Back in O level literature class, I read The Phoenix by Sylvia Townsend. The short story was about a Phoenix kept in captivity that was initially owned by a wealthy man in a private sanctuary but was bought by a circus owner to entertain visitors after the First World War. When the Phoenix reached the end of its wit after being mistreated badly, it burst into flames. The owner alongside the spectators was burnt to a crisp.
The Phoenix was a powerful story about man’s exploitation of nature, and the severe consequences it could bring. It sparked a debate about animals in captivity and how ethical it is to keep them caged up for our own amusement. Many zoos worldwide have mistreated animals which then die premature deaths and are traded as commodities for people to entertain themselves with. But are all places that keep animals in restricted areas bad? This is something hotly debated by conservationists around the world. While zoos keep animals in cages that often don’t even come near what their natural habitat would be like, sanctuaries have enclosures instead of cages. Animals can wander with relative ease and they cannot be traded for entertainment purposes.
Sanctuaries were initially built for animals that could not be let into the wild unsupervised due to their physical condition and inability to fight off predators, or for endangered species that would’ve had better survival chances if they were kept away from other wildlife. The Sichuan panda sanctuaries in China, which cover over 9,000 km² are a good example of these. Not only do they house over 30% of the endangered panda species, but they offer a hands-on educational experience for the youth. People learn how to rescue and care for pandas through their volunteer program. Such sanctuaries offer a far better quality of life for animals and teach people that animals are meant to be loved and cared for, not caged for entertainment purposes.
However, zoos also play a role in animal conservation. The Bronx Zoo has raised more than $3 million toward conservation projects in central Africa. But in South Asia, the situation is grim. Many animals have died due to negligence and malnourishment in Islamabad Zoo. Due to little or no animal welfare legislation, the people responsible get away with such inhumane treatment. Only a couple of months ago, bears in Jallo Park Lahore were found to have been kept in up to 45°C temperatures without any shade or water to bathe in. Representatives from Earth Conservation Reports repeatedly tried to raise the issue with authorities but to no avail. While zoos and animal parks are a popular destination in these regions, especially for the lower economic classes that are already short of recreational public spaces, urgent action must be taken to stop this mistreatment of animals. If zoos cannot be expanded to turn into sanctuaries due to lack of funding, only indigenous species which can live comfortably in confined spaces should be kept there. Small animals like turtles, ducks and peacocks can replace larger animals.
In the USA, the situation is no better. SeaWorld has been long known to forcefully inbreed animals, which resulted in many baby animals’ deaths. An Orca suffered a bacterial infection for 10 years without treatment before dying there. Two sharks kept in enclosures hit the walls and died painful deaths with broken skulls. Many animals were underfed, forced to live in isolation and kept in tanks with barely enough room for them to swim. Organizations like SeaWorldofHurt have been trying to pressure them into building a sea sanctuary for marine life instead, but so far nothing has been done.
It is high time we look at our localities, identify cases where animals are being mistreated and raise our voices for them. Supporting our local animal shelters and activist organizations that work against cruelty to animals is the least we can do in our individual capacity.