Recent reports of horses being slaughtered in an unlicensed rural farm on the outskirts of Siġġiewi have given rise to concerns that the meat could be making its way to consumers’ plates. However, sources in the equine sector say that though they were certain some of the uncertified meat was being served to some restaurant diners, the major buyers of this black market produce were believed to be the owners of big cats, like lions and tigers.

A veteran in the horse-racing community says that a person he describes as being quite known slaughters retired racehorses for a few hundred euros and then sells the meat to people who have private zoos or keep exotic animals like tigers or jaguars. He admitted he too had been approached in the past by third parties offering to slaughter any racehorses he might have wanted to get rid of.

Many would, no doubt, be aghast at what is being reported, not only because – coming hard on the heels of recent reports of illegal dog fighting – of what it tells us about the way some animals are being treated in this country and the public health and ethical implications for meat consumers but also because it is a stark reminder that, in this tiny island, there are tigers, jaguars, lions and other non-native (man-eating) animals roaming fairly freely in our midst.

One may not be sure whether to be extremely concerned about the public health implications or the cruelty to animals and potential risk to public safety. But it is certainly an eye-opener about Maltese attitudes to animals and, moreover, it is not an edifying experience on several counts.

It is logical that a growing need to feed exotic big cats would result in a bigger demand for food, hence the illegal slaughter of retired racehorses. And this, in turn, gives rise to acute concerns about the methods of slaughter of such horses and the health implications. This arises not only as a result of the hygiene standards during the killing process but also because racehorses are normally administered performance-enhancing or pain relief drugs, such as phenylbutazone, which leave serious drug residues.

Reports of the cruel methods used to kill the horses – like letting the creature choke slowly to a painful death –expose a most barbaric and cruel attitude to animals.

If, as also has been reported, the slaughtered animals are then sold commercially as uncertified edible meat for consumption whether in restaurants or homes, not only will the drug residue in such animals enter the human eating chain but people who do not wish to eat horse meat on principal, for ethical or reasons of taste, are also being fraudulently misled. The seller would, of course, be engaging in fraudulent trading. Although eating horse meat is popular in Mexico, Belgium, Germany, Poland and China, not all restaurants present it for consumption here.

The matter, therefore, rightly raises serious issues about animal cruelty, public health and consumer confidence. It also highlights the dangers of the seemingly uncontrolled keeping of man-eating animals all over the country. The Veterinary Department and the overstretched law enforcement officers tasked with dealing with animal and bird-shooting offences must be given greater resources to cope effectively with this outbreak of illegal, unsupervised and uncivilised treatment of retired racehorses.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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