Thursday, January 2, 2014
Tiger tales and tricks
Alfred E. Baldacchino
The first time I came face to face with a tiger was in December 1989 following Malta ratification of the CITES convention – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
Along the years tigers had started being observed on a leash in Malta: at Marsa and Marsaxlokk and also being blessed at Church functions. Rumours abounded about one in a shelter in Valletta guarding some precious things. Another tale was of a tiger in a garage kept on valium – it had grown too big and dangerous – while another was sold as a cub for an initial Lm50 but fetched Lm1,000 after changing hands a number of times. It also spent some time in the company of a politician, God bless his soul.
There was one story of two felines in a wedding hall. After Cupid had homed in on his target and the couple had tied the knot, the felines provided a memorable photo as a background to the newlyweds. What a macabre souvenir! Animal lovers who were at the wedding made angry telephone calls and wrote letters protesting about the presence of the caged felines. Despite the intervention of the forces of law and order, not a whisker was found! Funny what circus-oriented animals can do.
I remember one particular year when a circus had just landed at the Valletta quay. Enquiries about African elephants accompanying the circus returned an official reply that no elephants were seen with the troupe. Yet three elephants appeared daily on every show. I became convinced that circus animals could indeed perform tricks.
It has become a rule of thumb that when a circus comes to Malta, miraculously, a tiger gives birth. Circus tigers and their cubs are usually housed in a long trailer divided into three compartments, with the middle cage housing the paraphernalia used by the cats to jump over, under or through, during the show. I cannot imagine for a moment that elephants can hide under such paraphernalia which if they did, understandably, would make them very difficult to see.
December 2013 indeed landed a circus bonanza: this time two tigers delivered. Seems that the smell of Maltese waters induces tigers to deliver, not just in the ring. Initially it was stated that the cubs were born after they set sail. This would have ruffled some feathers because felines, being CITES and EU listed species, cannot be transported without a certificate indicating their origin, even if born in captivity.
The air was cleared when it was realised that pregnant tigers could not travel, and this adjusted the date of birth of the tiger cubs. So the onus of certification reverts to the country of origin who have now to see to the paper work when, and if, the cubs return back home as a family, all in ‘good shape’.
EU Member States have to designate customs offices to carry out the checks and formalities for the introduction of listed species, and these have to be provided with trained staff to vet the obligatory certificates before the animals leave or enter a country.
When, during the last couple of years, felines walked through customs as easy as a walkover and started appearing in private collections, even on roof tops, the then minister responsible for animal welfare, following uproar in the press, promised regulations for the keeping and housing of exotic animals which could be dangerous to humans.
Procrastination was the name of the game, and whether this is still on the back burner or in deep freeze, is well worth knowing.
In the meantime the Animal Welfare Act (Act No. XXV of 2001) administered by the Veterinary Services, covers the monitoring of ill treatment of animals, including aggressive animals which may present a danger to the safety of man or other animals. On paper these animals shall not be bred, imported or sold in Malta.
On a positive note, there were discussions on the use of wild animals, even if captive bred, performing in circuses after the end of 2013, following strong representations by animal welfare groups. A white paper has been promised, hopefully not a paper tiger, following the collection of signatures by an objecting minority group.
This year will hopefully bring relief for captive wild animals. These will be saved the crossing from Sicily, the stress of the insular voodoo, having to deliver during transit or after landing, and the humiliation of performing to ‘educate’ clapping crowds amidst a background of rubbing hands, before returning to their crammed caged compartments.
However, one would do well to remember that one who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. A Chritmas cracker in December 2014, if delivered, can hold the answer.