Time to take animal welfare more seriously | Alison Bezzina

ALISON BEZZINA has had a baptism of fire after her appointment as Animal Welfare Commissioner:  but despite threats and pressure, the long-time animal rights activist sees improvements in the standards of animal protection

Alison Bezzina
Alison Bezzina

You are the third Animal Welfare Commissioner to have been appointed since the role was established; and you are separately also a well-known animal rights activist in your own capacity. Do you yourself interpret your appointment as a sign that government is finally animal welfare more seriously?

I’d like to interpret that way; and also as an acknowledgement that – even if the former commissioners did do a lot of work – raising awareness might not have been top of the agenda, because they tended to focus on other things… and were therefore not being seen to be doing the work they did.

And yet, this is written into the law that governs the Animal Welfare Commissioner’s role. It involves increasing awareness, social dialogue and education. The first Commissioner [Emmanuel Buhagiar] was, in fact, very much ‘out there’… but he was the first; and at the time – even if it was only six years ago – the hype surrounding animal welfare, and the interest the media took in it, was not like it is today.

Even when I started my blog, ‘I Will Not Go Away’, it took a while before mainstream media started picking up on my stories, and delving into them a little more. So I can imagine the difficulties faced by the first Animal Welfare Commissioner, when the office was originally set up. He was alone, unaided; and not even sure what the role itself entailed. And he didn’t have any executive powers, either: and in this respect, the role hasn’t changed all that much…

Speaking of the difficulties involved: this week, the law-courts handed down a historic ruling, in which a man was fined €20,000 for keeping a large number of dogs in squalid conditions. Welcoming that judgment, you commented that the case was a ‘nightmare’ for everyone involved. Could you expand on that? What were the difficulties involved in bringing the culprit to justice... and how typical were they, of cases involving animal cruelty?

Firstly, it was a nightmare because any animal lover who is exposed to that type of cruelty and neglect is going to be highly affected. A real animal lover takes these things to heart, and it is emotionally and psychologically very disturbing when we come face to face with such situations.

Secondly, because of the large number of animals that had to be confiscated, we knew at the time that there would be a problem housing them. With the Ghammieri Farm always full, and the sanctuaries as well, it was not easy to find a solution.  Animal Welfare worked closely with AAA (Association for Abandoned Animals) to find a place for each and every dog. Most had medical issues which had to be treated before they were put up for adoption, and some suffered permanent damage, including blindness.  One of the confiscated bitches even gave birth to one pup – not a common occurrence - a day after confiscation.

Another concern is that – though the final outcome was positive, in this case - the court process itself is never clear-cut.  It took long; Covid delayed it further; and even though, to us, it was a crystal-clear case of abuse and neglect, we never knew for sure which way the decision was going to go…

Earlier, you commented that ‘the role hasn’t changed all that much’. Meanwhile, your immediate predecessor – former magistrate Dennis Montebello - issued a report [into the Ghammieri government farm] which took five months to get published… and which also complained about lack of staff, resources, and so on.  Couldn’t it also be argued, then, that the office itself exists to give the impression that government cares about this sector… while nothing of substance ever really changes?

I wouldn’t say so, myself. In fact, this only goes to shows that there is a lacuna in public information. Because many of the recommendations in that report were, in fact, acted upon: on three, very important aspects.

The Ghammieri animal pens themselves - which the report had found to be in a dismal state - have since been enlarged and refurbished. The conditions today are much, much better.

They have also appointed someone [Marie-Louise Arpa] very competent on adoptions; and, as activists, we feel we can sleep much more easily now, knowing she’s there. Adoptions have, to date, been very successful as a result. Dogs don’t come back, because she does her homework properly. And dogs don’t spend too much time in the pens, either. She turns things round quickly, thus ensuring that there’s always enough space.

I’m very happy about all that, myself; and I’m not saying thus just because I’m now wearing the hat of Animal Welfare Commissioner. You can ask the activists: I still have an ear on the ground with them, every single day. And the feedback I get is consistently positive.

But… these actions and improvements are still not being properly communicated. This, in fact, one of the things I will be working on. We are in the process of setting up a website, and a Facebook page, as we speak. Even the fact that – in this day and age – the Commission doesn’t have a proper online presence, tells you something about the situation as it was before…

Let’s turn to the situation as it is today. For all these improvements, the reality is that we still have laws and regulations that seem to be geared towards the exploitation of animals for human enjoyment. Owners of illegal unlicensed zoos have seen their commercial enterprises retroactively sanctioned; and just last month, a public consultation document about zoos was amended, to remove a proposed ban on animal petting. How much thought is actually being given to animal welfare by the authorities today?

I think we still have a long way to go: because the way the regulations have been drawn up has given a lot of importance to the pleasure that these animals give to humans… at the cost of the animals’ suffering.

One of the benefits of being Animal Welfare Commissioner is that, in this role, I don’t have to be impartial. My job is, in fact, to ‘take the side of the animals’. And that is what I fully intend to do. But I can also understand how a policy-maker, or a legislator, would try to balance the human side along with the animal side.

So I won’t deny that it’s a hard road ahead; but we have to take baby-steps. And besides: we have scored a few successes over the years. The banning of circuses, for instance, was one of them. And let’s not forget that there was a lot of opposition, at the time: because the people who were bringing circuses to Malta were making a lot of money out of it; and they also had the public’s support.

But we managed, all the same. Despite the lobbying, despite all the problems you mentioned – the political clout enjoyed by the people involved, etc. – we still managed to get circuses banned. So I think that, at the end of the day, persistence gets you somewhere…

Fair enough, but the pressure remains. The first thing you said, upon your appointment, was that you disagree with keeping animals in cages. As a result, you were threatened by a zoo-keeper who – in a nutshell - said he would use his clout to get you removed from your position. Regardless of the threat itself – which was, in any case, retracted - isn’t it true that people like Anton Rea Cutajar – and also Charles Polidano, owner of another public menagerie – still get to keep their caged animals, and exploit them for profit, in spite of everything?

Let me put it this way: yes, I am opposed to keeping animals in cages, on principle… and I stand by that. But in practice, the reality is that those animals are here; they’re in cages; and realistically speaking, the most we can do right now is try our best to improve the quality of those animals’ lives. My aim, right now, is to push for legislation that will gradually slow down the breeding of animals in captivity - so that, ultimately, we will have fewer captive animals in future…

But quite frankly, the closing of all zoos in Malta is something that won’t happen in my lifetime.  And I don’t want it to happen in my lifetime, either: because right now, we simply don’t have any space or resources to care for those animals. The priority, then, is to make sure the conditions they are being kept in improves as much as possible…but for the longer term, we need to stop the continued importation, unregulated breeding and trading that perpetuates the whole cycle.

Isn’t that also part of the blackmailing power these people have over legislators and policy-makers, though? That their business cannot be regulated, because government itself doesn’t have the resources to take care of the animals in question?

Yes, absolutely. And it’s not just with zoos, either. The karrozzini [horse-drawn cabbie] issue is very similar. If we had to limit karozzini so much, that there would no longer be any use for the horses… what’s going to happen to the horses? So yes: it is emotional blackmail; but unfortunately, that’s also the way it is.

In the case of zoos in particular, the blackmail isn’t even limited just to the caged animals themselves. They’re also using children with disabilities; arguing that ‘petting a tiger-cub’ has therapeutic benefits, and so on.

But even petting a dog has the same benefits. It doesn’t have to be a wild animal...

Another thing Cutajar criticised you for is that - in his own view, anyway – you ‘don’t have any real credentials for the job’…

He’s wrong about that, by the way. Even before being an activist in general, I spent three and a half years running a blog that was dedicated only, and exclusively, to animal-related stories. This involved investigating, in considerable detail, every animal-related story that came my way. So I spent three and a half years in deep, deep study about the animal welfare situation in Malta. If that doesn’t give the knowledge and experience that is required for the job… I don’t know what would.

In addition, one of the main roles of the Commission is to raise awareness, and to create social and media dialogue. My background in communications, I would think, comes in very handy in this regard. So… I think he’s quite simply mistaken, to say that I don’t have any real qualifications for the job…

… the question I was coming to, however, is that neither Cutajar himself, nor any other local zoo-owner that I know of, has any real qualifications to keep animals in captivity, either. Until recently, there were no regulations governing this sector at all. And yet, in another countries, zoos are tightly regulated; and – rightly or wrongly – they also claim to play a role in wildlife conservation. Shouldn’t that also be the case here?

There isn’t that dimension in Malta, no. The animals kept in our zoos would never survive a day in the wild. They certainly cannot be re-released. And the animals that are bred locally, are either bred to keep the local zoo population healthy… or to be exported to private collectors abroad.

But again: the reality is that – historically, and across the board – humans have always taken priority over animals. Not just in Malta, but everywhere. At the same time, however, we are seeing a slow, gradual movement in the right direction. Animal welfare is slowly climbing up the ladder: from the lowest pit of governments’ and policy-makers’ agenda, to higher levels. So to return to your original question: I think that choosing me, for this role, is just another proof that animal welfare is, in fact, being taken more seriously than ever before.

But… we still have a long way to go.