‘A government that listens’… to zookeepers

‘A government that listens’… to whom, exactly? Because it very clearly cannot be to any ‘experts’ in the field, can it?

Agriculture minister Anton Refalo
Agriculture minister Anton Refalo

Having spent the last 10 or so years interviewing at least one different person a week: I found myself sympathising with my colleague Laura Calleja, in her futile efforts to a elicit a single, coherent answer from Animal Welfare Minister Anton Refalo.

In case you missed it, I’m referring to a press event this week in which Refalo launched (and here, I quote from yesterday’s MaltaToday report): “yet another round of public consultation, this time for a national animal welfare strategy…”

‘Yet another’… ‘this time’… it all already points in a certain direction, doesn’t it? But just to overlabour the point anyway: this is not exactly the first time that Anton Refalo has announced more or less the same sort of ‘public consultation exercise’ (and with ‘more or less the same fanfare’, too…)

Back in November 2020, the Animal Welfare Ministry had similarly launched a “Public consultation on […] the Keeping of Wild Animals in Zoos Regulations.” And according to the accompanying government White Paper, the objectives were: “to protect wild fauna and to conserve biodiversity by providing for the adoption of licensing, registration and inspection of zoos on the territory of Malta […]; to protect the health and well-being of animals; and to protect the public from these animals.”

But, oh well… you can already guess what happened next, can’t you? A full 18 months later, there is still no sign whatsoever of any new law regulating unlicenced zoos in Malta. Indeed, nothing at all seems to have changed, regarding the entire situation concerning ‘the keeping of wild animals’ in Malta… except, perhaps, for a few, teenie-weenie little details, here and there.

For example: just one month after the launch of that White Paper, the same Anton Refalo – answering a parliamentary question by former MP Mario Galea – revealed the sheer extent of the problem that is now his to ‘solve’.

He tabled a list of ‘just under 400 wild animals [that] are known to be kept in captivity in Malta’. And this list, we were told, “points towards a marked preference for big cats, with a total of 64 tigers, 20 lions, 11 leopards and 24 pumas…”

Naturally, this brings us to another ‘change’ that has taken place since November 2021. Over the last 18 months, the number of recorded ‘big cat attacks’ in Malta has (unsurprisingly) also increased… from at least three, to at least five.

Apart from the much-publicised recent case, in which a dog was mauled by a ‘puma and a leopard’ in Ghajnsielem, Gozo… Health Minister Chris Fearne has separately confirmed that: “A person in Malta required hospital treatment after they were bitten by an exotic animal.” (Note: it fell to this newspaper 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 ever guessed?)

To these two recent cases, we must also add the two ‘big cat attacks’ on little children that we know about so far – i.e., a boy and a girl, injured on two distinct occasions by (respectively) a tiger, and a lion; and another case, in which a woman had her arm mauled by a lion… after being encouraged (by the zoo-keeper, no less!) to ‘pet’ it, through the bars of its cage …

But in any case: all this, I suppose, only reinforces the sheer necessity of having a proper law in place, to regulate a sector which – quite evidently – poses a significant risk to human life and limb (not to mention, of course, to the health and dignity of the animals themselves).

And besides: it was also the entire point of Laura Calleja’s question to begin with… which I shall now take the liberty to paraphrase, in three distinct subsections (if nothing else, because that’s how often Anton Refalo’s non-answers forced her to repeat it).

1) What the heck happened to that “Public consultation on the Keeping of Wild Animals in Zoos Regulations,” anyway? Why is there still no corresponding legislation, almost two whole years later?

2) Did you, by any chance, simply succumb to pressure by all those ‘zoo-keepers’? [Note: You’ve got to hand it to Nicole, though: that’s kind of blunt, even by ‘Frost/Nixon’ standards…] And lastly;

3) Seeing as how nothing ever actually came of the last ‘consultation exercise’ held by your ministry… is there any particular reason why we should expect this latest one to turn out any 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 keep increasing (in both frequency, and severity), year upon year – those are not exactly unreasonable questions to ask.

Unfortunately, however, I can’t exactly say the same for Anton Refalo’s reply: which can effectively be summarised in just five words: ‘We’re a government that listens’. (Because everything else he said after that – e.g., ‘we are preparing the draft consultation”; “we’re here to draw up laws that respect animals’ dignity”, etc. etc. – was all clearly about the new Animal Welfare proposals launched this week: and nothing to do with ‘zoos’ at all…)

And… um… what do those five words actually tell us, anyway: if not that the whole point behind all these ‘public consultation exercises’, is precisely to create the illusion of ‘a government that listens’… so that ministers like Anton Refalo can keep getting way with conveniently ignoring all the things he’s supposed to even be listening to, in the first place?

For let’s face it:  there were a lot of other ways Anton Refalo could have answered that question… had he been genuinely interested in supplying any useful information, for a change.

For instance, he could have repeated the same answer he gave (once again, to a Mario Galea PQ) back in November 2021: when he revealed that “the department responsible for zoo regulation hired AIS Environment Ltd to conduct a social, environmental and economic impact assessment of the proposed zoo legislation.”

At the time, Refalo had even informed us that “the assessment is in its final stages”; and that “the report will be presented in the coming weeks”. But… well, let’s just say that the number of weeks that have elapsed since then, is actually around 72: time enough, I should think, for that final report to have been duly concluded, and submitted, as per schedule...

And yet, all these months later, there is still no sign of any published ‘social, environmental and economic impact assessment’, either. And this brings me to another small problem with Anton Refalo’s non-reply.

‘A government that listens’… to whom, exactly? Because it very clearly cannot be to any ‘experts’ in the field, can it? And it certainly doesn’t seem to have been anyone – including AIS Environment Ltd, by the way – who actually participated in that ‘public consultation exercise’, either...

Because even if none of us can realistically confirm what that ‘EIA’ specifically concluded, last November…   we can all take a fairly educated guess, just by glancing at what European legislation has to say on the subject of ‘zoos’.

For instance:  according to the European Commission’s Zoos Directive – with which, I need hardly add, any legal Maltese zoo would have to comply – animals must be accommodated: “under conditions which aim to satisfy the biological and conservation requirements 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 zoo-keepers themselves; or for Anton Refalo’s own government (if, for argument’s sake, it were ultimately forced to take direct responsibility for all those ‘400 wild animals’ itself)… I’ll limit myself only to ‘tigers’, for now.

According to most internationally-accepted standards: “It is recommended that single animals should have at least 37m² floor space, and the enclosures should be at least 3.5m high. The minimum space provided should 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 (that we know about, anyway); and that some of those majestic creatures are being kept in basements… on rooftops… in garages, etc… well,  you can just imagine the sort of investment that would be required, to make all those self-styled ‘zoos’ EU-complaint (just like that, from one day to the next…)

And that’s before we even get to the whole terraforming part: because ‘providing species-specific enrichment of the enclosures’ – and the same principle naturally applies to all those other animals, too - also implies trying to replicate that animal’s natural habitat. In a tiger’s case… that means creating a slice of artificial South-East Asian, tropical RAIN-FOREST, no less… (note: and that’s not even the toughest challenge. Take ‘mountain lions’, for example. They’d need… um… ‘MOUNTAINS’, for crying out loud!)

And of course, that’s not to mention all the other minimum requirements that would also have to be met: which include accreditation with the ‘European Zoos And Aquaria Association’; 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 there’s not much point, really, when we all also know that: a) Anton Refalo himself is surely already aware of all this (he’s still sitting on that EIA report, remember?), and b); he has already made it abundantly clear to us that… his is ‘a government that listens’, yes.

But only to ‘zookeepers’, naturally; and very clearly, to no one else…