The chances are that if you are reading this, you’ve watched Netflix’s newest insane docuseries, Tiger King.
Controversial, wild and very furry, Malta’s got its very own version of the Oklahoma-based Joe Exotic – and for many, he’s just as contentious as the famous American tiger breeder.[embedded content]
Anton Cutajar runs L-Arka taʼ Noè, an 800 sqm animal park in Siġġiewi.
While Joe Exotic might have 176 tigers, Anton’s got a much more modest 17, though he says they include some very rare species, such as a Maltese tiger – his name is Mr Grey – white tigers, golden tabbies, as well as Siberians and Bengals.
And just like Joe Exotic, he’s a magnet for criticism.
The topic of tiger breeding in captivity is a contentious one – there are more tigers currently living in captivity in the USA than there are wild in the whole of Asia.
Animal activist groups like PETA have called out exotic animal collectors who they say leave their animals in “miserable conditions in captivity, breed them and take their babies away” for profit.
And Anton’s tendency to show off his cubs and tigers has landed him in hot water before, with accusations of him taking advantage of the animals for profit being rife.
But Anton, who says he does not sell tigers, finds the idea of anyone trying to make a profit from showcasing animals laughable… at least in Malta.
“This isn’t a company, this is my hobby – I don’t make money from this, and if someone wanted to try and open a park to make money, I’d tell them to get ready for a big loss and to go crazier than this COVID-19 virus situation is,” Anton said.
Indeed, Anton lives on the park and sees his tigers as “family” and wants to give the Maltese people the rare opportunity of getting closer to tigers and other exotic animals like alpacas, zebras and wallabies.
“And we don’t sell tigers, though we have given donations to parks and zoos. Since the law changed in 2017 you need to have a licensed zoo to buy a tiger in Malta,” he points out.
While Anton has yet to actually see Tiger King – he’s been busy running the park as he animals still need to be fed and cleaned, though it’s closed – he is keen to speak on the topic of captive vs wild tigers.
“Everyone has their opinion, and some people prefer to see these animals in the wild, while some prefer to see them in captivity. I’m not against those who want to see them wild, but if the tigers are born in captivity, it is going to be hard for them to survive in the wild afterwards,” he said.
Saying that captive tigers live nearly double as long as wild ones, he pointed out the high quality of life he said his tigers enjoy.
“We don’t abuse our animals, we don’t do anything as you see in the circuses. They are born in captivity, live in captivity and have a relaxed life – they don’t get hunted, or have to worry about escaping,” he said.
Indeed, Anton has some strong feelings about tiger hunting and the hunting of exotic animals.
“People pay thousands to kill these creatures…. if I saw someone hunting tigers, I might end up going to prison myself, what a shame it is,” he says.
Pictured above: Anton giving a tour during a recent Open Day for children with special needs
Anton wishes he had more space to feature more rare animals, though he is working on a new project inspired by a certain lion-themed Disney film.
“I get criticised all the time, but there are people who understand me out there,” he says.
“They tell me they don’t have the money to go to Africa to see them in the wild, and in zoos they are behind a cage inside, let alone in the safari where you probably won’t see one – over here, they can get close and meet the tigers outside.”
And though Anton has been missing the guests, especially children with special needs as he says, following the COVID-19 outbreak, the animals “don’t know what happened and are as relaxed as ever”.
Until the pandemic is over, Anton’ll be busy maintaining the park and taking care of his “family”.