The Malta Independen
t. June 24th: 2
DUNCAN BARRY speaks to the co-founders of the Malta Herpetological Society, Arnold Sciberras and Chris McGowan, who have expressed concerns over the lack of specialised knowledge of some owners and in the private business sector in the upkeep and trading of exotic animals imported to Malta. In a bid to raise awareness, the society’s representatives have embarked on a campaign to protect the health of exotic animals, maintain public safety and the country’s ecological integrity.
The Malta Herpetological Society – founded this year to promote the scientific study and conservation of local wild herpetofauna and education for the responsible ownership of herps and related animals – expressed concerns over the “responsible” ownership of exotic animals imported to Malta, pointing out that the upkeep and trading of exotic animals entails much more than one may think.
According to the society, those seeking these unusual animals cannot ignore the threats these animals may face as a result of poor knowledge.
Mr Sciberras and Mr McGowan said one of the society’s main concerns is that exotic animals being imported to Malta are in some rare instances being released into Maltese wildlife, ending up alien to the environment, the result: a negative effect on local biodiversity and greatly decreasing the animal’s chances of survival.
The two also said that some of those owning or trading in reptiles or amphibians don’t always have the proper knowledge on how to treat such animals while more awareness needed to be raised among the public in general to highlight that reptiles don’t necessarily pose a risk to humans.
Their calls follow a number of incidents that hit headlines involving exotic animals imported to Malta, mainly referring to the case of ‘Skittles’, the five-foot Rainbow Boa that went missing last year and had been found dead near the Junior College in Msida.
Mr Sciberras also referred to another case, this time involving an imported frog which was dumped in Gozo back in 2004 and since then believes has contributed to the destruction of some dragon fly species frogs rely on to survive while also pointing out that it is “competing” with the local frog species.
The owner of the boa constrictor had claimed that it is very gentle and docile and there was no reason for alarm, requesting help from the public. He had appealed to anyone who was not scared of the snake to gently scoop it up from its belly and place it in a box. At the time, a vet had also confirmed that the snake was neither aggressive or nor venomous.
However, two weeks after its escape, the boa was found dead after reportedly having been run-over by a vehicle.
Mr McGowan pointed out that reports of snake sightings in the Kennedy Grove area has so far always turned out to be local snake species, which meant that most people were not aware that Malta played host to four different snake species.
“How many out there are aware of the fact that four different species of snakes breed on the islands, one of which is mildly venomous,” they asked, referring to the cat snake, while emphasizing that its bite is not fatal.
Mr McGowan, interested in the subject since childhood, and who has conducted a number of presentations on the subject in different countries, said that the society has forwarded a number of proposals to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority on how best to enhance awareness and education to lessen the unfounded fears and scaremongering among the public, as well as guidance for amateur breeders and the private sector, referring to pet shops.
They said that the authorities should also re-evaluate between which animal should be legally imported and ones that should be banned from being imported to our islands.
He said that it is vital studies are conducted to establish how many people own reptiles or amphibians in Malta while also emphasising that some pet shop owners and amateur breeders needed to be better informed of what measures, such as the right type and amount of lighting and heating, should be used when when taking care of exotic animals.
The society covers many branches related to herpetofauna activity in Malta, including animal welfare and education for the responsible ownership of exotic animals, and ‘herping’, deriving from the word herpatologists - an activity or technique used to search for species under natural cover objects such as rocks and logs.
While the society endorses caging standards, sound husbandry, escape prevention, and an integrated approach to vital conservation issues and control of alien species, the society’s main goal is to enhance cooperation between the authorities, the scientific community, and the private sector in order to produce policy proposals that will effectively address important animal welfare, husbandry and conservation issues.
“The health of these animals, public safety, and maintaining ecological integrity are the primary concerns of this NGO,” Mr Sciberras said.
While urging the public to handle exotic animals with care and respect, the NGO urged all those seeking information on exotic animals to turn to the society by contacting it through its Facebook account www.facebook.com/groups/MHSMalta/
Turning to local species, they highlighted that it is illegal to even touch let alone collect local snake species.
They said that they are willing to support anyone requiring any information on exotic animals.