It was some years ago while returning from my evening walk, that I saw a young man sitting under a tree opposite my gate. What made me take a second look was the little monkey that lay prostrate by his side in abject terror. As I watched, the man gave a violent tug on the animal’s leash followed by rapid blows from a stick. Unable to tolerate such treatment, I crossed the road and demanded that the man cease abusing the creature. In a tone that did full justice to the man’s appearance, I was told that he was training the animal to perform tricks, adding that the most effective method to do this was through starvation and beatings. My explosive response earned me a scathing glare before the individual got up and walked away dragging the unfortunate primate after him.

This incident got me thinking of the days many decades ago, when trained animal performers and their handlers were a common sight on city roads. This was a time when animal rights activism had not yet become effective and no festival or even a private function was complete without its dancing bear, a performing goat, a dog and a pair of rhesus monkeys.

Since awareness about how these animals were trained was nonexistent, we enjoyed the shows as only children can. The most popular part of the monkey act was when ‘Abdul Bagaaroo’ (for this was the name most commonly given to the male animal) returned from England (replete with hat, coat and dark glasses) and showed off in front of ‘Mung Phali’ (the heroine of the show). We laughed and clapped our hands asking for encores, which were readily enacted as more and more coins were tossed onto a sheet spread in front of the ‘madaari’.

The National Horse and Cattle Show was an annual mega event held in Lahore, which attracted visitors from home and abroad. Regretfully, this wonderful window into our cultural heritage has been discontinued due perhaps, to security reasons. I consider myself lucky to belong to a generation that had multiple opportunities to enjoy this show and its evening segment known as the ‘Tatoo’. It was during this event that I first saw the dancing horses. I found the item exciting as magnificent equine specimens daintily stepped and side stepped – sometimes on two rear legs and sometimes on all four, to the beat of a fife and drum. I recently attended a social event featuring these horses and left the venue in the knowledge of the pain and trauma these creatures allegedly go through during their performance.

I remember witnessing a circus somewhere in the early fifties and (to quote my late mother) hiding my face in her shawl during the lion tamer’s act. I now switch channels whenever a circus act of this nature is being shown, for the cracking whip and the big cat’s submission, as it is made to sit on stools or jump through hoops, is unpalatable as far as I am concerned for the King of animals’ real place is in its natural habitat and not a cage, resounding with the sound of cracking leather.

It was some five years ago when my humble home was under construction in suburban Islamabad, that I got a frantic call from my ‘chowkidar’, claiming that he had barely escaped being eaten by a leopard. When I reached the site, I was shown pug marks next to the structure, which indicated that not one, but two big cats had rested in the cool damp spot. I told the caretaker to take necessary precautions and rang up my friend and veteran Shikari, the late Obedullah Beg (of television fame), who flew in two days later and confirmed that the pug marks did indeed belong to a pair of ‘Guldars’ or leopards. In spite of repeated admonishments from my family, I sat up night after night armed with a camera to capture these magnificent creatures on film, but was not rewarded. If my visitors were indeed leopards, they are not likely to return to pay me a visit, since the forest around my house has now been replaced by homes. The only memory of this momentous event is a photograph showing pug marks and stories from the valley below that leopards often raided their villages to make a goat kill during harsh winters.

 The writer is a historian.