As you walk through the Lahore Zoo, spread over 250 acres of land and established in 1872, pairs of eyes, some angry, some hopeless, some filled with pain and some glazed over with boredom stare out at you from behind the narrow bars of the cages in which the animals are kept, often for life. A number of them are held alone, an especially unsuitable situation for those who naturally live in herds or large groups. They also live completely aimless lives, with no partners, no company, no structures, or toys in their cages which can keep them stimulated or entertained.
It seems few realise that, like humans, animals too need something to ward off the boredom of the hours, especially in a situation where they do not hunt, do not roam a territory, and see no variety in scenery.
Tragically, even the sole chimpanzee left alive at the zoo, Pinky, lives on her own. Her companions have died one by one, leaving this highly intelligent and social animal with nothing to entertain her. In their natural habitats, chimpanzees live in large troupes, with complex inter-relations between the extended family members.
One problem appears to be a limited understanding amongst the zoo staff on animal behaviours. Animals’ keeper Yaqoob Chaman says, “Animals kept in cages don’t really play with toys or other items. They’ve become too lazy to do so. In the wild, perhaps, they’d play more.”
This is not a theory top zoologists around the world would agree with. Many zoos such as those in Singapore employ experts to determine how best to care for the mental and physical wellbeing of their species. However, it is clear that Yaqoob is extremely fond of the animals he attends to. He tells TNS that his grandfather was also an animal keeper, in the days of the British, a time when he says the zoo was better tended, and that he too has inherited the trade. In his 26 years of service, he has hand-reared a baby chimpanzee and a lion from when they were only a few days old because their mothers refused to feed their offspring. The lion, Shanko, is now two years old and still greets his old friend with obvious affection.
As Lahore Zoo Director Hassan Sukhera explains, the problem is a lack of education among the keepers. They have also received little training in animal welfare, although Sukhera says there are now short- and long-term plans to help provide them more information and to bring better educated persons in as animal keepers and handlers.
Sukhera also says that the key problem is “not a lack of resources, but of using them effectively because of the layers of bureaucracy that have held back people working in technical positions both at the zoo and in other posts.”
He points out that significant improvements were planned at the zoo including simplified misting systems to keep the animals cool following the death of a guanaco due to heatstroke, and more checks on what persons brought into the zoo such as plastic bags.
In the past, animals have died as a result of swallowing these bags. Recently, three South African giraffes were brought in to replace the one who had died some years ago after swallowing a plastic bag. Of these, one is already dead and the other two, according to Zoo Education Officer Kiran Saleem, are not in a good state of health perhaps due to travel stress.
Plans are afoot to set up a full-fledged hospital at the Lahore Zoo, in order to help deal with the multiple health concerns at the premises, with a number of animals having died over the last few years. These include three highly endangered Bengal tigers, a cheetah, and two leopard cubs, born at different times.
Kiran explains that the reasons for their death, including the possibility of genetic factors, are being examined: “The lack of expert autopsy facilities hold us back in discovering how to prevent such incidents.”
A new African elephant is expected to arrive this month, and it is hoped that it will not suffer a fate similar to that of Suzi, the zoo’s only elephant who died in May 2017 due to loneliness. The acquisition of a single elephant violates the recommendations of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which states that zoos with elephants must have a minimum of three females or two males.
However, there are positive steps being taken. Kiran says that the zoo provides educational tours to children, students of zoology and other groups. The zoo also employs full-time vets, and is planning to introduce a dinosaur park.
Some of the attempts to make improvements are visible, like the open spaces designed for the lions. However, the creatures are let out into them only for a limited number of hours in case they attempt to hide from the humans who visit to stare at them and of course bring in the substantial income the zoo accumulates.
Each year, there are some 3-4 million visitors to the zoo. Adults pay a ticket of Rs40 to enter the zoo, and it is clearly a chief centre of entertainment in the city which has too few affordable spots to offer its people and those who are visiting from outside Lahore.
Sukhera says that many are unaware about animal keeping practices and want more animals in a cage, even though this could put the animals at risk. He also points out that people hand over plastic bags, cigarettes and other dangerous items to animals: “We are going to ban all plastic bags in the zoo,” he says.
He also emphasises the need for more training of technical staff outside the country so that expertise and knowledge could increase. Guards have been appointed at cages to prevent dangerous behaviours from visitors and CCTV cameras are installed on food preparation places. To quote Sukhera, “pilferage is really very uncommon.”
Zoos need not be unhappy places. While they are becoming less and less popular around the world, it is also true that there needs to be some thought before banishing them altogether. Gerald Durrell, one of the world’s best known animal expert and zoologist who died in 1995, argued that well-kept zoos housing animals which were not territorial and did not feel confined in small spaces could be a boon in terms of breeding endangered species and returning them to their natural habitats when possible as well as allowing people some contact with nature that has moved further and further away from their lives.
Sukhera concedes that at the Lahore Zoo, only about 10 per cent of attention is given to conservation and more focus is placed on entertainment for the public. The zoo does indeed entertain millions. Improvements within it and more effort to build within people an understanding of animals may help it to serve a more useful purpose in the years to come.