Zookeeping rules still not yet published

Consultation on revamp for zoo rules meets disapproval from owners, and still not yet available on government website

Wild Life Park owner Chris Borg with one of his lions
Wild Life Park owner Chris Borg with one of his lions

A call for better regulations for zoos became louder in September when an animal welfare group launched a petition for tighter controls on the importation of exotic species. Since then, animal rights minister Anton Refalo announced an overhaul of laws regulating zoos, ‘launching’ a public consultation on draft rules to neuter wild species in Malta, as well as banning wild animal petting, a staple attraction of zoos in Malta.

But the draft legal notices has not yet been added to the government’s public consultations website, despite the ministry saying citizen submissions would start as from last Tuesday.

No comment was forthcoming from the ministry on the apparent change of heart: source say Refalo has had to contend with a raft of complaints from zoo owners that have made their displeasure clear with Castille.

A draft legal notice seen by MaltaToday shows a complete overhaul of the three-page regulations first issued in 2003.

Amendments dictate that while the zoo keeper will be responsible for the health and welfare of the animals, no wild animal cub must be exposed to handling by the public. “This may compromise the normal mother/cub relationship and may also compromise the psychological integrity of the animal and the safety of the public,” according to new regulations.

It will also be illegal for wild animals being kept at zoos to leave the housing enclosure except in cases where deemed necessary by the Veterinary Services director.

Any physical contact shall be made illegal unless by a trained professional or contractor of the zoo, a warranted veterinarian or veterinary student, or an individual directly supporting a conservation programme. Any exemptions must be issued by the animal welfare director.

Animals being kept in zoos will have to be kept in records at the zoo, with their name, address and origin.

The animal’s medical history and documents related to its importation or transfer must also be archived.

Another significant amendment is the neutering of all dangerous animals at zoos within six months since changes are introduced.

Captive breeding will also not be allowed, with exemptions given by the director on grounds of species conservation or through collaboration with an approved research facility.

But the proposed rules have received flak from zoo owners who claim the procedure is not beneficial to the animal’s well-being.

Zoo keepers must also be in possession of insurance which acts as a safeguard for any potential loss or damage animals may cause. The keeper must be in possession of the insurance before the licence is issued.

The new legal notice also goes into further detail on the structural specifications needed for the keeping of wild animals at zoos. Enclosures should be in accordance with the animal’s physiological and behavioural needs, with the allocated space for sufficient exercise and movement. The enclosure should also provide the suitable enrichment according to the animal species in question, with the appropriate climatic conditions.

To improve surveillance, the director may impose that the sites are monitored by closed circuit television system (CCTV) for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Recordings of the previous three months must remain available for production upon request by the director.

In the event that licensing conditions are not met, or regulations are not adhered to, the zoo shall be closed to the public by the director with the help of police.

Zookeepers’ reactions

Up until April 2020, six zoos were registered in Malta – The Wild Life Park in Rabat, the Malta National Aquarium, Siggiewi’s Noah’s Ark, The Malta Falconry Centre, the Salini Bird Park and Reserve, and the Mediterraneo Marine Park.

Reacting to the new legislation, Wild Life Park owner Chris Borg expressed his displeasure at government’s proposals. “I cannot understand how the minister never came here, never consulted with us, and now issues new regulations. At a time when we need help the most, they lay out more hurdles,” he said.

He also put the blame on “animal lover NGOs”.

“These NGOs think they know a lot about animals, but in reality, they don’t have any knowledge. They don’t really love animals,” he said.

Anton Cutajar, from Noah’s Ark, said he now approved the rules, even though this is a far cry from his initial reaction when the public consultation was reported by the media. “We agree with legislation, and we agree with prosecution of those that don’t abide by that regulation. We also agree with fees and penalties for those who do not provide the right enclosure and well-being for the animals,” he said.

Cutajar had previously took to Facebook to hit out at the rules. Cutajar, whose illegally-built zoo was green-lit by the Planning Authority in an egregious case of sanctioning, vehemently protested plans by the animal welfare ministry to disallow the public from touching wild animals. “Who are you to dictate what we do? I know you’re picking on me, but don’t worry… the agenda is not on animals, but against myself,” he had said.

Cutajar now said he was consulting with vets in order to be better informed on the prohibition of cub petting and neutering.

Kevin Mallia from the Bird Park and Reserve stated that the park was not really affected by the proposed amendments. “The issue is with big cat owners. They have cub litters and they don’t know what to do with them. So personally, we can’t say that we will be witnessing much change ourselves,” he said.

MaltaToday reached out to the Malta National Aquarium and Mediterraneo Marine Park, and the Malta Falconry Centre, but received no reaction.

List of wild animals in owning and keeping of dangerous animals regulations

  • The Western and Eastern Grey Kangaroos, the Wallaroo and the Red Kangaroo
  • Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orang-utans and Gorillas
  • Giant Armadillo
  • Giant Anteater
  • Wild Dogs, Wolves, Jackals, Bush Dog, Foxes, Racoon Dogs and Dingo
  • Tigers, Pumas, Lion, Lynx, Jaguar and Cheetah
  • Bears, Giant Panda and Red Panda
  • Walrus, Eared Seal
  • Elephants
  • Rhinoceros
  • Giraffe and Okapi
  • Hippopotamus
  • Alligators and Caimans
  • Crocodile
  • Snakes like the Viper
  • Venomous snakes like the Cobra and Coral Snakes
  • Wandering Spiders
  • Widow Spiders