From April next year, new rules under the Animal Welfare Act of 2002 will come into effect laying down specifications for the keeping and treatment of animals traded in pet shops.

In the past 10 years, Malta has made encouraging progress in addressing a number of issues under the general heading of ‘rights’. These have ranged from rights for the disabled and against discrimination, to minority rights for those in broken marriages or, soon, gay and transgender people. These are all steps marking a more civilised, tolerant and compassionate society.

Now, under the leadership of Malta’s first-ever Parliamentary Secretary for Animal Rights, guided by the good work of the Animal Welfare Council, the government is introducing laws to regulate the way pet shop owners sell both domestic and ‘exotic’ animals. While the former are instantly recognisable and include dogs, cats, rabbits and some birds, such as budgerigars, the latter consist of wild animals such as crocodiles, monkeys, tigers and other reptiles and birds of prey.

The new rules for domesticated pets introduce a licensing system and lay down the way they are kept and treated. Regular inspections by the Veterinary Service will be carried out to ensure pet shops meet the necessary criteria.

Given increased national awareness of animal rights, it seems extraordinary that people in Malta, or elsewhere, for that matter, should wish to keep animals that are obviously not domesticated, which are wild and sometimes dangerous.

However, it appears that the Maltese are as prone to follow fashion trends the world over as the next man. There have been reported cases of a Bengal tiger cub in Mosta and crocodiles, pythons, monkeys and other exotic animals imported or on sale.

Exotic pets are very often the result of people following the latest craze. The Harry Potter films, for example, gave rise to a craze for owls and the Mutant Ninja Turtle film sparked the novelty of keeping red-eared terrapins.

The new law sets in place the framework for controlling what pet shop owners are doing.

Those wishing to trade in exotic animals will require a specific licence to do so, proper records of animals bought and sold going back three years will have to be kept and designated areas for food preparation will have to be identified. These laws will need to be enforced and strictly monitored if the trade in exotic animals is to be controlled, and ideally discouraged.

For the new laws to succeed, however, there is a compelling case for a public information campaign to highlight the difficulties – indeed, the natural and environmental perversity – of taking animals from the wild and attempting to domesticate them. The trade in exotic pets brings with it a great deal of misery and sometimes death.

Many exotic animals are bought when they are young, and small. But before long they grow large and unmanageable. Parrots live for 80 years, snakes and monkeys for 30. This often means few people can provide a lifetime of proper care. When the excitement of exotic pets fades, owners realise how difficult it is to care for them. Many animals are then abandoned.

Overridingly, however, the taking of animals from the wild for the exotic pet trade is bad for environmental conservation and bad for the animals themselves, which are torn from their own unique eco-system, which a human home can never replicate. While regulating their sale is a step forward, the ultimate objective should be to discourage the trade at source.

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