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Let’s not shoot horses

The other day, a horse pulling a traditional karozzin collapsed and died in Floriana at about 1pm – the height of the summertime heat. A few days later another horse drawing a karozzin collapsed but, fortunately, did not die.

Both cases have raised concern among animal-lovers and activists who called for a ban on karozzini. Both the Parliamentary Secretary for Animal Rights and the Animal Welfare Department expressed concern.

Most importantly, however, the Animal Welfare Commissioner, Emanuel Buhagiar, urged a ban on the use of karozzini on hot summer afternoons when the temperature exceeds 30˚C. He explicitly pointed out that horses suffer during the summer months, particularly hot afternoons in July and August.

Karozzin drivers warned, however, that banning horse-drawn carriages or limiting their hours would lead to a “massacre” of working horses. While they would welcome more checks and enforcement of regulations, they would be unable to afford to keep their horses, which were mostly retired race horses that would otherwise have to be put down once their racing lives were over.

The Animal Welfare Commissioner tends to agree that a total ban on horse-drawn carriages, as advocated by animal rights activists, would lead to many horses having to be put down. He concurs that the priority should remain on regulation and enforcement. Inspections should be conducted daily, with a vet doing frequent spot checks.

“There should be harsh penalties for those who do not go by the regulations and abuse animals,” he said, adding that “these penalties need to be specific to what the abuse committed was and could even lead to a suspension of licences in some cases.” In a note of frustration, he pointed out that regulations had long been in the pipeline and that “there was no reason to wait any longer”.

Although not directly connected to the recent death from heat exhaustion of the horse in Floriana, the Animal Welfare Commissioner has rightly also strongly criticised the lack of regulations on horse-racing at the recent Santa Marija horse races in Victoria, which took place at 2.30 pm, rather than in the morning or late afternoon. In his judgment, there should be a total ban on horse races between noon and 4 pm.

Mr Buhagiar noted that though short races did not pose particular animal welfare concerns, the scorching afternoon temperature – which reached 44˚C on Santa Marija – was barely tolerable for humans and equally intolerable for race horses. Of course, traditions are important – the Santa Marija races, for example, apparently date back to medieval times and were originally held to encourage people to rear horses and similar animals to defend Gozo against marauding attacks – but a civilised society should place a higher priority on the well-being and welfare of animals.

The unfortunate and harrowing death of a horse in searing summer heat has exposed another gap in Malta’s regulations on animal welfare. While it would be unreasonable and counter-productive to ban all karozzini outright, regulations – apparently in the pipeline for some time – should be enacted immediately to focus more specifically on the welfare of horses drawing them.

Penalties for abuse must be tightened up and targeted more directly at different kinds of abuse committed by drivers or owners. New regulations are also clearly required and enforced to control the times at which horse races in July and August are conducted.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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