In reviewing the draft legal Notice on the Keeping of Wild Animals in Zoos Regulations 2020, the comments of The Born Free Foundation are as follows:
Born Free is opposed to the keeping of wild animals in captivity for any purpose, excluding the rehabilitation or lifetime care of an animal in a facility of genuine sanctuary. Captive wild animals should not be used in shows, performance or display. We believe that zoos are predominantly commercial businesses, are visitor-focused and profit from the public exhibition of wild animals. We do not believe that zoos, in their generality, contribute to the better education and understanding of wildlife, ecology and ecosystems, nor do we support the view that zoos are significant contributors to conservation. In the long-term, the keeping of captive wild animals in public display facilities should be phased out.
In the short to medium term, we support efforts to deliver higher levels of welfare and protection for individual animals still kept in zoos in order to reduce suffering. We therefore support the adoption of a licensing, registration and inspection system as a means to address the unregulated keeping of wild animals in zoos throughout Malta. However, we would urge the relevant authorities to reject the use of ‘conservation’ as a justification for the keeping of wild animals in captivity and as a mechanism to circumvent key regulatory provisions set out in this Notice.
Overall, we believe the proposed regulations set out in this legal Notice to be extremely thorough and we believe their adoption should have a positive impact on animal welfare, if correctly enforced. Proper and full enforcement is key in order for Malta to be compliant with European Union Council Directive 1999/22/EC, relating to the keeping of wild animals in zoos and it must be incorporated into national legislation.
As a Member State of the EU, it is essential for any zoo in Malta to meet the criteria, and be granted a zoo licence before it can open to the public, and ideally before it acquires any animals. Any licensed Maltese zoos must keep up to date records of all the individual animals in their collection (births, deaths, transfers from and to other collections), and it is essential that these records are to be provided to the Director, who must also undertake regular inspections at least once a year.
Our specific comments are:
4(8) We support the proposed ban on animal petting and the touching of animals by visitors. However, we feel that all such close contact with wild animals should be prohibited, including by zoo employees, unless for veterinary purposes or to provide necessary neonatal or individual animal care. In the case of mammals in particular, we believe that the mother/cub relationship, and the physical and psychological integrity of the cubs, will be unavoidably compromised by the handling process. In the case of lion and tiger cubs, infants may be removed from the mother within days or even hours of birth, so they can be bottle-fed. This makes them more amenable to handling by strangers. This early removal is deeply stressful and distressful for mother and infants. Handling can also interfere with a young animal’s need for sleep. Close, direct contact with strangers can be stressful for all species of wild animals. It also poses a significant risk to human health and safety through potential disease transmission or injury. We would argue that the opportunity to touch a captive wild animal has no bearing, relevance or benefit to conservation and therefore should not be permitted or used to try and justify any ‘conservation’ claims made by any zoo in Malta.
7 (b) – On the matter of captive breeding and the proposed exemptions made for species’ conservation programmes or collaboration with research facilities, notwithstanding our previous comments, Born Free feels these exemptions require very careful and rigorous definition so as not to provide a loophole for the breeding of ‘popular’ but not-conservation critical species to continue. The majority of species kept in most zoos are not threatened with extinction in the wild and very few animals kept or bred in zoos are ever returned to the wild.
In further comments, we are very cautious and concerned about the reliance and responsibility that has been placed onto the ‘Director of Veterinary Services,’ whose approval, it appears, will be required in relation to compliance with most regulations within this Notice. We note that the Director of Veterinary Services is also the authority that is able to grant exemptions. It is for this reason that we would welcome further clarification as to whether the Director of Veterinary Services, and veterinarians who may be called on to both approve and grant exemptions, and who may have existing relationships with zoos in Malta, will be subject to any oversight by Malta’s Animal Welfare Council or other Government body as to avoid any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.
An additional Born Free concern relates to the likely process to be followed, in the event that a zoo is closed to the public as a result of non-compliance with the draft law regulations. In this case, the Notice states that the premises would be maintained ‘’under responsibility of the Police and that the Director responsible for Veterinary Services will be able to dispose of animals as he may deem appropriate.’’ Under such circumstances we strongly suggest that veterinarians, NGOs, accredited sanctuaries or other relevant experts with experience of handling, treating or feeding wild animals be brought into this sensitive and often challenging process. We also hope that the over-riding priority for all concerned will be the provision of continued, quality care to all animals in a zoo that has been closed by the authorities, until alternative arrangements can be made. The expedient culling of ‘redundant animals’ should not be an option.
Overall, we believe that the regulations within this draft legal Notice on the Keeping of Wild Animals in Zoos Regulations 2020, demonstrates a positive and welcome shift by the Maltese Government to prioritise the welfare of captive wild animals, a shift that is long overdue in many countries around the world. The ownership and breeding of wild animals should not to be seen as a hobby, business or profit-making opportunity and, instead, requires a commitment to responsibly provide quality, lifetime care to individual animals, consistent with the prevailing law and international best-practice standards.
The introduction of this law in Malta should lead to the establishment of a small number of effectively-licensed captive wild animal facilities, the closure of illegal or non-compliant operations, and a far greater emphasis on the wellbeing and welfare of those individual wild animals that remain in captivity.