Stop exotic animal imports, says group seeking controls on zoos

Time For Change argues conditions in which animals are kept is not in line with accepted welfare standards

An animal welfare group wants minister Anton Refalo to overhaul the laws regulating zoos, and a memorandum to stop the importation of exotic species.

Time For Change argued that the conditions in which animals are kept is not in line with accepted welfare standards.

“There is a growing concern regarding the number of wild species kept in Maltese zoos and their uncontrolled breeding,” Ariane Aquilina told MaltaToday, referring to European directives on the keeping of wild animals in zoos.

She said that the legal obligation of zookeepers, as transposed to Maltese laws, had been kept vague, creating issues for their application and enforcement. “Zoos are a complex and multidisciplinary issue, but we consider that the legislation regulating the area needs to be amended to create a more structured set of regulations and, in turn, facilitate more effective enforcement,” Aquilina said.

Time For Change drafted proposals for clearer laws which will include stronger enforcement, more stringent licensing requirements and accreditation from internationally recognised bodies.

They want zoo licences to be issued for definite periods, and amended when the zoo acquires a new animal. The licensee would have to submit Planning Authority permits for their enclosures and environmental impact assessments to make sure the zoo is operating in line with standards.

They want licence-holders to prove that their animals are acquired legally, and detail how their establishment aims to conserve biodiversity, provide public education and protect animal welfare.

They also said that inspectors should carry out spot-checks and ensure zoo operators uphold stringent record-keeping.

Aquilina admitted that the group’s proposals would not make it easy for zoos to operate, but argued that animals were sentient beings, a fact recognised by Maltese law. “It is important that we highlight the unique requirements that every species requires, and put the onus on the owners of these establishments to provide them.”

Aquilina also said a revision of the law was needed to ensure the safety of the public. “There have been cases in the past where wild animals have injured children because the owners of these establishments are not taking the proper precautions,” she said, referring to the 2015 Montekristo zoo incident in which a three-year-old boy was attacked by a tiger, who at the time was being held on a leash.

“I think one of the most difficult things to explain to people is that while you may genuinely love an animal, the situation you may be putting them in might not be good for them. Love and welfare are not the same thing,” she said.

Aquilina said humans often suffered from the misconception that what is good enough for them is good for animals. “You often see people comment positively on social media on ‘clean’ animal enclosures. That may be good enough for humans but one needs to take into consideration that a tilted enclosure is not a suitable habitat for a tiger. Every species has its own requirements.”

Aquilina, whose group Time For Change is against zoos, said she sees the benefit of nature reserves, or zoos with conservation programmes in place. But she criticised purely profit-driven establishments.

“From what we see in Malta, the establishments are purely for profit. There is no research to suggest they are contributing in any sort of way to conservation. But we understand that these animals need to be taken care of, and the State has no place to house them.”

Aquilina said shutting down the zoos would create more problems on housing animals, and relocating wild animals abroad does not guarantee their welfare. “We are trying to tackle this problem with a more practical approach to ensure that the animals do not suffer further. That’s why an overhaul of the system is required, with a memorandum to stop the importation of exotic species, as the majority of these animals end up in zoos.”

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