: “Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it.” The time has come for Pakistan to take his words to heart and finally grant the animals we share the planet with some measure of the dignity that has been denied them for far too long.