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THE TORTURE CHAMBERS: Islamabad’s zoo closes, but its empty cages hold clues to animals’ suffering

Now the lions' dilapidated cage sits empty, covered with rusty wire and torn cloth. It seems far too small to contain two powerful and lithe creatures, who never left its confines.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Like an abandoned prison or asylum, the overgrown grounds of the now-shuttered Marghazar Zoo in Pakistan are filled with ghosts, and their rusting, barred enclosures hold sad clues to the neglect and mistreatment its inhabitants endured.

The most haunting site is the scarred concrete hangar where Kaavan the Asian elephant – the zoo’s main attraction – spent years in isolation, often immobilised by leg chains, rocking back and forth for hours. A heavy ring is still bolted to the floor, surrounded by brown husks of the sugar cane that was his only diet.

Six weeks ago, Kaavan was freed from his prison, after a crusading Pakistani judge took an interest in the zoo’s problems and foreign activists led by the singer Cher took up his plight. On November 30, the long-suffering elephant was flown in a custom-built steel box to a sanctuary in Cambodia. Animal lovers worldwide cheered…

But for years, while the zoo attracted thousands of visitors, many of its animals met harsh or unknown fates. Rights groups and journalists say animals were chronically underfed and poorly attended when sick. Dozens died, often of causes that were never explained. Others disappeared or may have been sold for profit…

In May, Chief Justice Athar Minallah issued a scathing 67-page ruling, in which he found the zoo had kept its animals in “extremely disturbing” and “shockingly deplorable conditions,” exhibiting them for entertainment while ignoring their health and well-being.

He also cited contemporary rulings from around the world in which judges had ordered suffering elephants, orangutans and killer whales freed from captivity. “While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ ” one ruling stated, “there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

Minallah described in detail the Marghazar animals’ plight. Kaavan’s rocking, he wrote, was an “obvious indication of loneliness, distress and suffering”. The African lions were “visibly malnourished”. The Himalayan brown bears were confined in “extremely small” enclosures, with one in need of “immediate medical assistance” for a botched surgery that had led its chest to become infected…

Other city zoos in Pakistan have had similarly troubled histories. A giraffe died several weeks ago at the Peshawar Zoo in northwestern Pakistan, and lions were recently discovered starving at the Karachi zoo. The sprawling Lahore zoo, more than 150 years old, has lost chimpanzees, Bengal tigers and black bears to disease in recent years, and other animals have reportedly shown signs of severe psychological illness…

Cruel animal practices persist out of the public eye, including dogfighting and bear-baiting. Two Himalayan brown bears at the Islamabad zoo were once “dancing bears” who were forced to perform in public, their teeth removed and their snouts pierced with rope. They were relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in Jordan last month in poor health…

Now the lions’ dilapidated cage sits empty, covered with rusty wire and torn cloth. It seems far too small to contain two powerful and lithe creatures, who never left its confines. A nearby sign bears a photograph of two majestic lions in the African wild, and describes them as highly social animals whose “roar may be heard over a great distance at sunrise and sunset”.  SOURCE…

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