Blood on the streets in the town of Old Birgu

Last I looked, it was illegal to carry firearms in built-up areas... still less to discharge those firearms all over a small and densely populated city like that

‘Pigeon-culling’, they called it. Or to quote an actual news report: “Pigeons were controversially shot down in the historic city of Vittoriosa on Thursday afternoon in an attempt by the council to control the rising pigeon population.”

‘Pigeon culling’, huh? Funny, because what we all saw happening in the video looked like something quite different to me. I didn’t see any ‘wildlife conservationists’ performing the painful duty of keeping an unwieldy bird population to within reasonable limits, for the good of the environment as a whole.

But I did see some five trigger-happy men with air rifles, having the time of their lives simply blasting a bunch of birds out of the sky for no particular reason.

And just to drive home the point that these were nothing more than nostalgic, old-school hunters reliving the ‘good times’ they have since lost... they even dressed up for the occasion. Camouflage and all... (you know, in order to blend in better with the urban Birgu backdrop...)

Ah, what a timely reminder of the good old days... when men were men because they dressed like Rambo and carried guns; and when birds existed for no other purpose than to be shot at for the personal gratification of men (and it even says so in the Bible – Genesis 1:28)

Above all, it was a time when all this namby-pamby, ‘environmentally-aware’ business of introducing ‘hunting laws’ and ‘gun-control restrictions’ was still far, far off in the future. And by my count, precious few of those laws were not openly flouted in Birgu last Thursday: under the close supervision of the police, and with the full blessing of the local council.

Not all of them had to do with hunting, either. Last I looked, it was illegal to carry firearms in built-up areas... still less to discharge those firearms all over a small and densely populated city like that. Oh, I have no doubt that there will be some form of legalistic justification for this wholesale disregard for public safety... some proviso which allows local councils to simply defecate on the country’s laws under certain circumstances (not unlike a pigeon defecating all over your car, when you unwisely park it right under its anus.)

But even if the breach can legally be defended... those laws are there for a reason, you know. It is not just pigeons that get can hit by air-rifle pellets (Note: I don’t want to jump the gun – ahem – and guess what type of ammo they were using... but if it can kill a pigeon, it can certainly damage a human being). Watch the video again: some of those unfortunate birds were roosting on top of balconies when those five men took aim and fired. We even saw one getting shot off its perch on the balustrades of a private house.

What if the marksman missed? What if pellets blinded someone as he or she was hanging up the washing on his or her own rooftop? What if a window pane got smashed, and shards landed on a child in the room behind? And even if no one got hurt: what about damage to private property? What guarantee was there (or could there have been) that not a single pellet, out of all those fired, would get embedded in someone’s wooden balcony or window shutter?

OK, it didn’t happen... at least, not that we saw, or has been reported thus far... but still: how can such grotesquely irresponsible behaviour be not only tolerated, but actively encouraged by the local and national authorities alike?

Then there’s the small but bothersome detail about animal cruelty. I was reluctant to go in this direction... because let’s face it, it only opens up all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions that we’d all much rather avoid. People who eat meat can hardly complain about the pain and suffering of a bird hit in the wing by a smouldering piece of metal, can they? What about the cow that got its face smashed in by a hammer, so they could enjoy their Steak Tartare? What about the colony of rats that bled internally to death (ever seen the effects of strychnine in action?) because you called your local pest control agency to take care of the infestation... like anyone else would, myself included? What about that poor little cockroach you crushed to death under the sole of your shoe the other day, for no other reason that because it was there, in your field of vision...?

No, indeed. We are all too guilty of animal cruelty – most often without thinking, or even being aware of it – to suddenly get the heebie-jeebies about a bunch of birds bleeding to death on the cobbled alleyways of Birgu. But still. What an edifying sight, huh? Something to bring your children out, so they can see and remember it for long enough to convey the horror to their own children in turn.

A bunch of dead or dying birds, being scooped up off the road and dumped in a bin... leaving dark blotches of blood to show where they had fallen.

Oh, but wait... some of those birds in the bin are still alive. We can see them still writhing, and ineffectually flapping the occasional broken wing here and there. So tell you what: I’ll just give them a good whack with this shovel here, so that... um... they’ll suffer a little more unnecessary pain before dying...

We draw up a plan; we know the plan won’t work in practice; we know it will only make things worse in the long run... but who gives a pigeon’s dropping about all that, anyway?

Sorry, but there’s a limit to gratuitous cruelty for its own sake. Those people who squawk about mistreated kittens and abandoned puppy-dogs, while devouring some poor piglet’s ribcage doused in BBQ sauce... yes, they’re hypocrites. But it is a mostly indirect, and therefore more innocent, form of hypocrisy.

What we saw last Thursday was of a different order entirely... it was sadism, pure and simple, masqueraded as ‘pest-control’ on a civic level.

Which brings me to the crux of the entire matter: this grisly exercise would have been indefensible enough, even if the declared motive – i.e., ‘to control the rising pigeon population’ – were actually achieved in the process. But that is not what’s going to happen... not, at least, unless they perform the same operation EVERY SINGLE DAY... and the Birgu local councillors cannot claim the excuse that they were unaware of the consequences of their own actions.

They had been specifically warned that ‘pigeon-culls’ using this method have proven spectacularly counter-productive everywhere they’ve been tried. And they were told precisely why, too: it is a simple scientific explanation that doesn’t even require any specific scientific knowledge to understand.

Again, this is how it was reported: “Within a matter of weeks following a culling operation, pigeon numbers would have risen back up to the pre-cull level and in many cases exceeded it. This was because culling had the effect of rejuvenating the flock by removing older non-breeding birds and leaving the prolifically breeding juvenile birds in place.”

That was the conclusion of research carried out by the University of Basel in Switzerland; but anyone who’s ever worked in wildlife conservation could easily have told them the same thing. Heck, even the hunters’ association FKNK could have said so... if it were in its interest to do so, naturally. It’s an argument they themselves use often enough: hunting is recognised as ‘a valid tool for conservation’, precisely because – when well-monitored and regulated, etc – it can have the same effect as described above.

(Note: it is an argument that works admirably for birds which are overabundant and need to have their populations controlled for various reasons – because, for instance, they are impacting other species, etc. It kind of falls flat on its face when applied to the hunting of endangered species, or during the breeding season... but let’s not get sidetracked).

So, to recap: the Birgu local council knew perfectly well this was not the proper (or safest) way to go about things; they knew (or should have known) that it would only exacerbate the problem it was ostensibly trying to solve... yet they went ahead and did in anyway. And as we all saw in the video... had a lot of fun doing it, too.

Why? The immediate answer any hard-boiled cynic would come up with is: ‘to guarantee larger pigeon populations they can all have fun shooting at in future, of course. Why else?’ But I, for one, haven’t quite reached that level of cynicism yet.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my own answer. Because that’s the way everything else happens in Malta, too. We draw up a plan; we know the plan won’t work in practice (because, as usual, we ignored all scientific advice when drawing it up); we know it will only make things worse in the long run... but who gives a pigeon’s dropping about all that, anyway? We go ahead with it anyway, because...

... well, the usual answer is that someone, somewhere will be benefiting from the status quo. Exactly who, in this particular case, admittedly remains unclear: but it sure isn’t the pigeons; it’s not going to be the residents of Birgu... and about the last thing it will ever be is the environment as a whole.

So perhaps it’s just as well that those five men, at least, got to have a little fun. As far as I can see, it’s the only point there ever was in the whole bloody exercise.

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