The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

This is my passion and I will keep doing it until I draw my last breath – zookeeper

Neil Camilleri Sunday, 19 December 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

CHRIS BORG, the owner of Wildlife Park in Imtahleb, says zookeeping is his passion and he will continue doing it ‘until his last breath. Interviewed on ‘Indepth’ by The Malta Independent’s editor-in-chief Neil Camilleri, Borg says he disagrees with a proposed legal change that would prohibit the breeding of wild animals in captivity, arguing that zoos should be allowed to regulate themselves in this regard. He also disputes the claim that the handling of animals is detrimental to their wellbeing.

The breeding of animals at zoos and wildlife parks should not be banned and these establishments should be allowed to regulate themselves in this regard, Borg says.

His own Wildlife Park in Imtahleb stopped breeding animals at the beginning of this year, but he says this was his own choice and zoos should not be forced to neuter their animals.

The neutering of wild animals at zoos had originally been included in a draft bill that was issued for public consultation in late 2020. The original bill would also have seen wild animal petting become illegal. Controversially, these two proposed changes were dropped in a revised draft bill that was issued only 24 hours later. At the time, Animal Rights Minister Anton Refalo was accused of bowing down to pressure by zookeepers.

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Photos/Video: Giuseppe Attard

Even though the public consultation exercise was concluded in December 2020, the new regulations have not yet come into force, with the ministry failing to update the media in this regard. A few weeks back, Refalo said that an impact assessment of Maltese zoos was being carried out. He assured this newsroom that both zoo owners and animal rights groups would be consulted. Refalo also said he personally believes that no new zoos should open in Malta.

The zoo issue remains a hot potato locally. Activists want government to shut down animal parks and Opposition MP Mario Galea recently called or a boycott by the public.

The Malta Independent spoke with Borg to get a zookeeper’s side of the story.

Right off the bat, Borg played down the idea that anyone can be a zookeeper or that this is an easy job. He says, in fact, that his zoo is not a business, but rather a passion project and states that it does not turn a profit.

“You don’t wake up one day and open a zoo just because you are an animal lover. You must be born with a passion for it. I built this place myself with the help of professional people, always following the guidelines issued by the authorities. This is my passion. It is not a business.”

Borg says there are laws and regulations in place to govern the running of zoos, the size of enclosures and other aspects. These laws, he says, are there to protect the welfare of animals, not to penalise the zookeeper. “If you don’t follow the law, the animals will suffer. You cannot even get these animals if you do not adhere to the regulations.”

“Before you get the animals, you are obliged to see what kind of enclosure is required. Government veterinarians then come to inspect the place and they will not issue an approval unless you meet every single requirement.”

Borg says this makes sense and he would never send for the department before making sure that he has everything in order.

Animal rights activists often state that, if one loves wild animals, they should not put them in a cage. So how does Borg respond to this?

“Unfortunately, I believe these people do not know what they are saying. If they really loved animals, they would not speak like this. They would go deep into the subject before they speak. These animals are bred in captivity. It is illegal to put an animal in the wild after it has been bred in captivity, and vice versa. Anyone saying that these animals should be released into the wild has not done their homework.”

Borg says breeding is something that zookeepers do out of love for animals. It’s their dream, he says. “I see nothing wrong in breeding these animals as long as you have an adequate place to keep them. In our case, we have already started to control breeding.”

“I want to make it clear I’m against giving animals away to people, with or without payment. These animals are like our children. When animals are born here, I feel the same happiness I felt when my own children were born, so it does not even cross my mind to give them away. But I am speaking for my own here. I don’t know what others are doing.”

Borg says it is “unfair” to make breeding illegal. “Who are we to decide for the animal, unless for health reasons, to sedate them and castrate them? Would you want this done to you? Why should we do this to animals just because they do not have a voice to speak? There are other methods, such as medication, which is not permanent.”

He says zoos should be allowed to regulate themselves. If they have no more room, they will automatically stop breeding.

Visitors at the Wildlife Park can pay to bottle-feed a tiger or have their photo taken with a bear cub. Activists say this process should be banned. Animal Welfare Commissioner Alison Bezzina was among those who called for an end to the practice, saying it can hurt the natural bond between animal and mother.

But Borg argues that there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. “If anyone can produce solid proof that handling animals is detrimental to their health, I will stop doing it. But from my experience, there is no harm in this. To the contrary, it is beneficial because it is considered as a form of therapy for many people.”

He says those making these claims do not speak from experience. “I live with these animals and know what their needs are. It’s like raising a child. How can someone, who has only seen such animals on television, say that they are suffering?”

Borg says that the idea that newborn animals are ripped away from their mothers and manhandled for people’s enjoyment is a “wrong interpretation” of the real situation.

He says that, over the years, he has bottle-fed tigers who were also feeding naturally, due to necessity, and no harm was ever caused to the animals. In some cases, he says, this is done in order to save the animal’s life.

Asked if he agrees with Refalo’s opinion on new zoos, Borg says that, as a zookeeper it would be selfish of him to agree. Ultimately, this is a matter for the minister to decide on, he says.

Asked about the proposed new regulations – if he disagrees with any of the proposed changes or if he thinks anything else should be added – Borg says that most of the proposals being made are already included in existing regulations.

“The only new things are the petting and breeding. But all the other requirements are there and must be followed in order to have your license renewed every year. If you don’t follow them, you won’t get the permit.”

Borg says some zoo detractors are trying to damage establishments like his “in order to look good”.

“If we all love animals, tell us if something is wrong and we will fix it. Constructive criticism helps us improve, but why come here and demand that we close down?”

Borg questions what would happen should zoos be forced to shut down. “This is something I have asked myself. What if I woke up tomorrow and decided I don’t want to do this anymore? Will these NGOs take care of these animals? Is there anyone in Malta who is willing and capable of caring for them if I stop?”

He also disagrees with the idea that zoos are a money-making-business that are run by people like him to make a fortune. “If someone believes this, I am willing to hand over the park for a period of time of their choosing and see how many days they will survive with the money the park generates. Then we would see if they would make enough money from the two days per week the park is open to be able to care for these animals.”

So what’s the point of keeping it open? Isn’t it easier to just close it down?

“I had that choice four years ago when the park burned down. Even some family members had urged me to do that. I had accepted to do that and only keep the animals that survived and close down the park, but without even realising I started rebuilding it and making it better. This is something that is in me. My mind says one thing, but my heart speaks differently. Some might think I’m crazy, but this is my passion. It gives me satisfaction and I will keep doing this until I draw my last breath. I went through a lot; I suffered, but I will not stop.”

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