Hanniah Tariq is the Founder and CEO of High Altitude Sustainability Pakistan and has over 15 years of experience in international development and social research.

"Various animal rescue and shelter organizations contacted revealed that they have received escalating cases of animal abandonment and abuse in the past few weeks.”

© WWF-Pakistan

The spread of COVID-19 has had massive implications for animal welfare, both under human care and in the wild. Domestic, neighbourhood, residents of manmade habitats (zoos, sanctuaries, and shelters) and undomesticated animals, have all been impacted by the lockdowns worldwide. Starting from those closest to us, our domesticated companions, it already begins with heartbreak. In a time when tolerance, patience, and compassion are key, it seems that local experience has been the opposite. Various animal rescue and shelter organizations contacted revealed that they have received escalating cases of animal abandonment and abuse in the past weeks.

The main problem is misinformation, according to Prof. Masood Rabbani, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore. In early April, he clarified that if domestic pets had a role to play in spreading the coronavirus, it would have been obvious by now. He also mentioned that WHO’s Centre for Disease Control’s advisory correspondingly states that there is no evidence that pets are involved. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) similarly confirms that ‘there is no evidence that animals are playing a significant epidemiological role in the spread of human infections with SARS-CoV-2.’ Regardless of such guidelines, relentless circulation of hearsay about animals potentially becoming COVID-19 vectors has led to an alarming rate of pet abandonment in Pakistan. To counter this trend, official sources like the Ministry of National Health Services Regulations and Coordination (NHSRC)’s COVID-19 health advisory platform need to clarify instructions like ‘Avoid Contact with Animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).’ The current economic pressure felt by some families is also leading to more pets being thrown out or killed. Shelters overwhelmed by cases are attempting to dispel fears. According to Ayesha Chundrigar, founder of the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF), “When the news got out that cats can contract it, without realizing it or conducting any proper research people started abandoning their pets. It didn’t matter if it was a cat or a dog; we started receiving frantic and frenzied messages for us to take their pets away.” Chundrigar also noticed the abnormal development of increasing abuse cases. “They doubled, which is very strange. We receive more than 200 calls and messages via social media from across Pakistan, displaying that in lockdown, animal abandonment and abuse cases have become ridiculously high. I’m talking about proper abuse like burning puppies alive and poisoning kittens. By the time they get to us, they are in such a grave state that they can’t survive. Considering that the pandemic is linked to animal cruelty, it is bizarre that instead of things becoming better for animals, they have become far worse,” says Chundrigar.

Mahera Omar, Co-founder of Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), has observed a similar trend. “There is compassion fatigue even on regular days, but we are receiving a lot more calls for abandoned pets literally thrown on the street now. People can’t even tolerate newly born kittens near their house. We were already scrambling with injured animals, but now with the virus, we are overwhelmed, guiding people what to do with the additional abandoned animals they are finding,” she states. Similarly, IPS Animal Rescue has also received cases of people abandoning their pets and throwing friendly animals out of their apartments due to fear that they can infect them.

"IPS Animal Rescue has also received cases of people abandoning their pets and “ throwing friendly animals out of their apartments due to fear that they can infect."

This unfortunate occurrence is not inevitable, though. For example, in New York, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has noted no major negative effects on domestic animal welfare. In a statement to the press, Matt Bershadker, President and CEO of the ASPCA, said “While stresses and challenges have arisen in an unprecedented fashion, the ASPCA has not seen an increase in owner surrenders or stray intakes at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City due to COVID-19.”

Future pets have also suffered at this time. Due to the lockdown, several pet shopkeepers with no previous experience of the situation closed their shops leaving animals without care. Gulf News reports that hundreds of animals perished as a result in pet markets. “For ten days, those animals were completely locked and crying for help. I got in touch with the government, we got a whole bunch of volunteers, and together we got out a lot of animals. The government is being fantastic and sending people to check up on the pet shops every week or so now,” says Chundrigar.

© WWF-US / Narendra Shresth

Working animals are also suffering as most of them are owned by daily wage earners. So, while the owners are struggling financially, the animals are slowly starving to death. For instance, ACF rescued numerous donkeys literally down to skin and bones in this period. As far as livestock is concerned, Eric Fèvre, International Livestock Research Institute, feels that there is no reason for alarm, “From a farming perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any anthropo-zoonotic cases despite the fact it came from animals originally.” However, the availability of livestock feed is critical for the survival of millions of animal rearing households across the country. Keeping this in mind, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has shown support by donating 315 kg of animal compound feed to 1,400 families in rural Sindh. Just like domestic abuse cases have increased exponentially, so has widespread abuse of stray animals in cities.

Street animals are starving with their primary food sources like restaurants closed for weeks. Without regular sources of nutrition, they are obviously distressed. Dogs barking in misery due to hunger is leading to civilians poisoning or shooting dogs on the street. “People are taking animal lives into their own hands and not realizing that the barking is a cry for help. We have a bunch of puppies with us that are bleeding from their mouths because they were poisoned. This is the standard case we see day after day. I wake up to this, and I sleep to this. I had no idea it was going to be this intense,” discloses Chundrigar. Rescue capabilities of animal welfare organizations are also being stretched. Todd’s Welfare Society in Lahore, for example, is under quarantine due to the virus and has suspended rescue operations to protect their animals and shelter staff. Innocent Pet Shelter (IPS) Animal Rescue is trying to accommodate as many cases as it can but stated that it’s “really hard as our rescue work focuses on injured animals, and we are running out of space. Plus, people who give up these animals take no responsibility; they usually dump them in shelters and vanish.

We are trying to educate people about COVID-19 protocols related to animals and finding new families for abandoned animals. The support we need from people is that they should step up and adopt animals from shelters, we need to have space to cater to more cases, and we can’t leave our rescued victims on roads, so we need good families for them. Plus, people can foster sick animals to share our burden, and donations in any form are always helpful.”

In the words of Professor Rabbani, “We are already not very caring about animals. But just like humans need help, so do animals. For their nutrition, the government and private organizations need to think so that the animals don’t get affected.” Chundrigar agrees on the need to start feeding programmes to get people on board. “If all of us can just give a little bit, whatever leftovers you have at home or keep a clean bowl of water outside, we can take care of these animals. Giving grass to goats and cows, and carrots and apples to donkeys can save a lot of lives,” says the activist. The ACF also has a survey form on its website, which allows residents to enter details of the number of animals in their area so that a feeding programme can be coordinated.

They have volunteers to carry out the feeding and brokered cheaper deals with vendors for food. But they are in dire need of donors to come forward for the project to be started on a larger scale. “We have a lot of people who are very keen about doing this but do not have the funds. ACF wants to act as a platform to connect them with the donor,” she adds. From an advocacy point of view, Omar of PAWS stresses the importance of education and cultivating compassion for animals. “We need to create educational materials to increase tolerance among people who don’t seem to need an excuse to be cruel to animals. It is important to instil a message of caring for the animals we share cities with because it’s not just us living in these cities,” she states.

© David Lawson / WWF-UK

Clearly, regardless of present circumstances, people need to have an ethical and humane treatment of all sentient beings. A way forward is to urgently update and implement a stricter version of the Prevention to Cruelty to Animal Act, 1890. Punjab is currently the only province with a “Society for Prevention of Cruelty (SPCA) to Animals” established under the Act. This society is under-resourced and has meagre funding, while the government is struggling with various economic challenges. Civil society bears more responsibility under these unprecedented circumstances where the media can also play a significant role in raising awareness and countering misconceptions. The Nation reported in 2018 that through this society, “people are fined, though nominally, for maltreating animals, while there is no custodian of the 1890 Act for implementation in the other three provinces.” The right of all animals to nourishment, shelter, and freedom from abuse must be legally reinforced across the country if we as a nation are to start treating cohabiting species better.

Misleading information on COVID-19’s interaction with animals must also be countered as it continues to threaten the welfare of fauna around the world. As pointed out by Omar, “It’s not the animals that have given us the virus but how we have treated nature, ecosystems, and wildlife. But I feel people have ended up blaming animals, and it’s translating to this situation.” Indeed, as we move forward into a new world order, it is essential to be mindful that current or future pandemics are no rational justifications for abandoning, abusing, or killing animals.

© WWF-US / Narendra Shresth