It has been two years since Malta got its first Commissioner for Animal Welfare, and while there have been improvements on several fronts, Emanuel Buhagiar tells Sarah Carabott about the need for more dedicated enforcement.

The Animal Welfare Directorate should be stripped of its responsibility for looking after stray and injured animals to focus solely on enforcing the law, the commissioner says.

“I strongly recommend an overhaul of the directorate, which should no longer be in charge of keeping stray or injured animals, mostly cats and dogs.

“Instead, the directorate should focus on enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and subsidiary legislations,” said Emanuel Buhagiar, whose job it is to ensure the law is complied with and animals are well-treated.

Mr Buhagiar’s comments come a month after the dog sanctuary of the Association for Abandoned Animals, which houses about 90 abandoned dogs, warned it was on the brink of shutting down unless autit finds alternative premises.

The sanctuary was doing a great job, but it was not the only one finding it difficult to cope, he said.

The State provides funding or premises to animal welfare NGOs. However, Mr Buhagiar sees this a short-term solution, with Malta being the only European country where the government still finances them.

He believes that the government should instead enter into a public-private partnership and divert its funding towards the creation of centralised premises for the rehoming of animals. The premises would also house a sanctuary.

This would be similar to the system adopted for the landscaping of public spaces around Malta.

The threat of high penalties and an increase in awareness have seen a gradual decline in the number of cruelty reports

The premises would be managed by a board formed through the PPP, which could include representatives of existing animal NGOs and the government, he suggests.

This year marks two years since Mr Buhagiar was appointed Animal Welfare Commissioner. A police officer in the Forensic Laboratory for 26 years, he joined the Animal Welfare Directorate in 2009.

He believes that in recent years, there has been a change for the better when it comes to animal welfare. This has come about through an overhaul of the Animal Welfare Act, harsher penalties for animal cruelty and bans on the use of animals in circuses and the importation of dangerous animals.

The threat of high penalties and an increase in awareness have seen a gradual decline in the number of cruelty reports received by Mr Buhagiar’s office. It gets about 400 reports a year.

A strong believer in raising awareness in children, his office got in touch with the education authorities as soon as he was appointed commissioner and offered to provide animal welfare lessons to Year Six pupils. A book highlighting issues like animal rights, owners’ obligations and animal welfare law was created to serve as a reference for the pupils throughout the scholastic year.

The office, he noted, was immediately inundated with calls from parents asking for the lessons to be extended to other years. They are now being provided in Year Five, with another publication tailor made for that age group. There are now plans to provide lessons in Year Four.

However, Mr Buhagiar needs more staff and has not yet had any feedback about the possibility of recruitment.

The office, which is autonomous, is backed by the Parliamentary Secretariat for Animal Rights but does not receive the same level of support from the administration, he says. With just one inspector and two promotional officers, he has written to the Corporate Services Directorate within the Office of the Permanent Secretary, asking for another animal welfare inspector and one more promotional officer to be recruited. So far there has been no call for such posts.

Meanwhile, the office is still hosted at Casa Leone in Santa Venera, which also houses the secretariat. A call for expressions of interest in the provision of alternative premises was issued in February.

‘Inaccurate reports on Valletta cat’s death’

The Commissioner is worried about the inaccurate reports that circulated on social media following the death of Masha, a Valletta cat that had become part of the community.

The Animal Welfare Department was criticised for putting the cat down, but his investigation revealed it would have been crueller to keep her alive. The criticism was unfair, since the department did its job well, he says.

Masha in Valletta. Photo: Matthew MirabelliMasha in Valletta. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

His office has also investigated reports about “procrastination” by various directorates.

One such case involved reports about a mare in Gozo allegedly being kept in an unhealthy environment. The reports were followed up by an inspection carried out by an animal welfare officer, not a vet, 42 days after the first report was received.

The delay was unacceptable to the commissioner, and he has called for better coordination between the different authorities.

He noted that there had been a positive follow-up from the authorities to his investigation into the death of 468 quarantined songbirds in 2014. The birds had been kept for evidence – but in a place that was not suitable for smuggled birds.

Since then, similar birds are either released immediately or treated for their injuries.

‘No place for large animals’

Although the commissioner is satisfied with the regulation of exotic species, as the authorities now have a better idea of those present on the island, he disapproves of keeping large animals in Malta.

A cougar in a local zoo. Photo: Mark Zammit CordinaA cougar in a local zoo. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

He does not believe the minimum standards for enclosures should be left to EU member states but that they should be regulated by the European Commission.

Malta’s specifications for enclosure sizes are in line with those of the Swiss Ordinance, however he views them as inadequate for large animals.

“The minimum standards should improve, because the current required dimensions of cages for sentient animals such as tigers, bears, hippopotamus, deer and lions are unsuitable and should be much bigger,” he insists.

Mr Buhagiar is also against zoos or personal collections of large animals: “Even if their owners are law-abiding, such animals have no place in Malta… In a place that is already overpopulated with people, there is no place for large animals.”

While it is not easy to relocate such animals abroad, as European zoos and rehabilitation centres are already full, they cannot be left free to roam.

A decision to allow this, says Mr Buhagiar, would qualify as animal cruelty, as having been brought up in a domesticated environment, zoo animals would not be able to survive in the wild.

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