By Evie Andreou
The arrival of two Siberian tigers and two lions at the Melios Zoo and Pet Centre in Ayioi Trimithias, Nicosia two weeks ago has revealed glaring weaknesses in national legislation safeguarding animal welfare.
The titles ‘pet centre’ and ‘zoo’ are significant. Melios is a licensed zoo which means owner Melios Menelaou would have needed to obtain a special licence from the state veterinary services to import them. But Melios is also registered as a pet centre and here no such licence is needed. Menelaou chose the pet centre route which means that legally, these dangerous animals – and in the case of the Siberian tigers, endangered species – are pets!
Siberian, or Amur tigers are the world’s largest cats. They live primarily in eastern Russia’s birch forests, though some exist in China and North Korea. There are an estimated 400 to 500 Siberian tigers living in the wild.
To be able to survive Siberia’s subarctic climate, characterised by long, usually very cold winters, and short, cool to mild summers, Amur tigers have thicker fur coats than tigers that live in southern Asia and a thick layer of fat to keep warm.
So how can a Siberian tiger survive summer in Cyprus where temperatures reach and sometimes exceed 40 degrees?
For Menelaou, none of this is an issue as the two Siberian tigers he brought over were born and bred in captivity, so were not used to living in actual Siberian temperatures.
“Their enclosure is comfortable; there are trees, and we have built a stone cave for them to be able to escape the heat. We also plan on constructing a pond to keep them cool,” Menelaou told the Sunday Mail.
Furthermore, since the tigers were born in captivity he was able to import them with the EU’s blessings.
“We got the tigers and the lions from a park in Belgium. According to EU legislation we are allowed to obtain endangered species that were born in captivity, from other EU countries. We have all the relevant paperwork,” Menelaou said.
State authorities have a different take on things, but appear unable to stop him or others who import exotic animals, as there is a void in legislation.
Cyprus abides by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which allows trade of endangered species born in captivity between EU countries. The aim of the CITES is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Since national legislation does not specify which animals are considered as pets, pet shops can import anything, from cats to tigers, as long as the latter were born in captivity and are obtained within the EU. “Melios is a licensed zoo, and if he wanted to add new animals to his collection he would have to obtain permission from the vet services – which he didn’t,” said an official of the agriculture ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The zoo section has a wide range of animals including zebras, kangaroos, hyenas, llamas and deer.
A zoo has to get the green light from a plethora of government departments such as the environment services, the health and safety department and the veterinary services. It is a costly and complicated procedure. The checks on pet shops are far less stringent and in the case of large animals mostly focus on the size and security of enclosures.
The loophole in legislation over what constitutes a pet, the ministry official said, meant Menelaou could import these animals to his pet shop section.
For the public the difference is negligible. The tigers’ and lions’ enclosures are at the moment outside the zoo’s designated area, but are in an adjacent plot that is registered under the pet shop he runs.
According to the ministry official if at any point he wished to ‘transfer’ the animals to the zoo, he would have to get the veterinary services licence.
But he has no incentive to do so since the pet shop and the zoo are all in the same area and accessible to visitors. The separate entrances and a small entrance fee charged to enter the zoo means nothing in practice.
For animal welfare organisations such legal loopholes are unjustifiable and mask a bigger issue of animal welfare.
“It is not about having the right paperwork. It’s about the animals’ welfare. Instead of state services just checking the paperwork they should examine the animals’ needs,” said the head of the Animal Party, Kyriacos Kyriacou.
“Siberian tigers should not be allowed into Cyprus, since conditions here do not resemble anything like their natural habitats.”
He added that to be able to provide the tigers and other exotic animals a decent living, zoos need the proper infrastructure, tailored according to each animal’s needs which is not cheap.
“There are many zoos in Europe which are forced to close down because they cannot afford to sustain their animals properly and we are importing exotic animals to live in substandard conditions,” Kyriacou said.
The Siberian tigers however are not the only animals at the zoo that seem to be out of place.
During a visit to the premises earlier in the week, the various types of deer were lying in dusty, dry enclosures without a single tree, with just a covered area to protect them from the sun and rain.
In the wild, deer inhabit temperate mixed deciduous forest, mountain mixed coniferous forest, tropical seasonal/dry forest, and savannah habitats around the world but they need adequate forest or brush cover.
In the enclosure of the dama dama or fallow deer, there were 16 deer cramped into around 30 to 40 square metres.
According to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) animals in zoos must have adequate “space and furniture sufficient to allow such exercise as is needed for the welfare of the particular species”.
EAZA also stipulates that enclosures must be of sufficient size, to avoid animals within herds or groups being unduly dominated by individuals and to avoid the risk of persistent and unresolved conflict between herd or group members or between different species in mixed exhibits.
“Because there are more male deer in those enclosures, a year ago, two male deer, that fought each other to mate with females, died,” Kyriacou said.
He added that members of the Animal Party also visited the zoo within the week and have registered several issues, including dry water troughs and ungroomed animals.
The law provides that zoos are controlled by the vet services to secure the animals’ welfare, the ministry official said.
As regards to pet shops, Kyriacou said the situation has long got out of hand, since lack of regulation allows them to import animals that are just not pet material.
“Do you know how many people who adopted as pets raccoons, monkeys and other exotic animals come to us to help them find the animals a more suitable place in zoos or parks abroad to live in? Is this what we are going to do from now on? Send animals away that were not supposed to be here the first place?” Kyriacou said.
To return to the ‘pet’ tigers, the obvious question is whether anyone could buy one of the tigers living at Melios’.
“Yes they could, but the same animal welfare laws applicable for zoos and pet shops apply to private ownership as well. Anyone who wants to buy a tiger would have to first have their proposed enclosure approved by state services. There is a penalty for failing to do so,” the ministry official said.
Acknowledging the lack of restrictions and their consequences, the vet services are currently working on a law amendment which specifies which species can be considered pets.
“There’s been talk about this proposal for so many years. Had the law passed a year ago, we wouldn’t be in this situation today,” Kyriacou said.
The Green party has also condemned the uncontrolled import of animals on the island and said they have filed a proposition to discuss the issue at Parliament.