Sentient Beings
An Animal Rights Article from


Mahera Omar and Maheen Zia on SouthAsia Online
May 2010

All creatures on earth are sentient beings. There is not an animal on earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings - but they are communities like you." (The Quran 6:38)

Swiss animal rights lawyer, Antoine Goetschel, recently made international news when he defended a dead pike in a case of cruelty by a local fisherman who was overheard boasting about landing the fish after a ten minute long struggle. The basis of his argument was that fish are sentient beings and that the fisherman had caused the pike needless pain. Islam is a religion where the sentience of all animals has been declared in the Quran. However, the expected application of such a belief is sadly amiss in Pakistani society. In fact, many of the most vocal advocates for animal rights in the history of Pakistan have been non-Muslim.

Under British rule, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1890 for the entire subcontinent. Earlier, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), modeled after the RSPCA in the UK, had been established in Karachi in 1878 by a group of animal lovers who convened a public meeting at the Frere Hall gardens. After Partition in 1947, India and Pakistan made their own amendments to the original 1890 act. The West Pakistan Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was ratified in 1961 to include rules regarding the licensing of farriers, bits and harnesses for animals, draught hours for buffaloes, restrictions on loading animal drawn vehicles, and the age of service of working animals.

The act, however, needs to be reviewed and further amended to meet the requirements of the current times. The Government of India, for example, established an Animal Welfare Board in 1962 which was set up in accordance with their Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960. Some of the functions of this board are to advise the government on any amendments required to the laws, and to stop the killing of stray dogs and enforce the Animal Birth Control program throughout India. This has institutionalized the entire animal welfare movement by strengthening existing laws and ensuring they are implemented. The board requires, for example, the setting up of SPCAs in each district with an attached hospital on land given by the local administration.

In Karachi, up to the 1980's, the SPCA had a functional animal shelter with a capacity of 150 animals. Lady Constantine, a Swiss resident of Karachi, was the society's president at the time. She had limited funds and manpower, but was untiring in her efforts to work for the cause of animal welfare. Unfortunately, her death in the early 1990's spelt a break in this century-old tradition of service to animals in the city. Soon after Lady Constantine's death, the SPCA shelter land was taken away by the government and the special animal court at the Sindh High Court wound up. At present, Punjab is the only province in Pakistan where the SPCA is still active. The city of Lahore has an office and shelter for the society's work on the premises of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences.

In such an absence of institutionalized support, the efforts of some individuals and organizations that are working towards the betterment of animals, is nothing short of heroic.

The Brooke Hospital for Animals is an international equine welfare organization whose motto is ‘healthy working animals for the world's poorest communities'. The Brooke was established in Pakistan in 1991, and has centers in 12 districts across Pakistan. They have managed to turn entire communities around in their attitudes towards their beasts of burden, empowering both man and beast in the process. In 2009, for example, Brooke helped 280,000 working horses, donkeys and mules. It is also estimated that the work of this single organization supports the livelihoods of approximately 1.5 million people in 250 poor communities in Pakistan.

For more than 10 years, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and its member society, the Bioresource Research Centre, Pakistan (BRC), led by dedicated campaigner Dr. Fakhar-i-Abbas, have worked tirelessly to put an end to the cruel practice of bear baiting. In 2007 alone, BRC persuaded over a 1000 mosques in high-prevalence areas to preach against bear baiting. Over time, bear baiting incidences have seen a sharp decline. BRC also has a bear sanctuary in Kund (near Peshawar) that houses rescued bears.

The world's largest NGO and Pakistan's biggest charity, the Edhi Foundation, also maintains an animal shelter in the outskirts of Karachi. This shelter is home to several cats, dogs, donkeys, crows and kites.

U.S.-based veterinarian, Dr. I. H. Kathio, regularly contributes his expertise to the training of future veterinarians in colleges across the country. He also supports several veterinary clinics by donating medical literature and equipment, and is available to vets for consultation on complicated cases.

Urging the public's moral conscience to consider the poor state of animal welfare, there are voices in the media which keep animals in the news. Three names, in particular, deserve mention for highlighting the cause of animals in the print media - senior columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee and journalists Bhagwandas and Faiza Ilyas.Our own organization, the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), was founded in 2004 in response to the poisoning and shooting of stray dogs in Karachi. It has had a modest start and at present is run entirely by volunteers. While we do not have a shelter, office or paid staff and all funds raised go directly towards rescuing and treating animals and awareness-raising and advocacy work, we have managed to attract over two thousand supporters on facebook who wish to see better conditions for animals in Pakistan.

In the last decade there have also been a number of noteworthy events relevant to animal rights. In early 2000, the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) and a U.S. based organization, Engineers and Scientists for Animal Rights, in collaboration with the Pakistan Arts Council, held an exhibit of drawings by 6 to 8 year old children expressing their concern for animals. The drawings were compelling, especially considering that the children had never been exposed to any animal rights literature or website before.

Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a renowned U.S. Surgeon, also visited and spoke at the PMA House against the use of animals in medical research, and Pakistani media Geo TV and SouthAsia magazine were recognized at the Humane Society of the United States' prestigious Genesis Awards in Beverley Hills.

In conclusion, while stray dogs are still poisoned with strychnine or shot, adequate veterinary facilities are scant, and illegal animal trade flourishes in Pakistan, all of the above are reasons to hope this will not remain the case. In addition to precedents in faith, there are historical precedents to persuade us to be kinder to animals. Pakistan's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah is a reference point in any discussion that touches upon the vision for the country. It is often overlooked that Mr. Jinnah was an animal lover. It is a legacy equally deserving of being honored.

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