About 15 years ago, a terrible tragedy happened at the Lahore Zoo. A charlatan pretending to be a ‘pir fakir’ advised a young couple that their newborn child would live a long, happy, virile life if they had a bear touch his head with a paw. The couple, operating in a social and intellectual vacuum left by lack of education, ended up at the zoo, in front of the enclosure of the black bear.
One bear was lying in a catatonic state inside the enclosure. The couple created some noise by hitting the metal bars on the cage and hissing at the bear to get his attention. The lethargic bear soon got up and moved towards the bars. This is when the couple, with all their parental hope and naiveté, held up their month-old child between the bars, as close as they could, so that the bear would bless him.
I do not need to recount what happened next. We all know the bear hadn’t received the memo about handing out a magical blessing. My aunt, who was 10 feet away from the couple, witnessed this first-hand. She has repeated the story many times, in front of many people, and normally the response is horror and repulsion. But the truth is that we as a society have not learned anything from that tragedy. Man above beast, always. Beast must always obey man.
We have taken our ‘Ashraf-ul-Makhluqaat’ (the most superior of all beings) title a little too seriously in the way we deal with animals. We bait and corner wild animals, in the most cruel and despicable ways by locking them up for our entertainment in zoos and parks, and then we believe they will dole out timid blessings when we forcibly assign that service to them as well. It’s not just the belief of one misguided couple. It’s not a class issue either. It’s a mentality issue, and it is across the board.
Take, for example, the incident I recently witnessed. My extended family decided December 25 (a holiday) was a good day to go for a picnic at the Lahore Safari Park and that’s where I was at around 4 pm, drinking a lukewarm cup of tea while trying to ignore the fact that some people there were trying to feed Catty Chins to the lions by throwing the bags into the cages.
I take a moral stance against needless caging of wild animals, so my middle-distance stare definitely wasn’t in homage to Dilip Kumar. The children of the family, blissfully unaware of the injustice of tearing wild animals from their habitat and put in ticketed cages wanted to see the new addition to the park: two black leopards. They dragged me along. But before I could witness the enslaved majesty of these animals, I spotted… a young man standing on top of the metal mesh covering the leopards’ cage.
The metal mesh covers the entire circumference of the unjustly small cage for the prowling big cats. A young man was just casually standing on top of it. He had climbed up there to pick up a ball he had been playing cricket with nearby. Within moments a crowd gathered around the cage to see the spectacle. He decided to show off a little by busting a rejected Hrithik-Roshan dance move. People had their phones out to record this, of course.
It was at this moment when the already harassed leopards decided to investigate the joker on top of their cage and started climbing up the metal mesh. The man laughed initially, perhaps thinking the leopards were no match for his ‘Ashraf-ul-Makhluqaat’ status. But yet again, the leopards hadn’t received the memo so they kept climbing. When they got around 20 feet up, the man was crying out for his friends and family to save him, and the crowd was now waiting for a gruesome end to this drama.
As fate would have it, the leopards decided a mewling, unthinking Lahori boy with an ego problem was not worth the effort so they climbed down. The shivering man was encouraged by the crowd to save himself (half-heartedly; the public always wants a bloody spectacle!) so he walked across the cage to the back of it, where he jumped down on a badly placed staircase along the inside enclosure. People clapped. His friends rushed to his side to congratulate him on the stunt.
Not a single person in the crowd, or the management of the place, confronted this man. Instead, a guard cracked a wooden stick on top of one of the leopards’ head as it had walked up to the crowd.
What if the metal mesh had given in? What if the man had fallen into the cage? What if the leopards had climbed up and injured him? The answer to all of these questions is that the leopards would’ve been destroyed.
We put these animals in cages but our brutality against their true nature doesn’t just end there. It’s about time we as a society re-assessed our interaction with enslaved animals and made our children understand that the real blessing is bearing witness to the beauty of various biological beings while we exist on this plane. No climbing up or into cages required.