‘Tigers’ and ‘jaguars’... in the Serengeti?

I can perfectly understand why some people are so doggedly determined to realise my own childhood ambition, and open a ‘real zoo’ in Malta

Did I ever mention that my earliest childhood ambition was to become a zoo-keeper? Actually no, wait: there was an earlier one. According to family legend, I was asked (aged four or thereabouts) ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’. Without any hesitation whatsoever, I replied: ‘an animal’.

Well, I’m pleased to report that I lived up to that early promise. I grew up to be a specimen of ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’: a somewhat obscure, nondescript branch of the primate family, granted... but an ‘animal’ nonetheless.

Still, it was not exactly what I had in mind. By ‘animal’, what I actually meant was: ‘any animal other than a human being’. But at one point I must have transferred that ambition to the next-best thing... probably after discovering that there are no University courses that can qualify you to become a professional spider monkey, tree-frog, Himalayan marmot, or lesser small-eared fruit-bat. Like so many other things in life, I suppose it’s just something you have to be born into...

All the same: if I couldn’t be the animal of my choice, I could always choose a career which would place me in close proximity to it. It started with a visit to Richmond Park Zoo in the mid-1970s – which I still vividly recall in almost alarming detail – and progressed to an obsession with books and documentaries about wildlife in general.

So it was settled: a zoo-keeper was the life for me. At one point I even joined the Dodo Club, founded by Gerald Durrell: whose ‘Beasts in My Belfry’ quickly overtook ‘My Family and Other Animals’ as that author’s most profound literary opus. (Truth be told, at that age I couldn’t give a hoot about Gerald Durrell’s family; it was the ‘other animals’ that interested me. Larry, Leslie, Margo and even Gerald himself just kept getting in the way...)

‘Beasts in My Belfry’, on the other hand, is not only more about animals than a people, but it is also specifically about zoos: building them, stocking them, maintaining them... and also justifying their existence, in the face of mounting scepticism about keeping animals in captivity solely for human enjoyment.

Until that point I had never stopped to think about why people choose to open and run such facilities in the first place. The only thing I knew was that I loved animals and wanted to get a closer look at them: and short of travelling to places like Kenya or the Amazon jungle, the only real option was to go to the zoo.

Only it wasn’t an option in Malta at the time; unless you count San Anton Gardens in Attard, which at one point was home to around two or three camels, a flock of mountain goats, a few green monkeys and at least one silver fox.

From this perspective, I can perfectly understand why some people are so doggedly determined to realise my own childhood ambition, and open a ‘real zoo’ in Malta. But going only on their efforts to date, it is at best questionable whether they share the same passion for education and conservation that ‘real zoos’ are supposed to be all about.

The latest Malta zoo-related story is particularly revealing. This week it was reported that “The Environment and Resources Authority has described a proposal to regularise the illegally-developed ‘Serengeti Animal Park’ along Dingli road in Rabat as a flagrant example of development carried out in the absence of any ‘environmental considerations whatsoever’ which has resulted in ‘illegal commitments and excessive land-take at the expense of the countryside’.

The site was originally a cow-farm, but the owners applied for a change of use to an ‘exotic animal farm’... after, it seems, the conversion works had already been carried out: “the ERA contends that the various cages, stores, paving and other scattered structures have committed the whole site which is approximately 2,400sq.m in size.”

The clinching detail, however, concerns the cages themselves: “one cage is listed as being able to hold eight tigers, another to hold three lions, another for three jaguars and one for three leopards.”

Huh? What? Wasn’t this ‘exotic animal farm’ intended to be named the ‘Serengeti Animal Park’?

That’s odd, because last I looked the real Serengeti National Park was located in Tanzania, East Africa. It is home to numerous lions and leopards, yes... but tigers? Unless there’s been a continental shift in the meantime – or Noah built a new Ark without telling us – tigers are native only to various parts of East Asia. As for jaguars, you will find them in the wild only on the South American continent.

So even without begrudging the developers their zoo-keeper ambitions – which I admit I find hard to do – you can already see that the intention behind this ‘animal park’ was not to ‘educate’ the public about wild animals at all. An authentic ‘Serengeti Animal Park’ would limit its exhibits only to animals found naturally in that region: and even then, it would not restrict itself only to the dangerous (therefore ‘exciting’) animals that people would pay most to see. If the intention was really to recreate the Serengeti atmosphere at Dingli, it would also have to include other, less overtly celebrated animals: baboons, giraffes, warthogs, wildebeest, gazelles, elephants, hippos, zebra, water buffalo, etc.

I’ll grant that it would be impossible to represent all that park’s wildlife on 2,400sq.m in Dingli road; but a proper educational approach would require a judicious selection to cover a broad range of typical Serengeti fauna – oh, and a bit of flora, too – complete with extensive information about the region. Ideally, you would also have qualified experts at hand to guide tours and answer questions: as well as audio-visual displays, bookshops, etc.

And that’s before turning our attention to the small army of veterinarians that would have to be available 24 hours a day; all the safety and security procedures and drills that would have to be in place; and above all – seeing as we are dealing with a collective responsibility towards the planet – a national regulatory legal framework to ensure that all zoos conform to at least a few basic requirements.

According to the UK’s Zoos Licensing Act of 1981, for instance, a licensed zoo would be expected to conduct:

“(i) research from which conservation benefits accrue to species of wild animals;

(ii) training in relevant conservation skills;

(iii) the exchange of information relating to the conservation of species of wild animals;

(iv) where appropriate, breeding of wild animals in captivity; and

(v) where appropriate, the repopulation of an area with, or the reintroduction into the wild of, wild animals...”

There is, in brief, a whole lot more to ‘applying for a permit to build a zoo’ than the construction/development work to be undertaken. It is partly for this reason that I gave up my own zoo-keeping ambition: apart from the sheer amount of rhinoceros dung I’d have to shovel all day, ‘Beasts in My Belfry’ also made me aware of the broader responsibilities involved. These include a responsibility towards the animals themselves – and in this case, I’d like to think the developers (who obviously must love animals) do at least have the intention to live up to it – but also to the general public, if not to the global ecology in general.

It is these latter details that appear to be missing from the local equation. Not just in relation to the Dingli proposal, but also with regard to at least one other unlicensed zoo currently operational in Malta: the Montekristo Animal Park, which – unlike the former – does indeed seem to have circumvented the most basic planning permit conditions, without facing any form of sanction from the Planning Authority.

It is for this reason that, while I agree with the ERA’s decision in this case, I cannot applaud the planning authorities for taking a stand against the ‘Serengeti Animal Park’ in Dingli. Those developers would be perfectly right to question why the PA adopted such a totally different yardstick in the Montekristo case: allowing one unlicensed zoo to operate without a permit, while refusing to retroactively sanction another.

The question becomes even more relevant when you realise that Montekristo doesn’t conform to any of the above considerations either – and there have been at least two accidents involving people injured by zoo animals: in one case, a tiger which was let out of its cage when the park was full of people.

What both cases have in common, it seems, is that the entire project – a ‘zoo in Malta’ – fails to meet the very first, entry-level requirement of any such facility, anywhere in the world.  ‘Because I want to open a zoo’ – either as a childhood ambition, or as a money-making venture – is simply not a good enough reason to go ahead and open a bleeding zoo: even with a permit, let alone without one.

But before we talk about giving out permits for zoos, we need to: a) decide if it is, or should be permissible to open a zoo in Malta at all, and; b), establish a basic legal infrastructure to regulate the permit conditions.

At present, there is only an archaic, British-era law which was clearly devised to cater for places like San Anton, first opened in 1888. I need hardly add it does not go into the educational and conservational responsibilities that should technically go with the job. So until this legislation is updated to the 21st century...  can we really blame people – even if patently unqualified – for trying to open a zoo in Malta, even if they evidently have no clue what it even entails?

My answer to that is: no, we can’t. It is both natural and understandable that people will keep trying. It is somewhat less understandable, however, that a 21st century country doggedly refuses to ever draw up laws to establish proper legal parameters for that purpose: if nothing else, at least so that any serious future applicants would know in advance what they’re really going in for.

After all, we can’t exactly complain about ‘illegal zoos’... when the entire country is one big ‘legal jungle’.

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