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ISLAMABAD – The plight of Kaavan, a mentally tormented bull elephant confined to a small pen in the Islamabad Zoo for nearly three decades, has galvanized a rare animal rights campaign in Pakistan.
Local and international animal rights organizations launched the campaign a year ago after reports that zookeepers were beating the elephant and denying it food. An online petition has gained over 280,000 signatures and small protests have been held outside the zoo. Raza Rabbani, the chairman of Pakistan's senate, has called on authorities to transfer Kaavan to a sanctuary.
The campaign has also attracted international attention, with rights groups and celebrities, including the singer Cher, calling for the elephant to be moved to a more humane facility.
Elephants are gregarious by nature, and males can become aggressive when they are separated from the herd. Kaavan, who was brought to the zoo from Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, grew even more unruly when the female elephant he was being kept with died in 2012.
Activists say caretakers have responded to his aggression by chaining his legs, beating him, and confining him to an enclosure that is far too small.
Sunny Jamil, an activist at the Help Welfare Organization, a local animal rights group, says the mangled ceiling fan in the roof of the enclosure testifies to its insufficient height. Jamil, who visits the zoo regularly, says the pen can reach 40 degrees Celsius (100 F) in the summer, and that the elephant is given little water to cool down. "It is cruel," he said.
Mohammad Jalal, the caretaker for the 36-year-old elephant, says "I have hardly seen him happy." Kaavan swayed back and forth as Jalal spoke -- a sign of mental torment -- and at one point hurled a brick at onlookers, nearly striking an Associated Press cameraman.
Animal rights groups have called on Pakistan to relocate Kaavan to an animal sanctuary in Myanmar and have launched petitions to cover the costs.
But the Capital Development Authority, the local agency in charge of managing the zoo, has refused, perhaps fearing it would lose visitors. Instead, it is working on bringing in another female elephant, said Sanaullah Aman, an official with the agency. Aman denied the allegations of abuse and said "every possible step" was being taken for Kaavan's wellbeing, without elaborating.