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Going to the dogs…

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It might be slightly ‘cliché’, to start an article about animal welfare with one of Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous quotes on the subject… but what the heck? ‘Clichés’ become ‘cliché’ for a very good reason, you know (and besides: I happen to be running a little late this morning; so the earlier we get this show on the road, the greater the chance I actually meet my mid-afternoon deadline.)

So without further ado, here goes: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

And there you have it: Mahatma Gandhi’s most instantly-recognisable epigram; a quote so famous, it has since doubled up as a slogan for countless animal shelters, animal advocacy groups, and animal rights NGOs, worldwide…

…even if, apparently, those words never actually appear anywhere, in any of the 98 volumes of the ‘Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’.

[Quick digression: according to the Hindustani Times, “this is a quote attributed to Gandhi by an unknown author who wanted to cast the Mahatma in a romanticised light”. And hey, you never know: this information might one day win you a million euros… if it ever crops up as the winning question, in ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’!]

Useless digressions aside, however: there are a couple of other disclaimers that have to be made, before this show can progress any further.

The first is that: regardless whether or not Mahatma Gandhi ever said those words: they still remain the opinion of only one, single, solitary human being. And no matter how widely-shared that opinion might be… it can still always be challenged by anyone who happens to (for whatever reason) think differently.

Secondly: there is always going to be a certain element of ‘hypocrisy’, involved in actually applying that maxim to the ‘moral progress’ of any real ‘nation’.

To put that another way: Gandhi, as far as I am aware, was 100% vegetarian. I myself am no such thing; and nor, I wager, are around 90% of my readers. Effectively, this means that our own ‘moral progress’ should also be judged by how we treat all the ‘animals’ (and ‘animal-products’) that we ourselves consume, in the course of our daily lives…

And what can I say? It’s like being judged in a trial-by-media: you’re ‘found guilty’, before the case even begins…

So, erm… maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to start with that Gandhi quote, huh? After all: cliches can also become ‘problematic’, for equally valid reasons. But still: we’re here now, aren’t we? And as far as I can see, there’s only one direction out of this ‘other fine mess I’ve gotten myself into, this time’…

How about, then, we all just admit to being hypocrites, for the time being… and accept that we are ALL at least just a little ‘guilty’, of the gross crimes being perpetrated against animals, in this country, on a daily basis…

… so this way, we can free ourselves up to concentrate on the only aspect of Malta’s animal welfare sector that I have – completely arbitrarily, I freely admit – CHOSEN to focus on, for the purposes of this article.

‘Abandoned animals’. That is to say: all the countless ‘cats and dogs’ (and yes, all sorts of other critters) that routinely turn up on the doorsteps of Malta’s severely over-crowded animal shelters, every single day of the week.

And not just the ones which also turn out to have been ‘shot’, or ‘beaten’, or ‘starved’, or ‘mauled by other (equally mistreated) dogs’ (or even ‘roughly treated by Animal Welfare officers, during a rescue’….)

Again, there are perfectly good reasons why those cases are bound to attract far more media coverage, than others… even if we all know, at the end of the day, that they represent just the ‘tip-of-the-iceberg’. [Note: another thing about clichés, is that they’re a little like ‘Pringles’. Once you pop, you can’t stop…]

But just to give you an idea of the sheer scale of the crisis, faced by the Animal Welfare Department of late… this is from an article dated March 14, 2023:

“The number of abandoned dogs found on Malta’s streets has risen rapidly in the last six months, with insiders fearing the situation is reaching crisis point.

A source within the Animal Welfare Department said the number of abandoned dogs is ‘spiralling out of control’, and it is becoming the norm to encounter FOUR TO SIX ABANDONED DOGS PER DAY!” [my emphasis].

I need hardly add, naturally, that the figures underscored above were not exactly a ‘fluke’, when it comes to Malta’s animal welfare statistics. As long ago as the early 2000s (or thereabouts), I remember writing articles for the Malta Independent, about the exact same problem: then as now, animal shelters were woefully under-equipped to deal with the scale of the problem they were facing… and the job of actually rescuing abandoned animals fell mostly – as it still does today – on the shoulders of a handful of voluntary, non-governmental (and mostly under-staffed, and under-funded) organisations.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that at no time in the past 20 years, has the Animal Welfare sector not faced some form of ‘crisis’ or other; specifically, when it comes to the ‘accommodation and relocation of abandoned animals’. And at moments, these crises took the form of full-on ‘life-or-death’ emergencies, too…

In July 2022, for instance, the Malta Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (MSPCA) made a public call for help, because a ‘storm’ – and please note, I’m not being metaphorical. A ‘storm’: you know, ‘rain, wind, lightning, thunder’; that sort of thing – threatened the lives of ‘many helpless animals’.

Meanwhile, just a couple of weeks ago, the same MSPCA raised the alarm once more: only much more urgently, this time… as its 100-year-old Floriana premises are in dire need of refurbishment; and there is no room in the rest of Malta’s animal shelters – or even in private homes, it seems – to serve as temporary accommodation, for all the ‘cats and dogs’ it currently houses.

Clearly, then, the crisis described above has continued to ‘spiral out of control’, throughout the past year… reaching a situation where practically all Malta’s animal rights NGOs are now resorting to social media, to complain about the ‘inactivity’ of the Animal Welfare Department… and in particular, the ‘detachment’ of Animal Rights Minister, Anton Refalo.

And – for the third time – I once again have to add: ‘not without good reason’. After all, we are talking about a crisis that falls very squarely within Minister Refalo’s portfolio of responsibilities; and, what’s more, a crisis that could very easily have been avoided, altogether… had Refalo ever delivered on his government’s 2017 electorate promise, to build a ‘National Animal Sanctuary’ – specifically, described as a ‘rehoming centre’ – in Ta’ Qali.

But what do you know? Seven years after that promise was made, there is still no ‘National Animal Sanctuary’ anywhere to be seen: either in Ta’ Qali, or anywhere else on these islands. The last we heard of this project was in June 2023: when Antone Refalo candidly admitted, in an interview with Newsbook, that the government was still ‘drawing up the plans’.

Nor was that the only government promise, on the subject of animal welfare, that failed to ever actually materialise all these years later. In a statement issued in response to that same 2013 interview, animal welfare NGOs “listed a long line of unkept promises […] including legislation to regulate breeders, legislation to regulate and licence pet sitters, groomers and trainers, and legislation on zoos that was issued, and withdrawn immediately after protests from zoo owners…”

And yet, throughout all this time… where has Minister Anton Refalo actually been, while this crisis was ‘spiralling out of control’? And where is he still hiding today, for that matter?

Why, what a silly question to ask! Look, he’s standing right there: next to where the National Animal Sanctuary is supposed to be standing (but clearly isn’t); or there, in Malta’s Code of Laws… where the new rules are supposed to be regulating ‘zoos, and pet sitters, and groomers, and trainers’ (but clearly aren’t)… and above all, THERE: the same place where all those countless other ‘unkept government promises’ slink off to die, the moment they serve no further purpose to the people who originally uttered them…

‘Nowhere to be seen’. (Just like all the ‘moral progress’ this nation never made, when it comes to ‘the way its animals are treated’…)

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