Having spent the past 10 years or so interviewing at least one different person a week: I found myself sympathizing with my colleague Laura Calleja, in her futile efforts to get a single, cohesive answer from Animal Welfare Minister Anton Refalo.
In case you missed it, I’m referring to a press event this week where Refalo launched (and here I’m quoting yesterday’s MaltaToday report): “yet another round of public consultations, this time for a national animal welfare strategy…”
‘Another one’… ‘this time’… everything is already pointing in a certain direction, isn’t it? But just to insist anyway: this is not exactly the first time that Anton Refalo announces more or less the same kind of “public consultation exercise” (and with “more or less the same fanfare” too…)
In November 2020, the Ministry of Animal Welfare also launched a “Public Consultation on […] the Regulation respecting the keeping of wild animals in zoos. And according to the accompanying government white paper, the objectives were: “to protect wildlife and conserve biodiversity by providing for the licensing, registration and inspection of zoos in the territory of Malta […]; protect animal health and welfare; and to protect the public from these animals.
But hey… you can already guess what happened next, can’t you? 18 months later, there is still no sign of a new law regulating unlicensed zoos in Malta. Indeed, nothing seems to have changed at all, regarding the whole situation regarding “wildlife keeping” in Malta… except, perhaps, for a few tiny little details here and there.
For example: just one month after the launch of this White Paper, the same Anton Refalo – answering a parliamentary question from former deputy Mario Galea – revealed the extent of the problem that it is now up to him to “solve”.
He filed a list of “just under 400 wild animals [that] are known to be kept in captivity in Malta”. And this list, we are told, “points to a marked preference for big cats, with a total of 64 tigers, 20 lions, 11 leopards and 24 cougars…”
Naturally, this brings us to another “change” that has taken place since November 2021. Over the past 18 months, the number of “big cat attacks” recorded in Malta has (unsurprisingly) also increased… by at least least three to at least five.
Apart from the recent high profile case, in which a dog was mutilated by a ‘puma and a leopard’ in Ghajnsielem, Gozo… Health Minister Chris Fearne separately confirmed that: “A person in Malta had to be hospitalized after being bitten by an exotic animal. (Note: it was this newspaper’s responsibility to reveal that the ‘exotic animal’ was actually one of those ’64 tigers’, kept in one of Malta’s many ‘unlicensed zoos’. Honestly, though: who would have guessed?)
To these two recent cases, we must also add the two “big cat attacks” on small children that we know of so far – namely, a boy and a girl, injured on two separate occasions by (respectively) a tiger and a lion. ; and another case, in which a woman had her arm mutilated by a lion… after being encouraged (by the zookeeper, no less!) to “pet” it, through the bars of its cage…
But in any case: all of this, I suppose, only reinforces the simple need to have a proper law in place, to regulate a sector which – clearly – poses a significant risk to human life and integrity physical (not to mention, of course, the health and dignity of the animals themselves).
And by the way: that was also the whole point of Laura Calleja’s question to begin with… which I’m now going to allow myself to paraphrase, in three separate subsections (if nothing else, because that’s how Anton Refalo’s non-responses often forced her to repeat it).
1) What the hell happened to this “public consultation on zoo keeping wildlife regulations” anyway? Why is there still no corresponding legislation, almost two years later?
2) Did you, by any chance, simply succumb to the pressure of all these “zookeepers”? [Note: You’ve got to hand it to Nicole, though: that’s kind of blunt, even by ‘Frost/Nixon’ standards…] And finally;
3) Given that nothing ever came of the last “consultation exercise” organized by your department…is there any particular reason why we should expect this last one to turn out differently, in the end ?
There: I think we can all safely agree that – in a country where the number of “human injuries inflicted by wild animals” seems to continue to increase (in frequency and severity), year on year – this is not aren’t exactly unreasonable questions to ask.
Unfortunately, however, I cannot say the exact same thing about Anton Refalo’s response: which can effectively be summed up in five words: “We are a government that listens”. (Because everything he said after that – for example, “we are preparing the consultation project”; “we are here to make laws that respect the dignity of animals”, etc. etc. – was clearly about new animal welfare proposals launched this week: and nothing to do with ‘zoos’ at all…)
And… uh… what do these five words tell us, anyway: if not that the whole point behind all these “public consultation exercises” is precisely to create the illusion of ‘government that listens’… so that ministers like Anton Refalo can continue to conveniently ignore all the things he’s supposed to listen to, in the first place?
Because let’s face it: there were plenty of other ways Anton Refalo could have answered this question… if he had been really interested in providing useful information, for once.
For example, he could have repeated the same answer he gave (again, to a PQ from Mario Galea) in November 2021: when he revealed that “the department responsible for zoo regulations has hired AIS Environment Ltd to conduct a social, environmental and economic investigation”. impact assessment of proposed legislation on zoos.
At the time, Refalo had even informed us that “the evaluation is in the final phase”; and that “the report will be presented in the coming weeks”. But…well, let’s just say that the number of weeks that have passed since then is actually about 72: enough time, I think, for this final report to have been duly concluded and submitted, as scheduled…
And yet, all these months later, there is still no sign of any “social, environmental and economic impact assessment” being published either. And that brings me to another small issue with Anton Refalo’s non-response.
“A government that listens”… from whom exactly? Because it’s very clear that it can’t be any “expert” in the field, can it? And it certainly doesn’t appear that anyone – including AIS Environment Ltd, by the way – was actually involved in this “public consultation exercise”, either…
Because while none of us can realistically confirm what this “EIA” specifically concluded, last November… we can all make a pretty educated guess just by looking at this what European legislation has to say on the subject of ‘zoos’.
For example: according to the European Commission’s Zoos Directive – which, I need not add, any Maltese legal zoo should comply with – animals must be housed: “under conditions designed to meet the requirements biological and conservation of the individual species, inter alia, by providing species-specific enrichment of the enclosures.
And just to give you a rough idea of what that would actually entail – either for the zookeepers themselves; or for Anton Refalo’s own government (if, for argument’s sake, he was eventually forced to take direct responsibility for all those ‘400 wild animals’ himself)… I’ll limit myself to ‘tigers’ , for the moment.
According to most internationally accepted standards: “It is recommended that individual animals have at least 37 m² of floor space and that enclosures have a height of at least 3.5 m. The minimum space provided must be increased by 50% for each additional cat in the enclosure…”
Bearing in mind that there are at least 64 such animals in the country (which we know of, anyway); and that some of these majestic creatures are kept in basements…on rooftops…in garages, etc…well, you can imagine the kind of investment that would be required, for all these so-called “zoos” complain about the EU (just like that, overnight…)
And that’s before we even get to the whole terraforming part: because “providing species-specific enrichment to the enclosures” – and the same principle naturally applies to all these other animals too – also involves try to reproduce the natural habitat of this animal. In the case of a tiger… that means creating a slice of man-made TROPICAL SOUTH-EAST ASIAN RAINFOREST, no less… (note: and that’s not even the hardest challenge. Take the “lions of the mountains”, for example. They would need… uh… ‘MOUNTAIN’, to shout out loud!)
And of course, that’s not to mention all the other minimum requirements that should also be met: which include accreditation with the European Zoos And Aquaria Association; the employment of qualified zoologists…specialist veterinarians…experienced animal handlers…and not least, the inclusion of safety barriers to prevent further “escapes”, and…well…“mishaps”…
Anyway: I could go on… but it’s no use, really, when we all also know that: a) Anton Refalo himself is surely already aware of all this (he’s still sitting on this report EIA, remember?), and b); he has already made it clear to us that… it is “a government that listens”, yes.
But only to “zookeepers”, of course; and very clearly, to no one else…