One-man battle to save his animal sanctuary

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One man’s enthusiasm to establish an animal sanctuary on the outskirts of Nicosia keeps on hitting snags, some bureaucratic, others malicious, leaving owner Menelaos ‘Melios’ Menelaou frustrated.

Two weeks ago, Melios imported from Europe animals with all the necessary documentation as he did many times in the past.

Except for this time, some officials claim he was denied the 30 animals and birds, including a pair of camels, a zebra and four deer because the ‘zoo’ is illegal.

They were confiscated at the airport and sent to another location until state officials allegedly decided on their fate because they were illegally imported.

But the location wasn’t a government facility as one would expect.

Instead, it was another private facility in Paphos, and the animals are now commercially exploited as they are on display for visitors to see.

If the animals were imported illegally, why haven’t they been kept in a government facility or at Melios’ until authorities sort things out?

We asked the head of veterinary services, Christodoulos Pipis, who said they are only kept there for safekeeping.

An avid animal lover, Melios started collecting mainly birds from a young age.

Having overgrown his home’s confines by 1989, he moved to a family plot near Ayii Trimithias, ten minutes drive west of the capital.

By 2000 he decided to place the animal sanctuary on a solid foundation, evolving from a hobby to a fully-fledged enterprise.

And this is when the problems began.

This is a common dilemma faced by hundreds of self-made entrepreneurs in Cyprus who cannot fathom the rigidity and extent of bureaucracy and often abandon their dreams.

But Melios kept on and, upon advisement, established the sanctuary as Melios Pet Centre, with a license to import, maintain, care for and display animals.

The collection grew, and he frequently resorted to buying animals from European zoos, all with proper documentation.

Periodically, authorities inspected his facility to check on animal welfare and found it in good standing.

However, rights groups often criticised Melios for keeping animals in unhealthy conditions and tight cages, which remained unsubstantiated allegations.

This culminated with a full-fledged raid on the park in April 2007 by Game Services officers. Some of them were photographed destroying eggs of rare birds with their bare hands, while other animals were killed or injured.

Melios’ grief found some solace among many other obstacles that followed after being paraded through the courts like a criminal for 13 years.

Only this time, a Nicosia district court judge ruled that the Game wardens were wrong to raid the facility and found them at fault, imposing a fine on the government in October 2020.

The authorities were also ordered to pay expenses.

Although small, the fine was a slap for the government services, over whom there seems to be no oversight.

Under pressure, by February 2016, the Ministry of Education put an end to school visits to the centre, citing health and safety regulations and that it does not have a valid final construction permit.

This contradicts an earlier permit issued by the Veterinary Services, allowing Melios to operate on a zoo license, expiring in September 2017.

“About 80% of all buildings in Cyprus do not have a ‘final approval’ for construction, many of which are pending for years.

“Which makes me wonder why I am being targeted,” said Melios.

Siberian Tiger

Allegations continued, with animal support groups claiming in 2018 that Melios was maltreating a Siberian tiger, initially reported as dead, only to be found alive and well, another victim of negative social media hype.

Vet services have not found any case of animal abuse but continue to cite other regulations.

Melios Pet Centre’s zoo license was not renewed in 2017 based on the absence of a ‘final permit’ for construction.

He said his architect had drafted a new application according to stringent regulations, but inspectors continue to disregard his appeals.

Melios said there are also conflicting views between government departments, with the labour office responsible for workplace safety saying the facilities and animal cages conform to regulations, while the vet services insist they do not.

A former official at the animal welfare coordinating group said they had inspected Melios Pet Centre, prepared a report, and made recommendations for improvement.

“Any recommendation is welcomed, and we try to cooperate with all organisations, even those who make malicious claims.

“I know that some of them may be biased against any animal facility, while others are often misinformed, not realising that apart from housing 3,000 birds and animals, we care for wounded animals and help in their recuperation,” Melios said.

He now operates based on a farm and is allowed to breed animals.

While high-level government officials avoid getting entangled in what seems to be a public-private sector spat, Melios is desperately trying to keep his business afloat only because of the favourable feedback from visiting families and tourists.

“We have not received EU funding or other grants, while we often see other facilities getting public funding or municipal aid.”

Last month, a shipment of two camels, a zebra, four deer and 21 pheasants and ducks were confiscated by Vet Services officials upon arrival at the airport, despite the animals arriving with all the appropriate documentation.

They were born in captivity and are not wild, Melios said, responding to other allegations that he was importing wild and endangered animals.

A senior Vet services official said they were not “confiscated” but taken to another facility for safekeeping.

Tourists spotted two of the camels at another private zoo in Paphos.

“And if we imported them illegally, how come they are being kept at another zoo, charging visitors to see them,” asked Menelaou.

Pipis told the Financial Mirror that “no one is out to get Melios. It’s just that it is an illegal establishment, with no ‘final permit’ for construction.”

“These animals will have to be returned to their countries of origin at Melios’ expense.

“He (Menelaou) cannot import these animals.”

Pipis said there are three or four outstanding cases against Melios Pet Centre.

Asked why the authorities do not shut down Melios, Pipis blamed the justice system, with the pile of paperwork a deterrent for anyone to deal with it.