KABUL — Khanzir likes to lie in the sun. He spends long days sprawled across the grass, sometimes trotting over to greet the people passing by and admiring him. He almost seems to know he is popular, that visitors come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of him.
In Afghanistan, as in most Islamic nations, eating pork is considered haram. In fact, one interpretation of that belief forbids even touching the animal. As a result, no pigs are reared or farmed in the country. Besides, the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan is no place for a domestic pig.
“By and large, most Afghans have never seen a pig in their life,” said Aziz Gul Saqib, director of the Kabul Zoo, where 14-year-old Khanzir lives in a grassy enclosure with a small pond and a concrete shelter for days when the pig prefers to keep to himself.
But Khanzir, whose name simply means “pig” in Pashto, one of the national languages of Afghanistan, wasn’t always the lonely pig in a derelict zoo in a conflict zone. He was given as a piglet to the zoo by China in 2002, along with a female pig and a pair of brown bears, Saqib said. News reports from the time said the delivery also included two lions, two deer and a wolf.
Khanzir and his mate, both pink and sturdy, had a litter of piglets a few years later. But the little porcine family was torn apart by tragedy in 2006.
“Our zoo caretakers were fairly new then and not very well-trained at the time,” explains Saqib. “One day, a caretaker accidentally left the door to the brown bear’s cage open, and one of the bears got into the pigs’ enclosure that was close by,” he said.
The bear attacked Khanzir’s brood, killing the piglets. Zoo authorities got there just in time to rescue Khanzir and his mate. The female pig, however, was hurt severely in the attack and succumbed to her injuries a short while later. And so Khanzir was left all by himself: The only one of his kind in all the land.
Today, Khanzir may be a lonely pig, but he isn’t always alone. He has developed a special relationship with his caretakers, who feed him daily and clean his enclosure regularly.
“He doesn’t move much these days, but he shows enthusiasm every time he sees me, because he knows that I bring him food,” said Shah Barat, a longtime zoo caretaker. Barat demonstrated this on a recent day, calling out to Khanzir who, despite his advanced age and generous girth — he weighs more than 500 pounds — came swiftly.
When asked if caring for the pig contradicts his religious beliefs, Barat gave a firm no.
“Sure, it is haram, but it’s not a bad thing,” he said. “This is a zoo, so there should be such animals. Besides, Khanzir is an innocent animal, like all animals. Sure, he is very dirty, but he is our responsibility,” he said. (Pigs, actually, are not particularly filthy animals, despite their reputation.)
Khanzir has faced some external opposition, however. That occurred in 2009, during a worldwide epidemic of swine flu. Government authorities grew worried about a potential outbreak in their war-torn country, and they set their sights on the nation’s only swine. As headlines about the virus spread, the Afghan public also became alarmed and began calling for the pig’s ouster; some even suggested euthanizing him.
But Saqib and his team wouldn’t have any of that. “Even though he was perfectly healthy, we had to quarantine him for a few weeks,” he recalled, adding that this measure was taken both to placate the public and protect Khanzir from harm. Khanzir was moved to his winter house and spent days in solitude, save for thrice-daily visits from his caretakers, who believed he needed company.
“He is very special to us,” Barat said. “Like all the animals I care for at the zoo, Khanzir is my friend. I would be very sad if something were to happen to him.”
But other than the swine flu scare, there’s been no real opposition to the pig’s presence, and in fact, zoo officials say they’d like to have more pigs on the premises for educational purposes.
“We believe that people and students should be able to come learn about all animals, including the pig,” said Najibullah Nazari, an educational coordinator at the zoo.
Visitors who flock to Khanzir’s enclosure seem to agree.
“Seeing the pig was a fascinating experience for me,” said one passerby, a 23-year-old who gave his name as Asif. “I had never seen such an animal before.”
Now old and frail, Khanzir spends most of his days lying in his enclosure and acknowledging his visitors. Zoo authorities said they are working to find him a partner, but it doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.
“We’ve requested other nations to help us populate the zoo with different species of animals, including a pig,” Saqib said. “But we haven’t had anyone commit to sending a friend for Khanzir as yet.”