Laws don’t protect animals. Enforcement does | Mario Galea

In the wake of last Monday’s dog-attack, former MP MARIO GALEA argues that Malta already has laws to effectively deal with such cases. What it lacks, however, are ‘the right people, with the right tools’, to actually enforce them

Mario Galea
Mario Galea

Throughout your Parliamentary career, you have consistently highlighted issues where ‘animal rights’ somehow converge with ‘human criminality’: dog-fighting; unregulated zoos; the regulation of dog-breeding; etc. etc.  And yet – as evidenced last Monday: when a self-styled ‘dog-breeder’ was attacked by his own dogs (while facing manslaughter charges, over the fatal mauling of his own grandmother in 2020) – these issues clearly remain ‘unaddressed’. So first of all: why do you think Maltese governments have always been so reluctant, to tackle the purely ‘criminal’ aspects of animal welfare?

Let me put it this way: in Malta, politicians always pay a lot of lip-service to animal welfare, before every election.... only to immediately forget all about it, the very next day. 

And by ‘politicians’, I don’t just mean ‘Labour’ or ‘Nationalist’. As I always used to say, when I was still involved in politics myself: this has nothing to do with ‘Red or Blue’. Both parties have always been equally guilty; in fact, the only ones who are entirely blameless, in all this, are the animals themselves.

The problem with animals, however, is that they don’t have a vote. That’s their only ‘fault’, as it were... and let’s face it: if animals did have a vote, it would be a totally different story. Politicians would be chasing after them, every single day of the week...

But we all know how it is, in reality. As far as local politicians are concerned, animals are nothing more than ‘disposable commodities’: to be exploited for all they’re worth, before every election... and then discarded, the moment they are of no further political use. 

The real problem, however, is that Maltese politicians don’t actually see it that way, themselves. If you ask them – as I have done, countless times, in Parliament -  ‘What have you ever done for animal welfare, in this country?’... they will say things like: “Look at all the legislation we’ve passed! Look at the Animal Welfare Act! (etc, etc.)”  

And it’s true, you know. Malta HAS, in fact, passed a lot of very good legislation to protect animals, over the years. Then again, however: what’s the point in even having all these laws... if we never get around to actually enforcing any of them? 

Let’s face it: without proper enforcement, laws like the ‘Animal Welfare Act’ aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on. And last Monday’s incident was a classic case in point. 

For example: your newspaper carried a story, in which the excuse given by the Animal Welfare Director [Pauline Azzopardi], for not immediately intervening to remove the dogs from the residence, was that ‘she was concerned for the safety of her staff’. Or words to that effect, anyway... 

Actually, I have the quote right here. Her exact words were: “I was not going to put any AWD personnel in danger by just sending them to the house where they would have to face these dangerous dogs.” 

Precisely. But that was just an excuse. The real version of events – and I can easily prove this, if anyone says otherwise – is that the AWD took so long to actually intervene (well over 24 hours, in the end) because they were ‘waiting for the police to arrive...’

Sorry to interrupt: but on what basis can you confirm that, exactly?

On the basis that: I followed this case from the beginning; and when I realised that those dogs had been left unfed, all that time, while the authorities were still decidingwhether or not to take any action... I took it upon myself – as is my right, as an animal-loving citizen of this country – to call the Animal Welfare Directorate in person, and ask for an explanation. 

And what they told me, over the phone, was along the lines that: ‘they could not take any action, legally, until the police were physically present on site to authorise it’. 

But not even this answer - which I know, for a fact, to be the correct one – is true. In reality, the AWD does NOT require any ‘police authorisation’, at law, to intervene in such cases. The Animal Welfare Act itself empowers the AWD to take precisely that sort of action, on its own initiative.  

And I know this, because I was one of the MPs who passed that particular amendment through Parliament. So I also remember all the discussions, at all the various committee stages: when we consulted vets, and all sorts of other experts, to come up with what was even described as – believe it or not - a ‘breakthrough’ in animal rights legislation! 

Because that’s how it was presented, at the time: as though both sides of the House had just reached an ‘unprecedented agreement’, that would grant the AWD ‘extraordinary powers’ – including even ‘kicking down doors’, wherever necessary – to be able to ‘rescue animals in distress’; and all the rest of it...  

But... Ha! [Sarcastic laugh] We can all see, with our own eyes, just how much good that ‘breakthrough legislation’ actually turned out to be, in practice...

And this is the point that I have always tried to get across, in Parliament; and which I am still trying to get across, today. It’s all very well and good, to have all the right legislation in place. But ‘laws’ - in and of themselves - make no difference whatsoever, in the daily lives of animals that are suffering.

It is only through ENFORCEMENT of those laws, that we can ever hope to make a real difference. Everything else, is just ‘words on a piece of paper’...

At the risk of appearing to ‘defend’ the AWD director, however: Pauline Azzopardi also told this newspaper that, “We are lacking staff and space to keep these dangerous dogs. [...] We would like to collect every single dangerous dog, but we cannot do it without space to keep them, and the staff to do it.” Doesn’t she have a small point, there?  

Yes, she does. In fact, I myself have always argued that -  for the Animal Welfare Directorate to function properly - it needs to be provided with ‘adequate facilities’, and ‘adequate personnel’. 

In practice, however, we all know what the real situation is. As far as I know, the AWD only has one Animal Ambulance, currently in service, to cover the entire country. But for argument’s sake – because I could be wrong, at the end of the day – let’s say that it has two: one for the north (including Gozo), and one for the south. 

Sorry, but... by what stretch of the imagination, can just ‘two Animal Ambulances’ possibly be considered ‘sufficient’, to cater for the needs of ALL Malta’s animal emergences? (Let alone ‘just one’: which is how many there really are?) 

And the same goes for the facilities to house all the rescued animals. I mean: what is even the point of rescuing any dogs, at all... if all we’re going to do, in practice, is simply ‘throw them all in’, together with a bunch of other rescued dogs – in one of Malta’s already severely overcrowded animal shelters – just so that we find them dead, the following morning? Because the other dogs – being, through no fault of their own, ‘territorial’ in nature – simply ‘tore them to pieces’? 

But anyway... I could go on like this forever (because that’s how long it feels like I’ve been complaining about these issues) but let’s stick to the matter at hand. No, the existing facilities are very clearly NOT ‘sufficient’... but then, it’s not just ‘adequate facilities’ that are needed: but also, ‘adequate people’. 

By which I mean: people who have been properly trained, and equipped, to actually handle real-life animal situations, on the ground (in exactly the same way as a doctor, or nurse, will be ‘properly trained’ to handle real-life medical emergencies.)

In other words: not the type of people who will have been sent to work in the Animal Welfare Directorate, just because ‘they’re from the Minister’s district’... or ‘to do them a favour’; or for any other reason, that has nothing to do with ‘Animal Welfare’, at all.

Now: just to be clear, I’m not referring to Pauline Azzopardi herself, with that remark. I happen to know her personally: she is a nurse by profession; and we were colleagues at Mater Dei for a while. As such, I can vouch for the fact that Pauline Azzopardi herself is a fully committed animal lover: of that, there is no doubt whatsover.

But that only brings me to another point: being an ‘animal lover’ is obviously going to be an important pre-requisite, for anyone wanting to work in this particular sector. But it’s not the only one. 

Apart from needing to have the ‘right people’, the AWD also needs to provide its staff with all the training, and equipment, to deal with the sort of situations they might arise.

Because let’s face it: today’s animal welfare sector, is not the same as it used to be 10 or 15 years ago.  It’s no longer just about ‘cats and dogs’: nowadays, the Animal Welfare Directorate might find itself having to cope with an escaped lion... or a tiger... or a venomous snake... or even a bear! Because there are bears in Malta now, too: and crocodiles; and zebras... and God only knows what else...

For the record: it was actually in response to one of your own PQS, in 2021, that Parliament released a full list of all ‘exotic animals’ known to be kept in Malta. Among the 70 species listed were: ‘120 big cats’ – including lions, tigers, pumas, leopards, jaguars, etc. – three brown bears; at least one zebra; and many, many more. But go on...

Well, my point is that - at any given moment -  any one of those animals could easily escape from where it is currently being kept, and have to be rescued: as, in fact, has already happened. In 2013, for instance, the AWD was called out to deal with a ‘five-foot boa constrictor’, that had escaped from a private residence near the Junior College in Msida... 

These, in a nutshell, are the sort of realities the Animal Welfare directorate has to actually deal with, nowadays. Not to mention the fact that the most dangerous ‘animals’ involved, by far, are actually ‘people’... like the owner of those dogs which attacked him this week [Andre Galea]; and whose own grandmother was actually killed by other dogs - also belonging to the same person - just two years ago...

Now: sorry to keep ‘jumping from one thing, to another’ – that’s what usually happens, whenever I get started on this subject – but... what was the point, might I ask, of Minister Anton Refalo even coming out to tell us that: ‘Ah, but the dogs which had killed his grandmother in 2020, were not the same ones of today’? 

[Pause] So bloody what, if the dogs were different? The problem, very clearly, is that the OWNER was the same, in both cases... and - let’s face it – if, in the space of two years, one-and-the-same-person somehow has the effect of turning ‘different dogs’, into ‘killing machines’, overnight... doesn’t that tell you – right there and then - that something, somewhere, is... WRONG? And that the problem is actually much worse, than if ‘the dogs really were the same’: because it also means that ANY dog, coming into contact with this particular individual, is going to start manifesting ‘uncontrollable, aggressive behaviour patterns’?

I mean: it’s not exactly ‘rocket science’, at the end of the day... 

And yet: despite all this – and also, the fact that the vets who examined those dogs, testified that they had exhibited ‘scars consistent with dog-fighting’ – Andre Galea was permitted to continue keeping as many as ‘six-to-eight pit-bull terriers’, in his Msida residence. Which brings me back to the question I started with: do you see a connection, between the criminal/delinquent behaviour manifested by this individual... and the fact that people like him seem to always enjoy ‘immunity’, in this country?

Let me put it this way: I don’t have any information, myself, to the effect that people like Andre Galea are being actively ‘protected’, so to speak, by the authorities. 

What I can safely say, however, is that – whether it’s because they are ‘protected’; or whether it’s because Maltese politicians just don’t care, either way... they certainly do seem to ‘enjoy immunity’, yes. 

And bear in mind also that – if we even know anything at all, about this particular case – it’s only because ‘what happened, happened’... and we all got to find out. But let’s face it: it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

God only knows, how many other similar cases there will be, out there – even now, as we speak – of dogs (and other animals) that are being kept in the same conditions; that are being exploited, for the purpose of dog-fighting, or other criminal acts...  but that we never get to find about, at all. 

But that brings me back to the point I was making earlier. These are now the realities that the Animal Welfare Authorities have to actually face, in their line of duty... and as such, the sort of skills that are required, go well beyond merely ‘being animal lovers’; or simply being ‘good with animals’, and all that.... 

In today’s landscape, there is an entire range of highly specialised skill-sets that are needed, to deal with the sort of situations that might arise. Simply put: to be effective – and to actually enforce all these wonderful ‘animal welfare laws’, that we always boast about - the AWD needs to be provided with ‘the right people; the right training; and the right tools.’ 

And let’s not beat about the bush, here. That is not what’s happening right now, is it?