Minister mum on zoo policy as new animal welfare strategy is open for consultation

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Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo could not give a timetable for long-promised zoo legislation, even as new national animal welfare strategy was opened for consultation on Thursday.

The government had proposed legislation that would have regulated zoos more comprehensively in 2020, but progress in getting the proposals into a bill has been slow.

The proposed zoo legislation has undergone a consultation process as well as an environmental impact assessment, with the minister promising in January that the new rules would be published shortly. To date, these have not been made available to the public.

Video: Jessica Arena, editing, Karl Andrew Micallef

In comments to Malta Time On Thursday, Refalo said the zoo proposals had gone through a holistic process and were currently being drafted into legislation.

“The priority is to ensure the dignity and well-being of our animals. The consultation process is complete and we are in the process of drafting the legislation that will eventually be presented as a bill, which in turn will go through its own process to become law,” he said.

When asked why the process took so long, Refalo responded with the Maltese proverb Il-qattusa għaġġelija frieħ għomja tagħmel which means that acting impetuously brings bad results.

He faulted previous administrations for never coming up with zoo legislation.

“The problem is not how long it took us to work on this law, but how long it took for the zoo legislation to come forward in a holistic way,” he said.

“We are going to have a law that regulates zoos well, that will provide a legal framework for police officers to do their job, be empowered to go there and do their job and even bring people to justice if necessary, that is what is important.

New strategy focused on animal welfare

The National Animal Welfare Strategy aims to ensure the protection of animals in all settings, including agriculture and sport.

It aims not only to comply with European standards but to go beyond the minimum requirements, through 11 guiding principles.

These include:

  • legislation and enforcement of welfare standards for animals in the food chain;
  • standards for animal handlers such as groomers and related professions;
  • more infrastructural projects such as dog parks and cat cafes;
  • responsible pet ownership education;
  • more accessibility to veterinary care for breeders
  • a shift to more sustainable farming practices that ensure better conditions for animals
  • better welfare for animals engaged in sports or leisure activities; and
  • more active public participation in animal welfare.

The policy will aim to:

  • review current animal welfare measures;
  • consult with activists and NGOs;
  • consider introducing standards for professionals working with animals;
  • propose a strategic framework to implement the strategy with stakeholders;
  • measure the willingness of citizens to consume products produced thanks to better animal welfare; and
  • recognize the challenges faced by primary producers.

Written submissions on the strategy can be sent here by June 17.

Strategy well received but much more needs to be done

While welcoming the launch of the strategy, Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina said a number of issues needed to be addressed imminently.

“These are very pressing and urgent issues that should have been addressed years ago, regardless of the strategy. An immediate solution must be found for items that have been pending for years and are now critical,” she said.

She said the animal ambulance service, both vehicle and response time, is very lacking, with officers responding to the 1,717 calls between one and two hours at best.

Human resources are also lacking, she added, with a lack of space to house confiscated animals, rendering animal welfare enforcement toothless.

She also noted that the consultation on the draft zoo legislation was finalized more than a year ago and has not yet been published and that the overpopulation of cats and dogs contributes to the problems of the Directorate of animal welfare, with an urgent need for animal husbandry legislation and a castration campaign.

“No public consultation will reveal that these issues should not be resolved immediately, and until they are effectively resolved, the suffering will continue,” she said.

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