Islamabad High Court Holds that Animals Have Legal Rights
By Nicole Pallotta, Senior Policy Program Manager
Summary: The Islamabad High Court has held that animals have natural rights and are entitled to protection under the Pakistani constitution. The case before the court was threefold, involving an elephant held in solitary confinement at a zoo, a rescued bear who had been forced to “dance” and perform tricks, and the killing of stray dogs. Despite at times anthropocentric framing, the ruling unequivocally recognizes that animals have legal rights and is highly critical of humanity’s treatment of wild animals in particular.
“Do the animals have legal rights?
The answer to this question, without any hesitation, is in the affirmative…. Like humans, animals also have natural rights which ought to be recognized.
It is a right of each animal…to live in an environment that meets the latter’s behavioral, social and physiological needs.”
– Justice Athar Minallah, Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court (p. 59)
In a groundbreaking decision, the Islamabad High Court in Pakistan1has recognized that animals have legal rights and are entitled to protection under the nation’s constitution. In a 67-page ruling — dealing mainly with the treatment of an elephant at a zoo — Justice Athar Minallah asked whether animals have legal rights and found, “the answer to this question, without any hesitation, is in the affirmative.”
The ruling contains striking language about the rights of animals. In addition to their physiological needs, Justice Minallah repeatedly references animals’ social and behavioral needs and their right to an environment in which these needs can be met. He is highly critical of zoos that keep wild animals (whom he refers to as “inmates”) in captive conditions that are nothing like their natural habitats, and thus prevent them from engaging in normal behaviors.2
Although the decision — which draws on religious doctrine and quotes extensively from the Quran3 — repeatedly refers to humans as “superior beings,”4 and at times frames animals’ rights in the context of human survival,5 it unequivocally recognizes that animals have natural and legal rights.
In addition, despite its at times anthropocentric framing, the ruling is highly critical of humanity’s treatment of wild animals — e.g., destroying their natural habitat and consigning them to zoos — and refers to humans as an “invasive species.”6
The case before the court combined three separate petitions. The first involved an elephant named Kaavan,7 who was being kept in deplorable conditions at the Marghazar Zoo, and whom petitioners sought to relocate to a sanctuary. The second petition involved a rescued black bear who had been abused and forced to perform tricks.8
The third petition, discussed in least detail, regarded “the killing of stray dogs allegedly in a cruel manner.“
An Opportunity to Rethink our Relationship with Animals
The ruling begins with a brief discussion of the current COVID-19 pandemic and frames the question of whether animals have legal rights in this context, noting the crisis that has caused “the human race to go into captivity” has given us an opportunity to rethink our relationship with nonhuman animals: