Keeping animals in cages and using them for entertainment purposes, as done in circuses, is not cruelty and claiming so is a double standard, according to Animal Welfare Department director Mario Spiteri.

"If this were cruelty the department would close down all pet shops and not allow the police dogs parade to go ahead," he said in reaction to the announcement that 20 animal rights organisations will tomorrow be protesting against the arrival of the Circo Fantasy.

"This call of the NGOs, not to allow the circus to perform, is a double standard," Mr Spiteri said, questioning why the NGOs didn't also complain about pet shops and dog parades.

Yesterday the circus organisers defended the way the animals were being kept, with veterinary Salvatore D'Avola, who crossed over with the circus from Italy, saying they were all well cared for.

Dr D'Avola said a government vet visited the circus yesterday morning and found the animals to be in a good health.

Some 65 animals, including tigers, alligators, snakes, horses and ostriches, will be taking part in the two daily shows which start tomorrow. The animals are also expected to be on show in a mini zoo but the organisers said details would be unveiled at a later date.

Dr Spiteri stressed that the department had the competence to inspect the circus to ensure animals were well treated and could take legal action in cases of cruelty.

But the Circus Animal Rights Coalition insists the defenceless creatures are forced into an unnatural and abusive life that jeopardises their health and psychological well-being.

"Circuses force animals, often through painful and punitive methods, to perform tricks that are contradictory to their innate instincts and behaviour," Annalise Falzon, from the coalition, said.

The coalition is calling on the authorities to stop the circus from performing in Malta, adding that the Circo Fantasy had been found guilty, by the Italian authorities, of not conforming to animal welfare regulations. A spokesman for the Rural Affair's ministry explained that circuses with an operating licence in any EU country were free to move from one country to the next without authorisation. The only permit required was a police permit to set up the tent for entertainment.

So what about the animals' welfare?

"We normally carry out the documentary and physical checks of the animals on arrival at the port or staging post. These checks are carried out by the Veterinary Regulation Department," the spokesman said.

Circuses are also subject to inspection by animal welfare inspectors, he added.

"The fact remains that circuses are still in demand and are not illegal in Europe," Mr Spiteri said. "While it is not the role of the animal welfare department to grant permission for a circus to come to Malta, on arrival the department has the right to carry out inspections to ensure the animals are well treated," he said.

Alternattiva Demokratika expressed solidarity with the animal rights organisations.

Protesters will meet at City Gate at 6 p.m. and walk to Blata l-Bajda where the Circo Fantasy will be set up.

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