In the past decade, we have come a long way in terms of human rights; with the introduction of civil unions and awareness on LGBTQI issues, the legalisation of divorce and the morning-after pill. Yet when it comes to issues concerning animals, the progress we have made leaves much to be desired.
First things first: Animal Rights
‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’
A quote widely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi
Almost seventy years after Gandhi’s death, in light of everything happening around us, these words still strike a nerve. We have been inundated with heartbreaking images of animals being kept in abhorrent conditions. We have been up in arms about distressing news of animals being tortured and getting away with it.
Yet as mentioned in the Animal Welfare Act itself, ‘animal’ refers to all living members of the animal kingdom, excluding humans. Animals are sentient beings (Animal Welfare Act Chapter 439), meaning they are able to perceive and are thus recognised to suffer hunger, thirst and psychological problems. ‘Ill treatment’ means causing animals to suffer by any act or failure to act. So why such a gap between the way animals are regarded on paper and the way they are actually treated?
The Absence of ‘Welfare’ in ‘Animal Welfare’
Mikel St John – founder of Animal Protectors Malta and animal activist – explained to us that Animal Welfare claims it is not its job to rescue animals, nor is it its responsibility to serve as a sanctuary for abused animals. Being the voice of animals and representing them in court hearings also doesn’t fall under Animal Welfare’s responsibility. Furthermore, people appointed to form part of the team are not obliged to put themselves in dangerous situations to rescue animals – pregnant or not -, nor should they be counted on to rescue pets which may have found themselves stuck or in dangerous situations.
Which poses the question; what is it that they do? Where does ‘welfare’ in ‘animal welfare’ come into the equation? A misleading title if ever there was one.
We contacted Animal Welfare to address these issues and get their side of the story but received no acknowledgment or reply. However, based on Mikel’s vast experience, as well as that of many frustrated animal lovers posting on social media, the service Animal Welfare provides is, generally speaking, not much of a service at all. Once a stray is picked up by one of Animal Welfare’s employees, it is their property, which in essence means they have no obligation to give the feeders or callers who asked for help in the first place any updates. Sadly, in most cases, strays are not returned to their colonies and due to a total lack of transparency, whatever is done to these animals remains unknown to the public.
‘Many strays, when rescued, are in need of treatment of sorts. Yet due to tight budgets, Animal Welfare finds any excuse to put the animal down.’
Mikel St John
The ease at which animals are put down in a country where (human) euthanasia is so strongly opposed is not only abominable, but speaks volumes about our nation’s perception of animals. As in the words of Richard Dawkins; ‘Our ethics and politics assume, largely without question or serious discussion, that the division between human and ‘animal’ is absolute. ‘Pro-life’, to take just one example, is a potent political badge, associated with a gamut of ethical issues such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia. What it really means is pro-human-life….In the minds of many confused people, a single-celled human zygote, which has no nerves and cannot suffer, is infinitely sacred, simply because it is ‘human’. No other cells enjoy this exalted status.’
Mikel continues that reports of animal abuse to Animal Welfare fall on deaf ears. The people who are responsible for protecting animals are not doing so. They are not animal lovers, they are simply people employed by the government to do a job which, to the frustration of many, they are not doing. This leaves the public depending on people like Mikel St John who dedicate their lives and earnings doing what the authorities are being paid to do.
Mikel receives calls at all hours from distressed pet owners needing help and neighbours reporting maltreatment. He does, on average, 50 rescues a week when he can afford it, and in the past three months, has taken 140 kittens and 31 pregnant mother cats into his own home or found them foster homes.
Animal Abuse and Conduct Disorders
What many short-sighted people fail to see is that one of the early signs of a conduct disorder (a group of emotional or behavioral problems) – such as sociopathy – is abusing animals. This is one of the best predictors of later delinquency and criminal behaviour. Therefore, attacks on animals don’t necessarily stop at attacks on animals.
Either way, whether someone found guilty of animal abuse is diagnosed as displaying sociopathic behavior or not, some form of action has to be taken; be it to serve as a punishment, deterrent, or simply to separate potentially dangerous people from society to prevent them from harming others or animals.
One of the early signs of a conduct disorder – such as sociopathy – is abusing animals.
The next issue Mikel brought up is the harassment feeders have been experiencing. Apart from being directly threatened by neighbours, bowls bought out of feeders’ own pockets are being taken or thrown away and the food they provide strays is poisoned by heartless people.
Which poses the question: If an animal by law has a right for food, water and shelter, and a feeder is following the law and doing so out of his own initiative, then anyone who takes feeders’ bowls or threatens them in any way is guilty of harassment and breaking the law and should therefore be named, shamed and punished accordingly.
So who should be held accountable?
The government blames the courts for being soft in sentencing animal abusers, stating that such decisions are taken by the appointed magistrate and is therefore beyond anyone’s control. Well isn’t that just a case of potluck. A magistrate who isn’t sensitive to animal rights is going to go for the most lenient punishment, as we have seen time and time again. What about the investigations? Who follows those through? Whose responsibility is it to speak on behalf of animals in court during such hearings?
As stated in the Animal Welfare Act: ‘Animals shall not be kept tethered, in buildings, pens, cages or the like‘ (Chapter 439, part 3, ‘Regulations regarding the keeping of animals’) unless for valid reason, in which case, there are specific regulations on the manner in which the animal is tied, the amount of space allowed and so on. And where we do have laws, what’s the use of a law without enforcement? What’s the use of opening cases that are not followed up? Why do criminals keep getting away with crimes? Malta has become a lawless jungle and something has got to change.
Though not many, there have been some positive advancements in terms of animal conditions. Mikel repeatedly praised the San Ġwann local council, mentioning it as one of the few councils that goes a step further. It has allocated a budget specifically for animal welfare, having imported feeding stations with turf in Misrah Awrekarjia and Triq ir-Rummien, and showed feeders how to keep them clean. It opened a dog park last year and has also initiated a free neutering campaign.
Hats off to this local council for its great work and here’s hoping other local councils follow suit. It certainly beats considering pigeon-shooting to be an ingenious idea.
Mikel also sends a heartfelt thanks out to people who foster animals as well as volunteers, stating that dogs at Animal Welfare would stand no chance of being re-homed, as they are thanks to these kind-hearted individuals who expose dogs being caged for years on end.
Moving forward: Proposals
Protests have been attended, petitions signed, public outrage expressed on social media. Authorities are leaving animal lovers (and anyone with an ounce of decency) left with no choice. Where authorities fail to see the point of view of animal lovers and fail to act on despicable acts and abuse, action will be taken.
Mikel, along with animal lovers and NGOs plan on printing leaflets containing facts both locals and visitors should know and distributing them at places such as airport arrivals, hotels and next to karozzin stations to inform tourists of the animal abuse and other dire situation poor animals have to endure on our Islands. Creating awareness is key in tourists boycotting any business related to such abuse. Somebody will have to answer to it.
‘There is nothing libelous about what we are about to do. Libel is publishing false statements. We are simply exposing what is happening.’
Mikel St John
Moreover, Mikel suggests that every locality’s police station has three police officers who apply to work on cases of animal abuse. NGOs should be given the right to follow reports of abuse directly. They will be responsible for investigating – along with said police officers – on site, as well as confiscating the animal and keeping it safe.
Lastly, anyone found guilty of abuse or negligence must not only be punished but also put on a registry and this database may be accessed by the public as in the case of paedophiles. In the digital age we live in, everyone with a mobile is able to record and provide evidence of criminal acts and wrongdoings. Therefore, Mikel is asking the public to do its part and stand by this initiative.
Charity begins at home
Should you wish to be awesome and support Animal protectors Malta in their mission to fight animal cruelty, assist abandoned animals, feed and medically treat strays, you could do so through one of the options below:
1) Buying food vouchers from your local pet shop.
Simply leave an amount of money at your pet shop and inform Mikel St John where to pick it up from.
2) Paypal donations
Mikel is also working on opening a 5-star sanctuary wherein animals will be left free to roam – free of cages. The idea is to provide an enchanted forest-like place for both animals and people to enjoy. This will also be funded by donations. Stay tuned!