‘Animals are my children’
Mario Sali kisses a tiger on its nose and the big cat responds by licking him back through the iron bars of its cage.
As he makes a tutting sound to attract the tiger’s attention, Mr Sali rubs its underbelly.
“These animals are my children,” he tells journalists invited to see the animals on display at the circus that has set up tent in Naxxar.
Mr Sali, 61, owns Circo Fantasy and is the fourth generation of his family to be born in that lifestyle.
He points to his arm where a crocodile bit him some 40 years ago. “I still love animals,” he says fully aware of the concerns raised by animal rights activists on the treatment of circus animals.
Mr Sali insists the 80 animals that form part of his circus are all born in captivity and are domesticated. They are not trained to do circus acts, he adds.
He acknowledges the “only problem” is that the animals live in cages but justifies this by pointing out that they were born there. The main attraction is a 400-kilogramme white Siberian tiger that paces back and forth in the arena under the big tent surrounded by metal bars.
“Don’t put your hand inside,” Mr Sali cautions journalists. Lying down in the same arena is another tiger, eyes fixed on the camera.
Mr Sali’s circus includes camels, ostriches, horses, pumas, snakes, crocodiles and a tapir. A small white horse was bought in Malta three years ago when the circus last visited.
As he walks past the cages, calling out the names of the animals, Mr Sali insists that if his animals were not well kept it would show.
“Animal rights activists have to spend a month with us to see how we treat our animals before they dish out criticism. We have raised them since they were young and I don’t want to abuse them,” he says, urging activists not to create problems outside the tent. Mr Sali’s justifications for keeping wild animals are unlikely to allay concerns raised by animal rights activists. In a recent document presented to the political parties, activists called for a ban on animal circuses.
As Mr Sali gives details of the show that will include acts by 45 artists, two young women drive past. They stop and reverse. “Animal cruelty,” they shout in a high pitched voice.
The controversy is unlikely to go away fast.