Lions, and tigers, and amateurs…

When the chips are down, you don’t exactly need a ‘PhD in Advanced Debating Skills’ to post a comment on Facebook… it is still not the way you would expect serious issues to be debated, at any level at all, in this country

Zookeeper Anton Cutajar
Zookeeper Anton Cutajar

It has often been said (by myself, among others) that Maltese people ‘don’t really know how to argue’. How, for instance, most people’s idea of a ‘civilised discussion’ more closely resembles the way a lion, or a tiger, or a bear might react… if you were to kick it really hard in the testicles, while it was having a nap…

I’m guessing many of you still use social media… so you probably have a rough idea of what I’m talking about.

Q. “I don’t agree with your position, because of X, Y and Z.”

A. “Oh yeah? Well, guess what: I don’t agree with the position your mother takes, either, when she &%$#& it up the ^$$ with A, E, I, O and U (and sometimes also Y)...!”

You know, that sort of thing…

But while I can generally sympathise with that reaction, when used only as a means of ‘letting off steam’… (or even as a tacit admission that: you don’t really have any rational answers to ‘X, Y and Z’, do you now?)…

…and while I will even concede that, when the chips are down, you don’t exactly need a ‘PhD in Advanced Debating Skills’ to post a comment on Facebook…

How can I put this? It is still not the way you would expect serious issues to be debated, at any level at all, in this country: let alone, in any context involving the House of Parliament.

Ok, by this point you may have already guessed at least one example I’m building up to. After all, it was only last Wednesday that we tuned into what was supposed to be a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee (and on a matter concerning serious findings by the National Auditor’s Office, if you please…) and ended up watching a Chimps’ Tea-Party instead.

And while the exchange of opinions never really descended to the vulgarity and depravity of my own fictitious example, above…. let’s face it: it wasn’t really all that far off, was it?

All I heard – above the jeering and cheering, of course – were things like:

Q: “Tell us about the Electrogas contract…”

A: “I’ll tell you what I’ll tell you about! That time when your government $%^&# the entire country with the $%^&$ contract with ^%$$^*, that’s what…!”

Erm… what can I say? Yeah, great, but… a whole week later, we still don’t know anything new about the Electrogas contract, that hadn’t already been made public by the National Auditor’s report (or any of the past four years’ worth of newspaper reporting on the subject). Or about Konrad Mizzi’s relationship with Yorgen Fenech. Or about whether information had been leaked to the latter, over the proposed transfer of ITS College to Smart City…

In fact, the only aspect in which this issue has in any way ‘changed’, is that it has now been… um… ‘discussed’. By a Parliamentary Committee, no less. So… well, what next? We all go back to pretending nothing actually happened, I suppose…

But the part that really troubles me is another. Look, for instance, at how this discussion was reported in the press. We were told that ‘Konrad Mizzi was playing to the gallery’… that he was ‘appealing to the Labour Party’s grassroots’… and that both sides had some kind of ‘vested interest’ to plunge the entire discussion into farce.

And to my mind, this suggests that Konrad Mizzi wasn’t arguing like a demented teenager, simply because ‘he doesn’t know any better’. Or that other members of the committee, on both sides, were either egging him on, or shouting him down, because they learnt their debating skills from watching ‘Xena: the Warrior Princess’ on TV as children…

No: if they argue like a bunch of excitable baboons, it’s because they genuinely think – and, more shockingly still, they are very probably right – that this is what will actually win them the argument, at the end of the day.

And that, in turn, seems to tell us a lot more about the people tuning into that discussion, than about the people doing the actual ‘discussing’….

But that’s as far as I’ll go with this particular example; because the issue itself is by no means limited to the Electrogas contract; or even to party-politics as a whole.  Just this week, for instance, there was a very public ‘argument’ – if such it can be called – between Nationalist MP Mario Galea, and a certain ‘zookeeper’ named Anton Cutajar.

It had, in truth, been brewing for some time. Mario Galea’s position on the subject of zoos (and, previously, circuses) is already widely known. In a nutshell, he is opposed on principle to the captivity of wild animals, under any circumstances; and he has often been a vocal critic of governments – both Nationalist and Labour – for their reluctance to ever properly regulate the exotic animal trade, once and for all.

In November 2020 – almost exactly a year ago - Galea had argued in parliament that “more action was needed to combat the spread of illegal zoos, acknowledging that the issue has long been left unaddressed.” And he specifically singled out the ‘Noah’s Ark Zoo’ in Siggiewi – owned by Cutajar – as an example of a facility “built illegally only to be sanctioned by the Planning Authority”.

Very predictably, this provoked an angry reaction from Cutajar himself: who, a few months later, would also lash out at Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina, for saying pretty much the same thing.

So in a sense, it was a ‘chronicle of a show-down foretold’. Once again, Mario Galea made an impassioned speech in Parliament, which likewise pointed a finger directly at Cutajar (not by name, but as: ‘dak il-bully’), while calling for a boycott of zoos in general.

“Do not go to zoos, don’t take your children to zoos, I don’t even go to weddings where they have exotic zoos as part of the venue,” Galea said. “Malta is not a good place to have zoos. We don’t have experts on these animals, and they are not being cared for properly.”

Now: I singled out that particular quote, out of several other possible contenders, because as far as I can see, it homes in precisely on the crux of the entire matter. It is not just that the animals themselves are often kept in entirely substandard conditions – Galea separately mentioned a case of a ‘lion being held in a basement’; and there is even a video of an empty swimming-pool housing two adult Brown Bears – but that, in his own words, ‘we don’t have experts on these animals’.

And considering that, last December, Galea had also tabled a list of at least 400 wild animals currently held in captivity in Malta:  including, among other entirely harmless creatures, “a total of 64 tigers, 20 lions, 11 leopards and 24 pumas”… (and that’s not counting all the venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions, frogs, etc…)

…what Dr Galea is effectively (and factually) saying there, is that – if we are going to permit exotic, dangerous animals to be kept in zoos in the first place… the very, VERY least we could do, is also ensure that there are minimum standards of professionalism in the administration of such facilities.

In order words, that these animals are being cared for – and human visitors properly protected – by EXPERTS.

There: not exactly rocket-science, is it?

But of course, it would be grossly unfair of me to leave out the counter-argument… so, well, here is Anton Curajar’s response [almost] in full:

“Mr Mario, if you are so adjourned about zoos, you should know that in Malta there are seven registered zoos. Is it the Arka ta’ Noe zoo that is bothering you?... the volunteers we have at the park are more than those contributing to that sorry party you destroyed…”

Hmmm. Now, closing an eye at a certain non-sequitur that appears towards the end of that ‘argument’ (we were talking about unregulated zoos a second ago: and NOT about the disastrous electoral situation the Nationalist Partly currently finds itself in…)

Well, on one level I can think of no better illustration of that ‘kick-a-tiger-in-the-nuts’ motif I mentioned earlier. Honestly, it’s almost as though Mr Cutajar is taking lessons in elocution, directly from his own zoo-animals…

But on another level entirely… not only does his answer fail to address any of Mario Galea’s actual complaints; but it goes quite some distance towards graphically confirming them all, one by one.

Let’s see, how was it again?

“Malta is not a good place to have zoos. We don’t have experts on these animals, and they are not being cared for properly…”

And here we have the owner and administrators of one of Malta’s seven unprofessional ‘zoos’, telling us all - nay, even boasting about it - that:

a) his ‘zoo’ really is run by volunteers (in other words, amateurs), and;

b) that his is only one of seven zoos that are pretty much all run along identical lines…


Honestly, though. He may as have simply said: ‘Yes Mr Galea, you’re perfectly right. There are too many of these amateur zoos in this country; and they are being administered in a way that clearly poses a potential danger to animals, visitors, and ‘staff’ alike. So, um, yeah… maybe we should do something about this problem, once and for all…

… you know: before someone ends up losing an arm… or a leg… or his life…”