No medals–and no peace–for the beleaguered birds of Malta
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2001:
MALTA–King George VI of Britain in 1942 awarded a cross for
bravery under fire to every resident of Malta who had survived more
than two years of intensive bombing by the Italian fascists and Nazis.
Before and after the aerial seige of Malta, the millions of
migratory birds who make brief rest-and-feeding stops there have
endured flak more intense than anything the bombers faced–because
unlike the British troops, who were isolated from any source of
resupply, Maltese hunters need not hoard ammunition.
The estimated 16,000 to 20,000 hunters among the current
Maltese population of 391,000 shoot or net about four million birds
per year. Barely half of the hunters are licensed.
“The greatest problem,” says Liz Curmi of Bird Life Malta,
“is that people can hunt and trap birds each spring, when young
birds fly over while going to breed.”
Located between Sicily and North Africa, the Maltese
Archipelago was an important stopover for birds for millions of years
before humans came–and the birds were hunted, too, under the
Phoenecians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Sicilian Normans,
Spanish, and French.
Capturing green finches, robins, and other songbirds for
sale in cages may have begun in the Middle Ages.
Shotguns arrived under British rule, beginning in 1800, and
so did contest shooting, in which merely killing birds became the
object, rather than killing them to eat.
The Maltese falcon was soon hunted to extinction. The
short-toed eagle, booted eagle, sparrow hawks, osprey, and merlin
are all imperiled, Bird Life Malta surveys show.
Founded in 1962, Bird Life Malta and several younger
pro-animal organizations have tried to restrain the killing–but
Malta gained political independence from Britain in 1974, just as
the modern British animal protection movement was beginning
Twenty years passed before Malta, under pressure from the
European Union, ratifyied the Bern Convention on Conservation of
European Wildlife and Natural Habitats; banned hunting in nature
reserves; banned hunting songbirds during the spring migration;
published a list of protected species; forbade the possession of
protected species; and cut the hunting season to five months.
When these reforms were instituted in 1974, Friends of
Animals’ director of international affairs Bill Clark reported,
“Maltese animal protectors were beaten up, had their homes
firebombed, and were shot at.”
The hunting season was restored to 354 days in 1996–and
enforcement remains absurdly weak. A 1998 review of aerial photos
reportedly found 5,317 clap-nets on the 122 square miles of Maltese
land surface: 44 per square mile.
“Both Maltese political parties are too frightened to open
their mouths,” says Liz Curmi. “There are 10,000 registered hunters
on Malta, plus 3,500 trappers,” and the poachers, “and in a nation
where elections are usually decided by about 2% of the vote, they
can easily swing an election.”
There were an estimated 30,000 hunters in Malta, licensed
and unlicensed, as recently as 1990. But unwilling to wait to gain
clout as hunters’ numbers dwindle, Bird Life Malta in early 2000
joined with government agencies and the leading association of
hunters to form a Foundation for Bird Conservation–whose purposes
include preserving bird hunting as well as conserving birds.
The alliance is bitterly criticized by World Animal
Conscience, the leading animal rights group, founded in 1998 by
Marcel Ellis and Michael Pearson.
World Animal Conscience campaigns on many issues, perhaps
most notably to goad the Malta SPCA and animal contol providers into
bringing their policies and facilities up to British standards. It
is one of two Maltese animal protection organizations which tend to
see some of the other groups as often impeding progress as rather
than giving it impetus.
The other is SOS Animals Malta, a coalition of rescue groups
including the Community Animal Welfare Society and Foundation of St.
Francis for the Animals. But SOS Animals Malta representative
Emmanuel Magrin, in an e-mail of introduction to ANIMAL PEOPLE,
seemed equally critical of World Animal Conscience, since the latter
emphasizes advocacy rather than hands-on care.
By U.S. standards, the Maltese rate of killing homeless dogs
and cats is very low, at 7.5 per 1,000 residents–but World Animal
Conscience believes Malta has few enough homeless animals, with
about 500 dogs and 1,000 cats estimated to be at large, that it
could become a no-kill nation.
The Malta SPCA, “keeping our noses a half inch above water,”
according to director Mary Shepherd, has just begun a sponsorship
program for homeless dogs, but has not won government funding of
neuter/return programs for either dogs or cats.
“A major target of ours is to neuter dogs,” says Mary
Shephard of the SPCA in Malta. “Unfortunately many of the men of
Malta will not accept this–they say the dog is ruined.”
Malta is overwhelmingly Catholic. Divorce and abortion are
illegal. These values often spill into animal welfare efforts,
Shepherd says. The Malta Parliament even recently digressed into a
discussion of outlawing animal abortions.
The Malta Parliament has drafted but not yet ratified the
nation’s first animal welfare law–“a skeleton of what it should be,”
says Sara Muscat of Nature Trust (Malta). The bill protects only
owned animals used for work, sport, food, or kept as pets. Strays
and wildlife would remain unprotected.
“We are very disappointed that the minister did not consult
with the nonprofit animal welfare organizations,” says Muscat. “The
bill is not good and we complain and all we get is the usual
A British-era anti-cruelty law exists, but the top penalty
is a fine not to exceed $55.
A comprehensive “Survey on the Care of Animals” commissioned
by World Animal Conscience in November 1999 found that 99% of the
Maltese public believe animals should have some rights, 86% believe
that animal protection laws should be strengthened, and 80% believe
the treatment of animals in Malta makes a bad impression on tourists.
But even near-unanimity on an issue does not ensure progress.
The survey also found that 99% of the 400 respondents agreed that
carriage horses should have shade as they await customers. Pressured
by World Animal Conscience, the government then in power built horse
shelters–but after the opposition won a landslide victory in the
2000 elections, the shelters were dismantled, supposedly because
they were put up without permits. They have not been replaced.
“The Maltese can turn anything into a political issue,” says
Michael Pearson of World Animal Conscience.
“The feelings of the Maltese people are the same,” said
Jason Bonnici of the Malta Nature Trust. “What we need to change is
the mentality of the authorities.”
–by Chuck Todaro
(with ANIMAL PEOPLE staff)
Bird Life Malta: Marina Court 57, Flat 28, Abate Rigord St.,
Ta’Xbiex MSD 12, Malta; <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Malta SPCA: <Spca@waldonnet.net.mtg>.
Malta Nature Trust: P.O. Box 9, Valletta CMR 01, Malta; 356-
248558; <email@example.com>; <www.naturetrustmalta.org>
SOS Animals Malta: Paplick, Triq Alfred Camilleri, Attard, Malta;
World Animal Conscience: P.O. Box 1, Zurrieq, Malta; 356-227-834;