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Doubts raised over zoo handlers’ licence

‘Illegal to take big cats from cage’

Licences for handlers are granted with a zoo’s permits –which the Montekristo Animal Park has never been issued. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Licences for handlers are granted with a zoo’s permits –which the Montekristo Animal Park has never been issued. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The animal handlers at the Montekristo Animal Park “could not have been licensed” because the whole zoo has not yet been given the thumbs up, Animal Welfare Commissioner Manuel Buhagiar said yesterday.

Mr Buhagiar told the Times of Malta that licences for handlers were granted together with a zoo’s permits – which have never been issued to the Montekristo Park. “If a permit for the zoo hasn’t been issued then nothing is in line and nothing is legal – not even the handlers’ licences, if these have even been issued,” he said when asked if the zoo’s handlers were registered and adequately trained.

The licences for handlers as well as for zoos are issued by the Veterinary Services Department. When contacted, however, department head Robert Balbo would not comment on the park, which is subject to a magisterial inquiry.

The Montekristo Animal Park was thrust into the national spotlight last weekend after a three-year-old boy was injured by an adult tiger which had been taken out of its enclosure by handlers.

I don’t think six men would be able to control an adult tiger, never mind just two

The handlers, which a park spokesman said normally exhibited good control over the big cat, had taken the tiger out of its cage on a leash because it was “feeling sick”.

The tiger, however, lashed out at the young boy, who was among many guests visiting the park at the time.

Mr Buhagiar, an experienced animal welfare officer, questioned how just two handlers were expected to manage a fully grown adult tiger with visitors present.

“I don’t think six men would be able to control an adult tiger, never mind just two,” he said, adding that it was illegal to take wildcats out of enclosures while the park was open to the public.

A park spokesman could not comment on the handlers’ qualifications when asked.

This, however, is not the first time the park has come under fire.

It is currently facing legal proceedings for irregularities related to the size of the animals’ enclosures.

Mr Buhagiar said that he had first investigated the park as a welfare officer three years ago, when the legal case against it was in the process of being compiled.

CEO visiting injured boy and family

Jean Paul Sammut, the CEO of Montekristo Estates, yesterday said he had been in constant contact with the family of the tiger attack victim.

He had visited the boy and his family at Mater Dei Hospital after the boy was scratched by an adult tiger at the Montekristo Animal Park.

“As a father I understand the sensitivity of this case,” he said.

The Times of Malta yesterday reported Dr Sammut saying the incident had exposed the need for better health and safety standards across the island.

Dr Sammut also drew comparisons between the incident at the zoo and at the Paqpaqli motor show last month, during which 26 people were injured when a supercar crashed into a crowd of spectators.

Dr Sammut, however, yesterday clarified that the comparison was only meant to highlight that after such incidents it was “easy to make calls for improved standards” and that many often did.

He said he did not wish to blame the authorities for the incident but had conceded that improved standards were needed. He added that he did not wish to imply that the zoo incident was any less serious than that of the motor show.

He said he had only mentioned the need for improved standards after having been asked the question by this newspaper.

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