July 10, 2020

Kaavan Wins Freedom!

For 30 years, Kaavan—an elephant gifted from the Sri Lankan government to Pakistan in 1985—has been languishing in chains at the Marghzar Zoo. In an unprecedented and progressive step for animal welfare, a High Court in Pakistan has ruled that treating animals cruelly amounts to an infringement of life guaranteed by the Pakistan Constitution and has ordered Kaavan released to a sanctuary. Hira Jaleel, Animal Law LLM (’20), summarizes this groundbreaking decision from her home country of Pakistan.

In a first in the country’s history, a High Court in Pakistan extended legal rights to animals and ruled that treating animals cruelly amounts to an infringement of the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan.

The case, Islamabad Willdlife Management Board v. Metropolitican Corporation Islamabad W.P 1155/2019, arose out of a petition filed in the Islamabad High Court highlighting the abysmal conditions of the animals at the Marghzar Zoo (Zoo): a wildlife shelter-turned-zoo established in the capital city of Islamabad in 1978 housing approximately 800 animals. At the heart of the petitioner’s case was Kaavan, an Asian elephant gifted to Pakistan by the Sri Lankan government in 1985, who has since been languishing in the Zoo in chains. Kaavan has displayed signs of psychological distress including swaying and pressing his head into a wall, and his mistreatment at the hands of Zoo authorities has been well-documented by animal activists and the media. By way of relief, the petitioners asked the court to direct the state authorities responsible for the Zoo’s administration to relocate Kaavan to an international wildlife sanctuary (Asian elephants are extinct in Pakistan and no sanctuary exists within the country for elephants).

In the judgment authored by the Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court, J. Athar Minallah, the court described the conditions at the Zoo as “alarming” and inadequate to meet the physical and psychological needs of its inhabitants because of small cages, lack of veterinary care, and neglect by the Zoo management. The court stated that “the caged living beings in the Zoo are undoubtedly in pain, distress and agony, definitely disproportionate to the purpose intended to be achieved by keeping them in this condition.” Similar findings of neglect and maltreatment were made by the court with respect to several animal species at the Zoo. The court goes on to note the growing futility of zoos, highlighting that zoos are inadequate places especially for intelligent and social creatures like elephants. The court likened zoos to prisons by stating that “zoos do not serve any purpose except to display their living inmates as exhibits to visitors.”

With respect to whether Pakistani law grants rights to animals, the court analyzed various sources of law and jurisprudence from around the world to reach its conclusions. The court cited and discussed the cases of Sandra and Cecilia the orangutans and Arturo the polar bear from Argentina, cases from neighboring India as well as case law from South Africa. The court also discussed the cases filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project in the United States (CALS’ Adjunct Professor Steve Wise is NRP’s Founder and President). Since Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, the court discussed in great detail Islamic jurisprudence on animal welfare and animal rights, citing the two main sources of Islamic law: the Holy Quaran and the Ahadith (sayings of the Prophet).

Resultantly, the court arrived at the conclusion that animals have some basic legal rights which humans have a corresponding duty to not infringe upon. In this case, the court expanded the right to life of humans enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan as being violated when animals are treated cruelly or are neglected. The right to life had previously been extended by the Supreme Court of Pakistan to include the right to a clean and healthy environment and has since been expanded to include other environmental protections. Additionally, the judgment cites the link between animal abuse and violent crimes as a basis for why animal welfare is part of the right to life. Therefore, the court recognizes that animals have certain natural rights including the right to live in an environment that meets the animal’s behavioral, social and physiological needs, the right not to be treated in a manner that subjects the animal to unnecessary pain and suffering, the right to be respected because the animal is a living being and the right to not to be tortured or unnecessarily killed.

Therefore, the court provided relief to the petitioners by declaring that the Zoo does not have facilities to meet the behavioral, social or psychological needs of the animals kept in captivity and directing that Kaavan be relocated to a suitable sanctuary. The court also ordered that all other animals at the Zoo be moved to respective sanctuaries and that no new animals be kept in the Zoo until a reputable agency specializing in zoos certifies the facilities and resources available at the Zoo.

The judgment has been hailed by many as a huge win for animal advocates in the country and rightly so, being an unprecedented and progressive step for animal welfare through the legal system in Pakistan. Most importantly, the judgment aims to put a stop to the suffering of Kaavan and the other animals of the Marghzar Zoo, who have been malnourished, neglected and distressed for a long time. However, while the judgment is a good basis for future animal legal advocacy in Pakistan, it is unclear how the legal rights enunciated by the court translate in practice, since the court did not abolish the property status of animals or grant them a way to bring cases in their own name to enforce these legal rights. Therefore, while the Islamabad High Court’s decision in this case marks a new era for animal law in Pakistan, much work is still needed in this sphere before animals can be meaningfully protected. As of the time of this blog, Kaavan has not yet been freed from the Zoo. The High Court of Islamabad has made its displeasure over the non-implementation of its order known and has ordered briefing.


Hira Jaleel

Hailing from Pakistan, Hira Jaleel is a recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and the Animal Law LLM Leadership Award. She received her BA-LLB (Hons.) from the Lahore University of Management Sciences, where she was on the Dean’s Honors List and recipient of the academic excellence scholarship for the academic year 2013-2014. Before studying at CALS, Hira practiced as an attorney in one of Pakistan’s top law firms for two years. Hira received her Animal Law LLM from the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School in 2020.


The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law and three specialty Animal Law Clinics, including our newly launched International Wildlife Law Clinic. CALS is a nonprofit organization and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.