Inmates are raising money to bail out animal lover Rennie Scicluna, who landed in jail after he failed to pay fines for keeping dogs at a makeshift sanctuary in Baħar iċ-Cagħaq.

Mr Scicluna was imprisoned on Wednesday for 26 days as he could not afford to pay the €320 fine. Unless his helpers collect enough money, he may be there longer because he has another pending fine of €600.

"I shouldn't be here... I'm hoping to be able to get out before, if enough money is raised... even the inmates are helping me," he said, when contacted in prison yesterday.

Mr Scicluna's story goes back a few years. Unable to see sick or abandoned animals on the streets, he began to pick them up, housing them at the former Palm Beach Restaurant, now a derelict building in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq.

The number of dogs started increasing and so did the complaints from residents, who lived just metres away and could no longer tolerate the incessant barking 24 hours a day, or the fact the place had turned into a slum.

Residents' grievances reached the authorities' ears and Mr Scicluna was threatened with eviction. In 2006, Joan Baker, a retired English lady with a big heart, intervened to help Mr Scicluna.

She roped in Noah's Ark, an animal welfare organisation in Mellieħa, and together they re-homed some 40 dogs, relieving Mr Scicluna of his burden and getting the authorities off his back.

The situation improved temporarily, but in the past year, unable to helplessly watch injured animals on the street, Mr Scicluna began to collect the strays, taking them back to the old compound in Baħar iċ-Cagħaq.

Maria Jenkins, his stalwart helper, said it was not the first time he had gone to the sanctuary and found abandoned dogs tied to the gates: "What should we do with these cases, put them down?

"I've been doing my utmost to control the dog population in Baħar iċ-Cagħaq and we are close to finalising on alternative premises. But in the meantime, what are we supposed to do?" said the 26-year-old, who has spent all her savings on helping these discarded creatures.

"Even police call us to collect strays off the streets. We're too kind to just sit there and do nothing."

Faced with pending fines and unable to pay them, Mr Scicluna was thrown in jail. An e-mail is now being circulated by his supporters who are claiming the authorities have abdicated their responsibilities.

However, animal organisations are not surprised that Mr Scicluna landed in jail, even though they are sorry to see him in such a spot.

"Rennie's heart is in the right place, but he doesn't have the know-how or the resources. He could not look after the animals properly and he kept big dogs with the smaller ones. We tried to help, but after a while we gave up," said Brenda Swift, president and co-founder of Share Malta (Support for Homeless Animals, Research and Education).

"Hoarding is a form of animal cruelty... Rennie should focus his energies on dog training, not running a sanctuary," she added.

Noah's Ark founder Fabio Ciappara said he too had tried to help in the past, by taking in around 40 of his dogs when he was forced to move out from Baħar iċ-Cagħaq, but "Rennie has gone back to square one".

SPCA Malta president Barbara Cassar Torreggiani also tried to help. "We've gone along with our advice and bags of food, but he wouldn't listen - he never knew when to stop picking up strays.

"Sadly, the condition his animals were in was not good enough. It's not Rennie's fault because we're all chock-a-block and he probably found doors closed, so you cannot really blame him for taking them in," she said.

Ms Cassar Torreggiani said that for years animal welfare was low on the agenda, which explained the mess everybody had found themselves in - it was a vicious circle and Mr Scicluna had got caught up in it.

"We are now all working together to raise standards of animal welfare and hope one day there could be some kind of set-up which Rennie could work in."

However, Ms Jenkins strongly contested the organisations' remarks that the animals were being kept in terrible conditions at Baħar iċ-Cagħaq.

"We take in the worst cases and spend hundreds on vet bills and medication trying to treat them. We collect the dogs nobody wants to take in. People may think they're in that state because we're maltreating them, but we're not - we took them in like that," she insisted.

SOS Animals and the St Francis Foundation came out in support of Mr Scicluna and Ms Jenkins, saying they were the only ones who went to collect the animals when people called for help.

amassa@timesofmalta.com

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