How social media and celebrity activists contribute to better animal rights in Pakistan

Since it sometimes seems like that we’re living in a world where even the sanctity of human life seems to have evaporated, it’s a little surprising that some Pakistanis are now paying attention to the plight of animals.

But they are. Thank God they are.

How the social media-savvy are making people care

Ask any animal lover in Karachi if they’ve heard of Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation and you’ll hear nothing but good things about all the non-profit does for animal welfare: rescuing abandoned and abused animals, providing them medical aid and shelter and finding them homes too. ACF’s Facebook page is filled with uplifting stories about most of their rescues and heartwarming photos that chronicle their rehabilitation.

“Since ACF started operations in 2013, the attitudes of people have changed towards animal rights. They’ve definitely become better,” shares Ayesha, the woman behind the shelter.

She then says: “Without social media, ACF wouldn’t exist.”

“Social media has been been the most powerful platform for us to spread awareness about our work, maintain transparency that helps wins a donor’s trust, constantly create new initiatives and campaigns, encourage people to donate, and finally, it’s the easiest way for people to get in touch to report rescues. Many of our 270 plus animals currently and over 1500 rescues over the past three years have been through people reporting via Facebook, Twitter or the ACF phone number,” says Ayesha. “There are so many animal lovers in our country and social media is the best way to get connected.”

ACF doesn’t hold back; the good, the ugly, everything is up for view on their Facebook page. The shelter has experimented with creative ways to spread the word about their work and keep the non-profit running; the foundation recently rolled out some super cute merchandise up for grabs, like t-shirts, mugs and calendars featuring their rescue animals to raise funds.

In this way ACF has managed to raise its profile even though its only been in operation for a few years.

PAWS, a non-profit that’s been working to rehabilitate and rescue stray animals for nearly the past decade has slowly but surely raised awareness among people about why it’s essential we treat animals with respect and love.

Mahera Omar, the CEO of PAWS, agrees that social media is a vital tool. “Ever since we formed, and this is back in 2004, we’ve been trying to get our voices heard. We formed because of these concerns like stray dogs being killed and animal cruelty. These issues have been around for a long time and we wanted to do something about that. But as you know it’s a big city so it wasn’t easy. Social media has really helped with that. Anyone can create their content and push it out there to educate others,” she says.

Celebrity endorsement doesn’t hurt either

Certainly it also helps when people in the limelight such as celebrities turn activists to further the cause.

In a way, it’s an unfortunate reality; it means that it takes star power for us to care about basic rights and freedoms but that’s a debate for another day.

ACF has attracted visits and tacit endorsements from high profile celebrities like Anoushey Ashraf and Zoe Viccaji, which only helps its cause as they have extensive fan followings on social media.

Chundrigar explains, “It’s really good that celebrities are getting involved and endorsing animal rescue and shedding light on the plight of stray animals. That being said, I would urge more of them to come forward and also to stay consistent. This is a long fight and it can’t be just a one-time thing. Even your fans can forget so if we really want to change things, they key is to stay consistent. Yes, it can get exhausting but in my experience, that’s the only way things will become different.”

Celebrities like Anoushey Ashraf (L) and Rachel and Zoe Viccaji visit the shelter (R)
Celebrities like Anoushey Ashraf (L) and Rachel and Zoe Viccaji visit the shelter (R)

“Because animal rights and animal rescue is in its infancy in Pakistan, it’s imperative that celebrities with big fan followings consistently reiterate their support of animal rights in the country.”

Recently, an upward spike in culling the stray dog population in Pakistan’s urban cities has caused celebrities to sit up and take notice.

“I truly judge a society by the way they treat their animals, which doesn’t say much about the society we live in to be honest. I’ve kept animals since I was a child and I could never, ever see them in pain because I’ve experienced so much love that they’ve given in return and it’s hard for me to understand when people mistreat or manhandle these voiceless beings,” divulges Anoushey Ashraf.

Ashraf remains hopeful though regarding the future of animal welfare.

“Where we see a lot of violence against animals, we also see a lot of people showing love to them so let’s not underestimate our people. I’ve been to little towns and villages where people love their horses and cows but I think it’s in the big cities where we practice a lot of violence, towards other human beings as well as other animals.”

“A lot of people blame me for for standing up for animals rights even before human rights; I think people have been fighting for millions of years, they just don’t know when to stop and how to stop but if we stopped taking care of our animals, our plants, nature will retaliate and there will be nothing to fight over if we don’t have this planet to live on.”

She adds, “We must respect our animals; they’ve been here before we were and they’ll be here after we’re gone so let’s not destroy what sustains our lives and mess up our ecosystem’s balance.”

Not so long ago, actress Muzna Ebrahim uploaded a heart-wrenching video claiming that the authorities had poisoned three of her four rescued canines. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) and the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) are allegedly killing dogs by feeding them contaminated meat.

The television show host organised a protest along with Sarah, an animal rescuer outside Karachi Press Club.

“The dogs of mine that were killed were strays but they were vaccinated, groomed and friendly. These were animals who my daughter had named, who walked her to school, who ate from her hand. And they died in front of us both. They suffered and seized and were convulsing in pain. It was unbearable,” explains Muzna.

But does the impact on social media trickle down to real, long-lasting reform?

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1890 makes cruelty to animals punishable for a first offense with one month imprisonment or Rs50 fine and with three months imprisonment or 100 rupee fine for a subsequent offense.

Additionally, section 429 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 makes it a criminal offense to kill, maim, or render useless any animal, punishable with five years imprisonment, or fine, or both but these laws are largely unimplemented and fairly outdated.

The nonchalant stance the authorities seem to have taken to the massacre of these animals is what confuses the public at large as well.

“It’s a weird desensitisation happening because these killings are seen as the best solution by the authorities even which is why many people wouldn’t speak up,” says Mahera of PAWS.

The KMC seems to have temporarily stopped poisoning stray canines; Ebrahim revealed that the head of the organization, Masood Alam showed up to the protest and promised that they would stop and to her knowledge, he’s kept his promise so far.

That being said, she says the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) and Karachi Cantonment Board (KCB) don’t seem to care.

However, while talking to Ali Hassan Sajad, Director Media of KMC, we weren’t entirely sure what their plan of action is now.

“Of course people had a lot of issues as to how these animals were treated before and that’s why many people protested against it. Initially, we used to give this tablet that would give a quick and painless death to the animal, so as to put them out of their misery, but now we’ve been working on and have found a better way to handle this situation.”

“We are in talks with Indus Hospital and signing an MOU with them. We want to opt for this vaccine now. This vaccine is not like the poison used to kill dogs before. It will calm them down, to the extent that no one will worry about being bitten by them or being chased by them. And when they die, it won’t be painful.”

But do they die because this vaccine is administered to them?

“Any risk of rabies within the dog is eliminated and they become rather lazy. If their death is caused, it can happen from three months to a year,” states Mr Hassan.

“We have some NGOs on board and Indus Hospital is collaborating with us. We’ve had all the initial talks and meetings wrapped up and now we’re going to start with getting these vaccines and making this the common way of treating stray dogs. This is about to be implemented soon.”

Muzna, on the other hand, dismisses the existence of this magical vaccine.

“There is no such thing. They just call poison medicine.”

Still, even some progress is progress at the end of the day. Stray eradication by numerous municipal bodies is inhumane; that much is clear. But what’s the alternative?

To control population growth, spaying or neutering them is the only humane course of action to adopt, which animal rights groups are encouraging people to do via social media.

But ultimately, the government must to step up and collaborate with animal welfare societies in the country if we want to see some actual change.

Not to mention, the animal abuse that we witness is not just limited to dogs on the street. It’s got to do with donkeys being used for transportation, it’s got to do with people who keep pets but mistreat them. While dog culling is a big part of it, it’s not all of it and empathy begins at home, on the traffic signal. While we all feel the pain, how many of us are ready to go on the streets, protest and demand real reform?