[WATCH] Malta’s controversial zoos could get ‘research’ and conservation lifeline in proposed rules

Xtra on TVM News Plus | Animal Rights Parliamentary Secretary Alicia Bugeja Said argues in favour of zoos, insisting they serve 'a number of functions' and says new rules will force zoo keepers to do research on animal conservation

Animal Rights Parliamentary Secretary Alicia Bugeja Said
Animal Rights Parliamentary Secretary Alicia Bugeja Said

The government could plan to regularise zoos by introducing a ‘research’ element into their animal conservation efforts.

New zoo rules could make zookeepers carry out research on animal conservation, animal rights parliamentary Alicia Bugeja said on Xtra on TVMNewsplus.  “Zoos serve a number of functions, including crucial research in preserving animal genetics.”

A proposed law regulating Maltese zoos has been in abeyance for 18 months now. “It is a process which needs to be implemented through the new law. The zoo legislation will see amendments which would see the zoo operators having to carry out research on conservation,” she said.

But Xtra host Saviour Balzan retorted by asking how government could expect zoo owners – who have carried out illegal development and owned exotic animals without a permit – to actually participate in such research.

“If the legal framework was not strong enough to force that research, we will see to it now in the new legislation. Let’s look at the success in conservation there was at zoos beyond our shores,” Bugeja Said said.

She said the 2003 laws were not strong enough in helping authorities carry out the needed enforcement.

Bugeja Said toed the zookeepers’ line in arguing that people have the right to observe exotic animals in their own country. She also said government will be applying international legislation to the Maltese context.

The keeping of exotic animals in Malta was thrown under the spotlight in November 2020, after government published new regulations on the sector. Minister Anton Refalo had said an impact assessment for the proposed legal changes was finalised in February 2021, but the report is yet to be published.

Once the ministry evaluates the assessment in total, a legal notice will be published to overhaul the 2003 Keeping of Wild Animals in Zoos law. However, so far, no new legislation has been proposed and asked recently about the outcome of the consultation exercise, Refalo was unable to commit to the new zoo rules.

The announcement of the public consultation saw controversial figures like zoo keeper Anton Cutajar unleashing a scathing attack on journalists and animal rights activists alike. The reaction prompted government to do a U-turn on certain aspects of the proposed changes and eventually to go slow on the whole reform.

READ ALSO: Zoo regulations U-turn: Draft rules changed after 24 hours to allow petting of wild animals

Janice Chetcuti
Janice Chetcuti

The Nationalist Party's spokesperson on animal welfare, and long-time animal activist Janice Chetcuti disagreed with Bugeja Said’s reasoning.

“In 2009, the Lisbon treaty outlined the five fundamental freedoms which animals should have. One of these is that the animal retains its natural behaviour,” Chetcuti said. “And zoos take that right away.”

She said that if people want to see exotic animals, they have to observe them in their natural habitat. “In a Maltese zoo, you are not seeing a lion or a tiger, you are seeing a demoralised animal.”

Activist Romina Frendo
Activist Romina Frendo

Interviewed during the first part of the programme, activist Romina Frendo argued on the need for more enforcement when it comes to the safeguarding of animal rights in the country.

“Let’s look at the dog microchipping law. It was one of the most famous laws, but if you look at the situation in shelters, you find a large number of dogs which are not microchipped, and so you don’t know where this dog came from,” she said.

She said education is key in amending the situation, but insisted on a “multifaceted approach.”

“I am very frustrated. We have stressed on these same issues over and over again. We have said the same thing over the years,” she said.

On zoo legislation, Frendo labelled zoo keepers as bullies. “They are bullies, but we are not afraid. We the activists who call a spade a spade, and are not afraid of the backlash, will continue pushing for the right thing. Politicians are afraid of them, but intimidation does not work with us.”