By Matthew Agius
Expert tells court that steps were being made in the right direction; big cats to be moved to larger enclosures in three weeks' time.
A magistrate has reserved the right to perform an on-site inspection of Montekristo Zoo, after an official from the Animal Welfare Department reported that the area in which the zoo was housing its big cats was not currently in line with international standards.
Veterinary Regulation Directorate official Dr. Duncan Chetcuti Ganado was testifying before magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona in criminal proceedings against construction magnate Charles Polidano.
Polidano, 55, was summoned to court by Inspector Jurgen Vella this morning on charges consisting of various breaches of the Animal Welfare Act in connection with a zoo he is operating at Montekristo Estates.
Dr. Chetcuti Ganado told the court how the department had initially received reports about an illegal zoo in 2012 and that he had visited the site soon after. The veterinarian had explained to Polidano at the time that he lacked the necessary license to run a zoo and that such an establishment would have to be in conformity with certain standards.
According to the Keeping of Wild Animals in Zoos Regulations, “All permanent establishments where animals of wild species are kept for exhibition to the public for seven or more days a year” are considered to be zoos, with the exception of circuses and pet shops.
No application for a license had been received at the time, said Chetcuti Ganado, adding that MEPA approval for the structure to be used as a zoo was still to be issued.
The zoo, which aside from several big cats - lions, tigers and pumas - also houses ostriches, zebra, deer, bulls, llamas and alpacas. It had also housed swine, which required a separate permit, he said, but these were later removed.
The veterinarian’s greatest concern was what he described as the sub-standard accommodation for the animals, in particular the wild felines. These were being kept in enclosures that were considered to be small by international standards.
There was insufficient entertainment and distractions for the felines, he said and added that he had also concerned that the public was being allowed to stand too close to the cages. Chetcuti Ganado added that the gaps between the bars on the cages were large enough for a human hand to pass through.
He told the court that in 2012, following his visit, the department had sent a written warning to Polidano. A subsequent visit in April 2014 noted that “nothing had changed,” resulting in a second warning being issued.
He said that the businessman had told him that he “could not touch the structures” due to the MEPA issue, but Chetcuti Ganado said his interest was animal welfare, not planning permission and after a third visit in July 2014 he wrote to the Commissioner of Police, requesting action be taken.
He however noted that steps were being made in the right direction, adding that that the swine had already been moved out and that in roughly three week's time the felines are to be relocated to larger enclosures.
Questioned by the magistrate, the veterinarian confirmed that all the animals' paperwork had been in order and that they had been legally transported to Malta in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Summing up the witness’ testimony, defence lawyer Michael Sciriha said that in effect the pigs were no longer an issue, cruelty had been ruled out and Polidano had demonstrated “absolute cooperation with the authorities.” Progress had been registered he said, and the only issue still outstanding was the housing of the big cats, which should be resolved in the coming weeks.
The case is to continue in June, with the possibility of an on-site inspection by the Magistrate in the interim period.