Malta is an open-air zoo, but the keepers are all amateur and no one is in charge.
New foreign residents on the island may have been shocked to read that Eric Attard of Zebbug was fined this week for keeping a leopard in his house — and he got to keep the cat.
The court briefly considered taking his oversized kitty away from him because he was a repeat offender. Attard also had a trio of cougars at home which he only registered with the Veterinary Services Directorate when he heard he was about to be charged in court.
But it’s ‘orrajt, hi’. I’m sure he won’t do it again. The other residents of Zebbug are perfectly safe (more or less).
The fine for keeping the massive predator was €2,000 paid in instalments — a pretty good deal when you think about how much it costs to feed such an animal.
Of course, anyone who has ever seen a leopard up close would question the court’s wisdom. All big cats are not created equal.
Cheetahs can be tamed, more or less. I crawled under a tree with one at the N/a’an ku sê wildlife sanctuary in Namibia. Her name was Samira. She purred like a lawnmower and loved to be scratched behind the ears.
Leopards are a different story.
I also watched a man at the sanctuary throw raw hunks of meat over an uncomfortably thin electrified fence to a pair of leopards that prowled back and forth with liquid grace. Their cold appraising stares and the frustrated growls from deep in their chests made it clear they regarded us as food.
The keeper who had raised them from cubs told me he wouldn’t dare go inside their enclosure unless both had been darted to make them sleep.
It doesn’t work like that in Malta, of course, where amateur zookeepers have their own ways of knowing that are superior to the lore of African gamekeepers.
You can import and keep whatever dangerous predator you like here and no one will do anything about it — not even if you’re running an illegal zoo and your tiger happens to maul a kid.
Attard is far from alone in his hobby. Then Minister for Animal Rights Anton Refalo took an inventory of privately kept exotic beasts in December 2020 and came up with a list that included “64 tigers, 20 lions, 11 leopards and 24 pumas”.
And that was just the big predators. They also found 16 fallow deer, 10 pygmy goats, 13 Barbary macaques (like the apes of Gibraltar), and 23 assorted monkeys.
Some are housed in illegal zoos that operate without permits or oversight — believe it or not, there’s more than one in Malta — and some are kept in people’s homes.
Nothing is done about this, of course. I mean, what if enforcement officers knocked on the door and ol’ Frank Buck the Great White Trapper released the pumas?
This bizarre situation remained stagnant for two years until Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina proposed a very Maltese solution.
are now living on roofs, in residences and garages, unregistered and under the radar of the authorities.”
Unfortunately, the government isn’t able or willing to confiscate them. Instead, she proposed a “time-limited amnesty”. The big cats will still be there, of course, but if there’s no law to break, did their owners do anything wrong?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. So what? How often do you bump into a wild beast of the non-human kind in your daily life in Malta? There was a time when I thought that way too. And then I looked at a rental flat in Safi.
The apartment we were viewing had a few things going for it, but I just kept getting an uneasy feeling about the owner. He sat in a chair watching horse races on TV, and whenever the agent directed a question his way, he said something in Maltese, wiped his hands twice and shrugged.
We had just walked out the door and started getting into the car when the guy turned to me and said, “Wanna come to my house and see my monkey?”
I stopped and turned back.
“Absolutely,” I said. “I would be delighted to see your monkey.”
We followed him to the other side of Safi and parked in front of a very large house. Sure enough, he had a small monkey in a tiny courtyard, tied to a wooden ladder with string. It started screeching and jiggling as soon as we walked in.
“You can approach it if you want.”
I walked over and put my hand out to touch it. The monkey leapt off the ladder, wrapped its arms and legs around my forearm, and started biting my wrist with great enthusiasm.
Each time I tried to put it back, the filthy thing leapt on me and bit me again. It certainly showed more interest in our tenancy than the owner had done, but perhaps it wasn’t a horse racing fan.
I finally got my index finger and thumb around its throat and choked until it let me go. When it was safely back on the ladder, I stepped beyond the distance of the rope and looked at this poor little creature, sitting alone in its own stink.
“Where did you get it?” I asked, rubbing my wrist.
“Libya,” he said with a big smile. “I have a friend with a boat. We went across one night, and I bought the monkey from a Libyan for €1,500.”
I thanked him for this interesting wildlife experience, turned down his offer of drinks and cigarettes, and politely took leave. What I really wanted was water and soap to wash my arm, lest I come down with some sort of pox or an inordinate fondness for bananas.
We did eventually find a nice flat on a dead end road at the outskirts of Zurrieq, with views of open fields and Mdina in the distance. The owner lived on the floor above, and she kept an eye on the place when we traveled. I always had great landlords in Malta who quickly became friends.
In hindsight, I got off easy with a light gnawing. I’m just glad that Safi guy didn’t have a leopard.