Updated 4.30pm with ministry's reply

An investigation has been launched into the location of dogs confiscated by animal welfare officials after a pomeranian that was rescued from squalid conditions last year ended up back with its original owner. 

The investigation was triggered by Facebook claims by an animal welfare activist that Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo bypassed animal welfare procedures and handed the dog for adoption to a woman in Gozo, his electoral district.

Refalo categorically denied the claim.

The regulations say confiscated dogs cannot be handed over for adoption until court proceedings involving the owner are exhausted. However, they can be handed over for temporary fostering.

In the current case, the woman in Gozo eventually handed the dog to another woman, also in Gozo. The dog escaped and was captured by animal welfare officers who, on the basis of data on its microchip, handed it back to the owner in Pieta', from where it had been confiscated. 

Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina confirmed to Times of Malta that she has opened an investigation to track the whereabouts of all dogs seized by animal welfare officials, and their condition post-confiscation. 

Activist Maxine Borg said the pomeranian had ended up back with the person it had been confiscated from partially because Refalo had facilitated the adoption of the dog without following the appropriate procedures. 

She insisted the dog should have never been put up for adoption once it was still the subject of a court case, and should have therefore only been eligible for fostering. 

The pomeranian was one of 21 dogs that were confiscated from a house in Pieta' after they were found to be living in squalid conditions. Puppies found at the property were covered in urine and faeces and were believed to be suffering from parvovirus. 

Typically, when a dog is adopted through the animal welfare department, potential adopters are asked about their experience with them and their lifestyle to determine whether the dog is going to a good home. 

They are then interviewed and in some cases, home checks are carried out to make sure the environment is adequate for a pet. 

Borg is alleging that this process was bypassed completely. A careful check of its microchip would have shown that the dog was subject to ongoing legal action and therefore ineligible for adoption. 

It was infuriating to see that through negligence the dog had potentially been returned to an unsuitable home, she said.  

“This poor dog ended up being returned to a person who kept her in abusive conditions," she said.  

Last month, both Refalo and Parliamentary Secretary Alicia Bugeja Said were the subject of a protest by animal welfare activists who said that they did not adequately represent the rights of animals. 

Refalo has also frequently been criticised for dragging his feet on implementing new zoo regulations. 

The minister also courted controversy this year when a British-era stone marker was found in his home in Gozo. Refalo has denied wrongdoing in acquiring the artefact. 

Ministry replies

In reply to questions sent by Times of Malta, a ministry spokesperson said that Refalo categorically denied taking any animals confiscated by the welfare directorate and giving them to members of the public in Gozo, or anywhere else.

Steps were being taken to retrieve the dog from its owner, who is facing neglect charges, she added.

“In November 2021, the Animal Welfare Directorate confiscated 21 dogs, primarily of a Pomeranian breed, following a highly publicized raid. Confiscated dogs are generally always granted for fostering or otherwise given to a dog sanctuary for adoption,” the spokesperson said.

“Of the 21 dogs, three were given for foster care, one of which was taken for fostering by a third party in Gozo. Consequently, no transfer of ownership was registered on any of the dogs placed in foster care.”

The ministry, she added, did not interfere with the Director for Animal Welfare’s discretion when putting up any dogs for adoption.

“After being reported missing in Gozo, the dog in question was found by animal welfare rescue officers and returned to the registered owner,” the spokesperson said.

“The Animal Welfare Directorate is looking into the matter and is actively taking steps to re-confiscate the dog from its owner who is currently facing charges of animal neglect.”

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