Inadequate re-homing facilities at Għammieri and an outdated ambulance have often turned the animal welfare authorities into unwitting perpetrators of cruelty, according to the Commissioner for Animal Welfare.

When retired magistrate Denis Montebello took on the role in October last year, he immediately started looking into whether the two directorates he was meant to monitor were well-equipped enough to do the work expected of them by the law.

While he found goodwill throughout the Animal Welfare and the Veterinary Regulation directorates, their resources are not sufficient, he said.

“There are shortcomings that need to be tackled so that they can function properly: there cannot be surveillance without enough human resources and there cannot be proper enforcement without well-equipped ambulances that ensure animals don’t suffer more when they are taken away from their owners.

“When an animal is rescued it needs to be taken to a place where it can be properly cared for. However, there is no adequate re-homing centre in Malta.” 

Seized animals, most often dogs, are kept at Għammieri, the government farm, while their owners are charged with animal cruelty. But lack of space at Għammieri often means that the directorates cannot even seize suffering animals as there is no safe place where to keep them.

The kennels had no source of heating and water seeped through the roofs when it rained. Some 100 dogs were being kept in a space that should have been hosting only 40

When he visited the government farm, prompted by civil society reports about animal cruelty, Dr Montebello was shocked at the state of the pre-world war goat pens acting as dog kennels.

The kennels had no source of heating and water seeped through the galvanised roofs when it rained. Some 100 dogs were being kept in a space that should have been hosting only 40.

After Dr Montebello flagged the issue with the Ministry for Animal Rights, work kicked off on new kennels which will ultimately be able to host some 50 dogs in adequate conditions.

This will still not be enough to host all the rescued animals, but it was a good start, he said.

He is meanwhile concerned that the lack of resources are not only detrimental to the directorates themselves but also to the Commissioner’s office, whose officers promote animal welfare at schools.

Exposing children to the current conditions at Għammieri during some school trip could unravel the work carried out by the Commissioner’s office to raise awareness about animals’ well-being.

Raising awareness about animal cruelty and changing people’s mentality was quite challenging considering that for centuries people were taught that animals were created to serve human beings, he said.

This mentality also led people to pluck animals from their natural habitat and keep them in zoos, circuses or in urban environments for their own pleasure.

Enforcement efforts undermined

Do you agree with your predecessor that Malta is no place for dangerous animals?

Yes, dangerous animals are wild animals – they should be living in their natural habitat and not in cities with people.  

What about exotic animals?

The name itself implies that these animals are from exotic places. As Commissioner I want every creature to live in its natural habitat.

If they were not born in the wild, we need to ensure that their habitat is as close as possible to their natural one. This is difficult to achieve in Malta, and the best place for them remains the wild.

Has the Commission received reports about organised dog fights and the illegal slaughtering of horses to feed big cats?

Despite the reports that have done the rounds in the media, and the claims made in Parliament, no one has yet brought forward any evidence, not even anonymously. So far no one has gone to the police or the directorates with proof or specific details.

I am still following up the issues and the authorities are checking for dog bites whenever they carry out surprise visits at places hosting dogs that are usually used in organised fights, such as pit bulls.

Between 2015 and this year, 50 people were accused in court of animal cruelty. We don’t yet know how many have been convicted. Is this number too small?

When this data was published in Parliament, I asked for details about each case on March 15. So far I have only been informed that 14 fell under the responsibility of the Veterinary Regulation Directorate, however there is no available information about how most of them proceeded.

This serious lack of updated and readily available records led me to conclude that the same factors compromising obligatory inspections are also undermining any efforts of enforcement and subsequent prosecutions, without which the whole structure for the ultimate protection of animal rights is doomed to collapse.

Do you think the Commissioner should have more enforcement powers?

My role is to flag issues with the directorates and file a report with the Minister for Animal Rights if no action is taken.

Rather than direct enforcement, I think this office could have the right to order directorates to take action about their shortcomings, instead of reporting them to the minister.

According to the law my job is like that of an Ombudsman, however, so far whenever I flagged an issue with the minister, it was followed up with an investigation.

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