Photograph by Carlos Jasso, Reuters
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A lion sleeps inside a cage at the Caricuao Zoo in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 12.

Photograph by Carlos Jasso, Reuters

Animals Starving in Venezuela Zoos

The country’s poor economy, triggered by a drop in the price of oil, has led people as well as zoo animals to go hungry.

When a nation is plagued by hard times, people aren’t the only ones to suffer.

About 50 animals at Venezuela’s Caricuao Zoo have starved in the last six months due to the rising cost of food, caused by the nation’s economic downturn. Rabbits, tapirs, porcupines, pigs, and birds are among the fallen at the country’s northern zoo. Some went without food for two weeks.

The National Parks Institute (INPARQUES), which oversees the country’s zoos, blames the shortages on the nation's economic crash, caused by a plummet in the price of oil (Venezuela is a major oil producer). The country can’t afford to import food, medicine, and other necessities, and inflation has caused prices to skyrocket.

“The story of the animals at Caricuao is a metaphor for Venezuelan suffering,” Marlene Sifontes, union leader for INPARQUES employees, tells Reuters.

Caricuao Zoo staffers have been feeding carnivorous lions and tigers diets of mango and pumpkin. They are also giving an elephant tropical fruit instead of hay. Other big cats are reportedly being fed slaughtered Thoroughbred horses from a nearby racetrack.

Meanwhile, many Venezuelans go without food on a daily basis and wait in supermarket lines for hours. The nation’s starving economy has driven people to hunt dogs, cats, and pigeons for food. On Monday, visitors to a zoo in Caracas, the nation’s capital, reportedly stole a horse and butchered it for meat.

Care and Feeding

“Long-term, feeding the incorrect diet for any animal can have significant long-lasting health effects,” says Meredith Whitney, a wildlife rescue program officer of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an animal protection organization based in Washington, D.C.

Short-term, Whitney adds, animals can be affected psychologically. She works on improving living standards for big cats, and once encountered a malnourished animal with neurological difficulties. Diarrhea, bone abnormalities, and organ function are also side effects of malnourishment.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) outlines animals’ nutritional needs in its Animal Welfare Strategy. Lack of food can lead to mental decline, the group warns.

Given Venezuela’s nationwide economic situation, says Gail A’Brunzo, IFAW wildlife rescue manager, “You can expect the animals to be impacted in some way.”

Moving Animals

Outside the capital, zoo administrators in the western state of Táchira have asked local businesses to donate fruit, vegetables, and meat to feed the animals. In May, three animals died at a zoo in the Paraguaná Peninsula, in northwestern Venezuela. Staff are now attempting to move 12 animals more than 420 miles (676 kilometers) south to a park in Mérida.

“If these zoos continue to operate after these animals are transferred and get new animals, [the suffering] could arise again,” Whitney says.

As of this writing, no international animal rights organizations have committed to relocating the remaining zoo animals.

All animals in the country, bipedal or not, are suffering. And Venezuela isn’t the only place where animals have been hurt by a poor social climate.

Global Threat

In March, the World Post reported 200 animals dead at the Khan Younis Zoo in southern Gaza. Mohammad Oweida, owner of the zoo, says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevented staff from adequately feeding or caring for the animals. Oweida started to amateurishly mummify the animal carcasses and kept them on display, but the cadavers have since been removed. He also tried to sell an emaciated tiger, ostrich, and pelican to buy food for the zoo’s remaining animals.

Four Paws, an animal protection agency based in the U.S., is raising funds to go to Gaza to shut down the Khan Younis Zoo. Four Paws has been in direct communication with Oweida since February and is now working to finalize arrangements.

"If owners can no longer properly care for these precious lives, the animals should be handed over and/or confiscated by the proper authorities and placed with an accredited organization or sanctuary that would best care for them," Four Paws writes in a statement.

Animals at the Taiz Zoo in southwestern Yemen are also victims of a nationwide crisis. The raging civil war there prevents tourists from visiting, which stifles the zoo’s revenue. Without funds, animals went without food or medicine while zoo workers went without pay. As of February, at least 12 lions and six leopards have died there. Four Paws doesn't currently have plans to enter Yemen due to safety concerns for its staff.

“It all comes down to organizational management,” A’Brunzo says. “If the zoo is in imminent financial crisis, they need to take steps to provide for these animals. Ailing zoos should reach out to partner zoos or organizations that might be able to help, she adds. “This does not appear to be a short-term thing.”

This story has been updated with information provided by Four Paws.

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