Commissioner proposes time-limited amnesty on unregistered exotic animals

Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina proposes ‘time-limited amnesty’ to curb illegalities in the wake of police investigation into suspected dog attack by wildcats in Għajnsielem

Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina
Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina

Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina has proposed a “time-limited amnesty” on unregistered wild animals to curb illegalities.

She said lack of enforcement in Malta has created a situation of uncontrolled numbers of exotic animals.

“Although this had already occurred in the past, since then very little enforcement was exerted, and this resulted in the proliferation of more dangerous animals in inappropriate environments,” she said. “We should find a way to have all the dangerous animals that are currently not registered with the authorities, come out from under the radar.”

The commissioner was reacting to the confiscation of a puma and black panther by authorities after a suspected dog attack at a residence in Għajnsielem.

The commissioner would not be drawn into discussing the merits of the Gozo case, which is subject to an ongoing investigation, but she acknowledged enforcement has been weak.

“We know that enforcement has been weak and that over the years several dangerous animals that were imported or bred locally are now living on roofs, in residences and garages, unregistered and under the radar of the authorities,” she said.

The animals have been confiscated at their owners’ house as the state does not have the facilities to care for them. Sources close to the investigation told MaltaToday that the wildcats were found in a residence in Għajnsielem and were not covered by the necessary permits and documentation.

“One of the main hurdles is that the State does not have the facilities to confiscate and home such animals, but the situation requires some kind of action before it’s too late,” Bezzina said.

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The commissioner said that as the situation drags on, it is causing more suffering to animals and posing more danger to humans and other animals.

“Should one of these dangerous animals escape, or perhaps be abandoned, there would be havoc on the island and it is unlikely to end well for the animal and humans alike. Is this what we’re waiting for to act?” she said.

Bezzina, who has been against the keeping of wild animals, said people cannot replicate the natural habitats of big cats, no matter how hard they try.

“Wild cats such as the black panther live mainly in hot, dense tropical rainforests. They are naturally nocturnal, they hunt by night and spend most of the day resting. When running they can reach up to 80km per hour and can leap up to 12 metres,” Bezzina said.

“How, with all good intentions and money in the world, can a keeper ever replicate anything that even comes close to this natural environment, especially when they are keeping such animals in private residences? It is impossible and therefore cruel.”

Animal rights NGO Time for Change also expressed concern over the incident. “Ownership of exotic pets in Malta is not appropriately regulated and the law in question is confusing and ineffective and does not prioritize welfare.”

“It is crucial that the authorities recognise the ongoing situation and re-consider their firm stance of seemingly avoiding talking with involved and qualified stakeholders, other than zoo owners and exotic pet keepers, and firmly place animal welfare and public safety at the top of their priority list.”

Zoos impact assessment yet to be published

Meanwhile, an impact assessment of new zoo regulations proposed in a White Paper published by government last year is ongoing. Despite promising last November that the assessment was in its final stages and will be published soon, the study has not been released.

The new rules were meant to tighten restrictions on zoos but a proposal to ban wildcat cub petting was dropped soon after it was proposed following pressure from zoo owners.

Questions sent to the Animal Rights Ministry on 7 January on the White Paper and the impact study have remained unanswered, despite repeated reminders.