Murder shocks Pakistan, but U.S. & other nations have much to learn as well
KARACHI, Pakistan; PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad; JENKINTOWN, Pennsylvania–– Zohra Shah, age seven or eight, according to contradictory reports, may have had the chance to make only one moral and ethical decision in her brief lifetime.
On May 31, 2020, Zohra released one of four caged macaws kept by her employers, Umme Kulsoom and Hasan Siddiqui.
Zohra paid for it with her life.
That was all Zohra ever had to give.
Having been sold into virtual slavery, as a child domestic servant in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Zohra was severely abused, and at times was kept in a cage herself.
Zohra “saw the cruelest side of humankind”
“Siddiqui kicked her in the lower abdomen, which proved fatal,” investigating police officer Mukhtar Ahmad told Agence France Presse.
While most media identified the victim as Zohra Shah, Agence France Presse identified her as Zohra Bibi.
“Life is colorful when you are eight,” eulogized Maheen Humayun, editor of The Tempest magazine in Karachi, the capital city of Pakistan. “You see the world for all its beauty. You see a bird, and you want to set it free.”
Zohra, however, “saw the cruelest side of humankind,” Humayun wrote.
“Zohra was brought into the hospital,” and dumped there by her employers, who fled, “with injuries to her rib cage, hands, face, and even her thighs. She was probably sexually assaulted,” Humayun speculated, “by her filthy employers,” who are now charged with attempted murder, rape, and premeditated murder.
“What kind of a person, firstly, employs a child?” Humayun asked. “Second, what kind of humans beat a child to death for letting a parrot free? The employers claimed that it was an ‘expensive’ parrot. To them, a parrot’s life was more valuable than a child’s.”
Opthalmologist bred parrots
Hasan Siddique, an opthalmologist, was apparently also in the exotic bird breeding business, and kept German shepherds as well.
“It was recently revealed that Zohra Shah was tortured regularly by the couple. Even worse, they would actually record these incidents, finding sick pleasure in the pain of an innocent child,” Humayun reported. “Moreover, images of Zohra locked in a cage were discovered as well.”
Zohra, from the impoverished village of Kot Addu in Southern Punjab, 40 miles north of Muzaffargarh and 50 miles northwest of Multan, was apparently turned over to Umme Kulsoom and Hasan Siddiqui by her illiterate parents, four months before her death, to become caretaker for Kulsoom and Siddiqui’s own one-year-old child.
Stranded 360 miles from anywhere she had ever been before, Zohra was to be paid with a vaguely defined “education.”
Why did Zohra release the macaw?
Media accounts suggest that Zohra may have released the macaw by accident, as an act of revenge, or in response to Islamist religious teachings.
The predominant Shiite and Sunni interpretations of Islam both accept keeping caged birds, as well as other pets.
The Taliban, however, who have extensive influence in rural Pakistan, especially Rawalpindi, as well as in neighboring Afghanistan, believe Islam forbids keeping birds in cages. In 1996, soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, Taliban leaders forced the release of all caged birds, no matter how dependent the birds were for survival on human feeders.
The simplest, most obvious explanation, however, is simply that Zohra felt empathy for the macaw.
Zohra could not free herself, but she could and did free the macaw, and may have enjoyed the sight of the macaw flying away unfettered, in a nation where four parakeet species are native and feral parrots and parakeets thrive.
Gesture of hope
It would be presumptuous and premature to suggest that the national hue-and-cry raging in Pakistan over the Zohra Shah death may mark a turning point for children and animals there, comparable to the influence of the 1877 U.S. case in which American SPCA founder Henry Bergh and attorney Elbridge T. Gerry invoked animal protection law to rescue an abused child named Mary Ellen Wilson.
Gerry went on to found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Mary Ellen case also helped to inspire the formation of the American Humane Association, later in 1877, with the dual missions of protecting children and animals.
Pakistan has in truth had humane societies, animal rescue societies, child protection organizations, vegetarian societies, and anti-vivisection societies, as well as wildlife and bird conservation organizations, for longer than the U.S.
Such entities have been among the few Pakistani institutions bringing together members of the Islamic majority with members of the Hindu and Christian minorities, but have yet to gain broad-based public support and political traction.
The Zohra Shah case may change that. Even if it does not, however, her parrot release was a defiant gesture of hope amid some of the bleakest of circumstances.
Trinidad smugglers throw bagged birds overboard
Most parrots kept as pets in Pakistan are inexpensive native species, easily purchased at any major marketplace. But the macaw whom Zohra Shah released, if not one of the birds bred by Hasan Siddique, was likely imported, possibly smuggled, from South America.
Even if Hasan Siddique did breed that macaw, moreover, the ancestors of the bird were at some point wild-caught and probably trafficked.
The cruelty inherent in parrot-smuggling, already thoroughly documented in thousands of cases discovered in dozens of nations over at least sixty years, was underscored again on June 3, 2020, the Trinidad Guardian reported, when the Trinidad & Tobago Coast Guard moved to intercept a suspect pirogue, or motorized canoe, in the Gulf of Paria.
Instead of stopping to be searched, the three-member pirogue crew accelerated away, throwing bagged and boxed animals overboard as they went. Most of the illegal cargo of monkeys, macaws, bullfinches, and smaller parrots were rescued, but “several parrots and bullfinches perished,” the Stabroek News summarized.
The animals were believed to have been captured in Venezuela for sale into the international traffic via Trinidad & Tobago.
Captive parrot breeding becomes big business
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated prior to the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 that only about half of the 50,000 parrots per year believed to have been smuggled into the U.S. at that time survived the relatively short crossing from Mexico to Texas, and that the death toll on longer hauls––including to Europe and Asia––was even higher.
Nothing has happened since then to improve the odds that bootlegged birds will survive, but increased security at border crossings and airports is believed to have helped to reduce the numbers of birds moved illegally, not only into the U.S. but among other nations.
This, simultaneously, has stimulated the parrot breeding industry practically everywhere that pet parrots are commonly kept.
Captive-bred birds not protected by U.S. law
Captive breeding of parrots and parakeets exploded in the U.S., showing the way for the rest of the world, after the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 slammed the door on commercial traffic in wild-caught imported birds.
Captive parrot and parakeet breeding got an additional boost, and the boom, went global, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in October 1993 halted all legal international trade in endangered and threatened psittacine species.
But captive-bred parrots and parakeets were not protected by the U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act, and still are not.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] excluded rats, mice, and birds from the Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations in 1970.
USDA agreed to rewrite regs, then didn’t
After many previous efforts failed, an American Anti-Vivisection Society subsidiary called the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation won judicial rulings that in October 2000 caused the USDA to agree to rewrite the regulations to protect rats, mice, and birds.
But Congressional budget actions repeatedly delayed any actual rewriting, until a last-minute amendment of the June 2002 Farm Bill made permanent the exclusion of rats, mice, and birds from the definition of “animal” used in the Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations.
Founded in 1883 by Carolyn Earle White (1833-1916), a lifelong advocate for animals and children, the American Anti-Vivisection Society and the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation did not give up.
Together with the Avian Welfare Coalition, including 28 animal welfare organizations, the American Anti-Vivisection Society et al “drafted species-specific standards for birds that were formally submitted to USDA in 2004,” recalled a June 3, 2020 American AV media release.
“Exotic bird breeding & housing unregulated”
“The 2004 proposed standards addressed serious issues impacting animal welfare at mass breeding facilities; inhumane and unhealthy conditions during transport; and the unique requirements of flight animals and waterfowl, to name a few,” the media release said.
Charged Avian Welfare Coalition president Denise Kelly, “Exotic bird breeding and housing remains largely unregulated across the U.S., since most states have no meaningful regulations. Birds bred in captivity for the pet trade are commonly produced in ‘bird mills,’ where birds live in small barren cages devoid of environmental enrichment. They are unable to fly or engage in other essential avian behavior.”
Sixteen years after the proposed standards were drafted, U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, of Washington D.C., in January 2020 agreed that the USDA had unreasonably delayed action on the proposed bird welfare standards.
McFadden then, in June 2020, ordered judicial oversight of the USDA’s stated “intention to promulgate regulations required by the AWA for birds not bred for use in research,” the American Anti-Vivisection Society said.
“Birds who will be protected by these regulations are those exploited for exhibition, breeding, and the pet trade,” the American Anti-Vivisection Society explained.
“To prevent further delay, the [McFadden] order specifies a schedule for the rule making process, which will start with USDA publishing a notice for listening sessions before the end of August 2020.
“USDA is required to submit status reports every 90 days during the rule making process in order to keep the Court, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the Animal Welfare Coalition, and the public apprised on the agency’s progress on rule making,” the American Anti-Vivisection Society media release finished.