A Vittoriosa tradition – that involves placing around six budgerigars in a tin ball that opens once a fuse burns out, emitting smoke in the process as the birds fly off – may be banned.

The tradition, which is believed to date back to the Knights of St John, formed part of the feast of St Lawrence held next month.

Discussions are being held between the animal welfare authorities and the external festivities committee of the St Lawrence Band Club to find a solution that would somehow maintain this age-old tradition while ensuring the welfare of the birds. 

A spokesman for the Parliamentary Secretariat for Animal Welfare said discussions were held with the society to change this practice.

The matter was first raised on the Facebook page I Will Not Go Away, by animal rights activist and blogger Alison Bezzina. 

She alerted the animal welfare authorities to this practice that involved releasing budgies – domestic birds and do not survive out of a cage – “onto the street through some kind of firework contraption”.

Speaking to Times of Malta, feast organiser Christian Raggio said the external festivities committee was waiting for a decision to be held ahead of the feast, celebrated on August 9. The committee would respect the outcome. 

Should the use of budgies be banned, the committee would discuss how to adapt the tradition.

“If the authorities tell us that it is in breach of the law, we will abide by it. At the moment discussions are going on. We just want to keep this age-old tradition, that some say goes back to the time of the Knights, but will do so in a way that abides by law,” he said.

So, what happens exactly? 

Mr Raggio explained how in the morning of the eve of the feast, an oval shaped tin ball, called il-ballun, is placed in the middle of the Vittoriosa square. Inside there is a papier-mâché statue of St Lawrence as a child, with his mother.

Minutes before the band arrives, some six budgies are placed inside the ball tied with a fuse ending in a knot. The fuse is lit and, when the flame reaches the knot, the ball opens. 

“I really want to stress that there are no fireworks or explosions involved. It’s just smoke. If we used fireworks we would break the statue and the ball and no bird would survive,” he said, adding he never remembered any birds getting injured. 

“It was never our intention to harm birds. We love animals. We buy the birds from a shop, in cages, place them in the ball for a few minutes then release them. 

“The majority are caught by onlooking children or their parents who look forward to the event to catch a bird and take it home to be raised as a pet,” he said. Asked about the fact that the budgies were released into an unnatural habitat, he conceded that this is where the committee may have been at fault – and was ready to make any changes to address that. 

Video: Alison Bezzina.

Why could this be animal cruelty? 

Animal Welfare Commissioner Denis Montebello explained that the intentional releases of pet birds, such as budgies, into a habitat that is unnatural to them “to face an almost inevitable death for a variety of predictable reasons” could be tantamount to animal cruelty.

“The accompanying factors of fire and smoke, fireworks and bangs, cheering and noise would be aggravating circumstances,” he said adding that such a practice, even if deemed a tradition, should be phased out and replaced with animal welfare education.

“If this anachronistic tradition is established and a green light given by the authorities concerned, then I would suggest that steps be taken to ensure that every effort is made to limit the harmful effects of the factors accompanying the release.

“We want to save as many of the budgerigars as possible from their cruel fate and if any are captured we need to ensure that these a returned to their accustomed habitat and proper care,” he said.  

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