A foundation for the protection of animals is expected to be set up "as soon as possible" and a centre for animal welfare built in Ta' Qali, Environment Minister George Pullicino said yesterday when presented with a petition signed by 40,000 people.

The petition - which will be now presented to Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi - called for an around-the-clock animal ambulance service, an animal hospital and better enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.

A good number of signatures were collected by 15-year-old Evair Grech during a campaign spearheaded by the Abandoned Animals Association.

The minister said the petition showed the Maltese people care about animal protection.

Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando described the petition as the biggest in Malta, and deemed positive the fact that children had felt its importance and participated.

Mr Pullicino explained that the foundation would be made up of representatives from both government and non-governmental organisations. Once set up, it would coordinate the building of the animal welfare centre and eventually manage it.

The centre would include an after-care clinic for animals to recover after treatment, boarding kennels and space for training and public education.

The minister said he would present the Cabinet with a proposal for the centre in a few days' time. An estimate of how much it would cost to built the centre was being drawn up and Mr Pullicino did not exclude that it would be built in phases.

Consultations were also underway to set standards on how animals in pet shops or open markets should be kept. British experts are helping to set standards for animal sanctuaries.

The minister said that although the Animal Welfare Act has enabled police to arraign a number of people, he was still not happy with its enforcement, adding that discussions were underway with Parliamentary Secretary Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici to see how this could be improved. Dr Pullicino Orlando appealed for enforcement, adding that animals had no voice and no vote and it was everyone's duty to protect them.

Mr Pullicino promised his ministry's help to extend the animal ambulance service manned by volunteers from the ambulance response team, by providing drivers and biodiesel. By November the service should be available on a 24-hour basis.

Round-the-clock veterinary cover is already available and government vet Mireille Vella said an agreement was reached with a number of sanctuaries to host stray animals after treatment. Attempts were being made to have a separate emergency number for strays.

Mr Pullicino stressed the importance of more synergy between animal non-governmental organisations, which are mostly manned by volunteers giving hours on end to help needy animals.

The AAA's Freddie Fenech said Malta was facing a crisis when it came to abandoning animals to their fate. The indefatigable Mr Fenech - who has made it his mission to rescue abandoned animals, sometimes reduced to a very bad state - made a commitment to try to raise funds for the building of an animal hospital.

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