Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina expressed concern about certain changes being proposed to the animal welfare law amid worries that they may also give rise to exploitation.

While expressing satisfaction that some recommendations are being adopted into law and expected to usher in a positive change, others pose legitimate concerns that ought to be addressed, she said.

The amendments to the law, which are being debated in parliament in committee stage, include provisions to amend the definition of a circus as well as include a clause providing for animals to be used as ‘props’ in artistic exhibitions, theatre performances and films.

In comments to Times of Malta, Bezzina expressed concern that the definition of a circus will be expanded to include the phrase “for-profit exhibition” and “that offers no educational value”.

Without further clarification, she said, these could potentially open loopholes that the amendment originally sought to tighten.

“If something is deemed cruel, it should be deemed so whether a person is doing it for profit or not. If an animal circus act is offered for free or charity it is still cruel to the animals.

“So, the words ‘for profit’ should be removed. It is also an oxymoron to have anything that is cruel to animals present an educational value. It is, therefore, my opinion that that part should also be removed. Cruelty is never ever educational,” she said.

A second, more worrying clause, seeks to allow the use of animals as "props", a concern, Bezzina noted could open Pandora’s box.

“The clause requires that the director of veterinary services approves each request but the problem is that the word ‘props’ is not defined in the draft law,” she said.

“This could open a loophole for the exploitation of animals. My suggestion is that the clause is completely removed or the word prop is defined properly,” she said.

Bezzina explained that, currently, the most common use of animals as props are farm animals exhibited during Christmas or agricultural fairs. However, this could potentially open the clause to legitimise wider use without a tight definition.

“Does prop mean that an animal can be put in an unnatural, tiring or scary position?” she questioned.

While every request would have to be individually approved, she expressed concern that resources in the veterinary services department might not be enough to ensure that the conditions required by the director are followed through stringently.

Bezzina also pointed out that a change in the bestiality clause introduced last year technically makes the artificial insemination of animals illegal, causing a headache for those farmers for whom the procedure is a normal part of their work.

To address this, the government is proposing an amendment to the existing clause that would exempt ‘medical interventions’ from being interpreted as sexual ones.

Only qualified vets will be able to perform artificial insemination on dogs and cats

Bezzina is claiming, however, that only a warranted vet should be allowed to perform medical interventions and that this should be clearly stated in this part of the law.

“The issue is that, on farms, farmers perform artificial insemination on farm animals and it would be unfeasible to force them to engage a vet to do this,” she said.

“My proposal here is to distinguish between farm and domestic animals in this clause.

“In this way, only qualified vets will be able to perform artificial insemination on dogs and cats, which would, hopefully, avoid the many genetic and inbreeding issues that we face today.”

On a positive note, however, Bezzina highlighted that a deficiency in the way suspected animal abuse or neglect in a private residence is handled by the relevant authorities will be effectively addressed by these changes.

As things stand, if animal abuse or neglect is suspected and the owners cannot be found or refuse enforcement officers entry, animal welfare officials only have the option of leaving a note and returning within 24 hours or obtain a magistrate’s warrant to forcefully enter the property.

This delay between reported neglect and action gives perpetrators time to obscure evidence or abandon the animals in question elsewhere to avoid prosecution, she noted.

“Last year, I recommended that, in the case of severe neglect or abuse where there’s already ample prima facie evidence, like photos or videos, then animal welfare officials should have the right to enter the premises without giving notice or asking for a warrant.”

Bezzina said this change has been accepted by both parties and should be introduced in the law shortly.

Another change based on one of Bezzina’s proposals is that, following a confiscation based on abuse or neglect, the director of animal welfare will have the power to ask the court to ban a person from owning any animals at the first court hearing.

Since court cases can sometimes take a long time to conclude, she explained, this prohibition would hinder the accused from potentially inflicting more suffering on more animals while the court case is still being heard.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us