And we call animals ‘wild’…

If you want to pay for the privilege of watching a psychologically traumatized Siberian tiger, pacing miserably about in a confined, mostly-concrete environment, with not so much a tree or a patch of grass to break the monotony… well, you can

Maltese puma owner in Fgura
Maltese puma owner in Fgura

I was about to headline this article: ‘It really is a jungle out there’… but then I got a distinct feeling of deja-vu. Didn’t I already use that headline once before? And wasn’t the accompanying article also about how Malta’s planning and ‘animal welfare’ authorities seem to be in collusion with an entirely illegal trade in exotic/endangered wild animals…?

So I did, as a quick Internet search confirms. It was in November 2016; and the article was about the Planning Authority’s astonishing decision to retroactively sanction an illegal, unlicensed, yet fully operational ‘zoo’ in Siggiewi.

This small excerpt should give you a rough idea: “[Noah’s Ark  Zoo], which includes a white lion, two Siberian tigers, a black panther, monkeys, zebras, reindeer and emus, was irregularly developed over a 10,565 square metre site – the area of two football grounds – in a site known as Ta’ Bur ix-Xewk in Siggiewi...”

‘Irregularly developed’, in this context, means that the zoo had been conceived, built, and eventually stocked with wild/endangered animals… all without bothering to even apply for a planning permit. So much so, that the owner/developer went on to apply to have it sanctioned in February 2014: by which time, the whole shebang was already up and running.

No prizes for guessing how that decision went in the end. For one thing: Noah’s Ark Zoo it is still open for business today. If you want to pay for the privilege of watching a psychologically traumatized Siberian tiger, pacing miserably about in a confined, mostly-concrete environment, with not so much a tree or a patch of grass to break the monotony… well, you can (though personally, I’d be damned if I understood the attraction.)

For another: had the application-to-sanction been rejected, the Noah’s Ark zoo would have been forced to close down; and because ‘lions, tigers and panthers’ are not exactly the easiest pets to rehome… we would have had a full-blown animal welfare emergency on our hands.

But like I said, this was the substance of an article I wrote two years ago. If I bring it up again today, it’s only because the same pattern just keeps repeating itself in this country, over and over again. ‘First break the law… then get the authorities to retro-actively legalise your illegal actions.’ And the bigger the illegality, the bigger the practical problems involved in enforcing the law… so the likelier you are to eventually get your crime ‘Okayed’ by the authorities.

‘Noah’s Ark zoo’ is, in fact, just a larger-scale version of a much more widespread trend, which now also extends to household pets. This week, photos emerged of a big cat – which eventually turned out to be a North American mountain lion – kept in what seems to be a tiny (and completely bare) rooftop cage in Fgura.

Yet when the Animal Welfare department was alerted to this appalling act of animal cruelty – not to mention an affront to global conservation efforts: the mountain lion being on the verge of extinction (the Eastern subspecies was in fact declared extinct just this year) – its response was that… there’s ‘nothing illegal’, because the animal is ‘registered’.

Erm… excuse me for pointing out the obvious, but that’s the crux of the entire problem, right there.  It’s not that the owner doesn’t have all the necessary paperwork to justify owning a mountain lion (though perhaps it should be… more of this in a sec); it is that an adult mountain lion is being kept in conditions that would definitely be illegal, if it were a dog.

Funny, isn’t it? We live in a country where there are laws against keeping your pet dog caged or chained on the roof… but your pet mountain lion? An animal which needs infinitely more space and exercise than a dog? That’s perfectly OK. In fact, you can keep one in a chicken wire cage on the roof in the middle of a densely populated urban environment - with nothing to climb on, no greenery, not the ghost of any attempt to replicate its natural habitat in any way – and as far as the Animal Welfare Directorate is concerned… no problem whatsoever.

So I suppose they’d see nothing wrong with me keeping an entire pride of lions locked away in an underground cellar, without ever seeing the light of day… or how about a small herd of endangered White Rhinos, confined to an empty swimming pool? It doesn’t really matter what endangered animals you keep, or how/where you keep them…. as long as you can produce all the necessary importation certificates on demand, you can keep any animal you like, in whatever lousy, substandard conditions you bloody well choose.

And they have the temerity to call themselves the ‘Animal Welfare’ department. (Note: I’d be happy to suggest a change of name… but all the examples coming to my head right now are too rude to publish).

All the same, however: before any of this happened, there was (and still is) the shocking case of the equally illegal Montekristo Zoo in Hal Farrug, limits of Siggiewi.

This equally illegal establishment also houses tigers and other big cats… and it is likewise still allowed to operate, even though: a) it was never licensed as a zoo to begin with; and b) at least two children have been injured in the past three years, in separate mauling incidents involving tigers. 

There is, after all, more than just ‘animal welfare’ at stake here. Zoos can be dangerous places even at the best of times: just last week, someone got mauled while trying to take a ‘selfie’ too close to a black jaguar’s cage… at an otherwise fully licensed and above-board zoo in Arizona. Two years earlier, an adult gorilla named Harambe was shot and killed after a small child fell into its Cincinnati zoo enclosure.

Both incidents took place in professionally administered zoos which conform to all the legal prerequisites. Just imagine how much likelier they are to occur in an establish like Montekristo: where the management is so hopelessly clueless, that it even allowed an adult tiger out of its cage during peak visiting hours (note: that was the cause of one of those two child-mauling incidents).

Make no mistake: in any country where things like animal welfare and safety are taken seriously… both the Montekristo and Noah’s Ark zoo would be instantly closed down, with legal action taken against the proprietors (and that Fgura puma would be released, and returned to the wild).

Personally, I was under the impression that it is illegal to build even a spare toilet without a permit… let alone an entire compound full of exotic, wild and potentially lethal animals. But the more serious illegality concerns getting hold of those animals in the first place. Leaving aside the puma, which seems to have been legally imported (if illegally treated afterwards)… the stark truth is that one does not simply walk into any old local pet shop, and buy a Siberian tiger-cub over the counter.

This may come as a surprise to the PA/Animal Welfare department… but Malta is signatory to numerous conventions against the illegal trade in exotic animals: especially critically endangered animals like Siberian tigers (of which there are fewer than 600 specimens in the wild), and rare variations such as the black panther: an animal so elusive, that a recently photographed wild specimen is believed to be the first-ever sighting since the 1920s.

There is simply no way in hell – at least, outside the official, internationally-regulated ‘real zoo’ circuit – that such animals can be acquired legally: especially for an unlicensed zoo, or (even less) as household pets.

So by sanctioning facilities which clearly must have broken international animal trafficking laws, Malta’s regulatory framework has only allowed itself to become complicit in the illegal trade of critically endangered animals.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the Maltese authorities that don’t seem to remotely give a toss about such issues as ‘conservation’, ‘health and safety’, ‘animal welfare’… or even just law abidance in general. The general public, too, seems perfectly content to take their kids to an unlicensed zoo - containing dangerous animals, and run by a bunch of unqualified, inexperienced and amateur dilettantes – without even pausing to consider the possible risks. 

Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that their children themselves are so clearly blameless… people like that almost deserve to watch their kids dismembered and devoured by a hungry tiger, before their very eyes. It seems to be the only thing that will ever force them to realise that this sort of thing is illegal… and illegal for a very good reason.

Just as you need a medical warrant to practice as a doctor… you need official certification to own and manage a zoo. In both cases, failure to observe that basic principle can (and often does) result in DEATH.

All too often, it will be the caged, mistreated animal – and not the privileged animal exploiting it - to pay the ultimate price for human greed and ego. And yet – just to prove that there really is no justice in the universe - it is the caged, mistreated animal we call ‘wild’.

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