Pakistan's zoo animals are low priority

It's been battered by a suicide attack, residents are traumatized, and officials have been sharply criticized for failing to provide clean water, decent food or basic healthcare.

A community in Pakistan's troubled frontier area? A camp for displaced people fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley?

No, the Lahore Zoo.

Nature lovers and former board members say a long history of mismanagement and inhumane treatment at the 137-year-old zoo jeopardizes the animals it's supposed to protect.

"If all this is not fraud and misuse of office, I don't know what is," said Masood Hasan, an advertising executive and former member of the Lahore Zoo Management Committee. "It might not be a bad idea to . . . put all the officials inside cages."

The latest problem to hit the troubled institution is a smuggling scandal involving two white tigers, which were allegedly imported from Indonesia a few months ago without the permits required to move endangered species internationally.

According to local news reports, the zoo applied for various permits retroactively after agreeing to pay about $47,000 per tiger, a hefty markup from the importer's cost of $1,250.

An inquiry will try to determine what role the zoo, importer and middlemen played, and whether bribes were paid, but Hasan said he didn't expect much to come of it.

Zoo-goers didn't seem particularly surprised by the allegations.

"If there's corruption, that's very bad," said Ayaz Ahmed, 56, a retired businessman, in front of the tiger cage with his grandchildren. "Then again, corruption is everywhere in Pakistan, so why wouldn't it involve the animals as well?"

The two female white tigers recline listlessly in the 100-degree heat until a keeper pokes at them with a steel rod to get them to look up for the crowd, prompting an angry growl. There's no air conditioning, only a device that blows air through a wet rag into their cage.

"Tigers became extinct in Pakistan in 1886," a sign reads.

Although tigers prefer solitude, the two majestic animals are crammed into a 16-foot-by- 20-foot steel-and-concrete cage. Next door, an even more crowded enclosure holds four adult lions.

Until the smuggling investigation wraps up, the two tigers can't leave their cage even to stretch their legs. "That would require too many approvals," said Saman Bhatti, the zoo's lone veterinarian.

Critics say the zoo has a pattern of acquiring exotic animals -- which are then neglected -- to boost revenue that isn't well accounted for. Some also question an official policy of auctioning off hides, horns and other body parts from animals that died naturally.

"It's like a concentration camp," said Shaista Sonnu, a University of the Punjab professor and former board member. "It's absolutely criminal, a litany of misery and torture overseen by flunkies."

A few hundred feet from the tigers, a puma paces, her left eye swollen, sightless and milky blue. A male fought with her before the zoo acquired her, said Bhatti, and the zoo now wants a refund from the seller, a private collector.

Officials have promised for years that the infrastructure would be improved once a $250,000 master plan, first outlined in 2005, was implemented. But the years drag on, as turf wars rage and egos clash over the plan's structure and design, critics say.

"I wouldn't mind if they took most of the money, provided some of it went to the animals," Hasan said. "But almost none does."

Amusement parks, puppet shows, gift shops, restaurants and cafeterias, night sessions with music and disco-style lighting, a mosque and a multi-story building are among the proposed improvements, most of which would further reduce space for the animals in a zoo where 1,100 animals are packed into 16 acres. In comparison, the Los Angeles Zoo has about the same number of animals on more than 100 acres.

"It's crazy, very out of place," said Shoaib Ahmed, wildlife reporter with the newspaper Dawn.

Meanwhile, the zoo hasn't invested in a pharmacy, sick bay, examination room, X-ray machine, vaccination schedules or ultrasound equipment. Roofs collapse, moats crumble, and the crowded cages foster disease and stress. Basic fixes are put off, the critics say.

Zoo Director Zafar Shah said he took the job only a few months ago and he hopes to improve conditions.

Shah declined to comment on corruption or smuggling allegations, noting that the tiger investigation was underway. "Many of these deaths are an old story," he said. "Accidents happen."

Tauqeer Shah, a hunter, wildlife farm owner and longtime zoo board member, said the inquiry in the tiger-smuggling case will show that the zoo is blameless.

The animals are in good health, he said, bigger cages are planned, more veterinarian equipment is expected soon, and the theft of meat and vegetables earmarked for animals has been addressed. "Things have improved a lot," he said. "No one can take one banana out of the zoo now."

In a corner of the zoo housing the administration buildings, doors are ajar, windows are blown out and walls battered. Adding to its many challenges, the zoo was hit in late May by a suicide attack targeting Pakistan's premier spy agency in an adjoining complex.

For more than 30 minutes, veterinarian Bhatti and others cowered as a gun fight raged several feet away. When the militants detonated a car bomb, the blast killed a deer, blew open pens, sent terrified animals fleeing and embedded metal shards in trees.

Less visible but no less significant was the anguish that the animals suffered, Bhatti said. Most didn't eat for days, with many still showing signs of stress more than a month later.

In a cramped office stuffed with papers, medicine bottles, hypodermics and posters of birds and turtles, Bhatti fielded a stream of requests to look at sick animals, check the shedding horns on one, attend to a newborn.

Before she was hired two years ago, shortly after graduation, the zoo had no trained vet. Bhatti clearly loves the animals, scratching the rhino's horns and petting the monkeys during a walkabout. But handling so many alone is a lot for one inexperienced veterinarian. "It's not a one-person job," she said.

Some wonder why Pakistan should worry about animals when people are dying daily in militant attacks, but they're missing the point, animal lovers said.

It's about core values and the soul of a nation, Hasan said, paraphrasing Mohandas Gandhi's line that a nation's worth can be judged by how it looks after its animals: "If a society has allowed its people to descend into hell, why must the animals follow suit?"


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