CARACAS: The situation in economically depressed Venezuela is so dire, workers at one zoo are slaughtering animals to feed others — with two emaciated pumas poster kids of sorts for the distressing state of affairs.
The zoo — located in the town of San Francisco in Zulia state — closed down this month after horrific pictures surfaced showing starving animals.
The list of malnourished creatures includes a lion, a Bengal tiger, a jaguar and several birds of prey, zoo staffers told AFP recently.
Ducks, pigs and goats have been sacrificed to feed other animals.
The bone-thin pumas were saved from poachers, and photos of them published in the newspaper Panorama have shocked people across this oil-rich country — saddled by hyperinflation and acute food and medicine shortages as a result of lower petroleum prices.
The big cats were skinny when they first arrived at the zoo, but later got better. However, with Venezuela’s latest crisis “it is as if they shrank,” one zoo worker said.
A male and a female Andean condor, born in captivity and brought to the park as part of a breeding program to save the endangered species, have gone weeks without being fed properly.
Two birds of prey were so hungry they cannibalized a cage mate, staffers said.
“The Bengal tiger had been the heftiest, and the lion, as it was very old, was skinny but it also lost weight,” a staffer said.
To get around the lack of meat, zoo officials started hunting iguanas, which run wild in the zoo, and fishing tilapia from lagoons in the facility.
‘Dark age’ for zoos
Besides the lack of feed, Zulia’s only zoo, on the border with Colombia, has been beset by theft. In 2016, at least 40 animals including a tapir were stolen, presumably by people looking to salvage meat — as Venezuelans are struggling mightily.
The minimum wage, equivalent to US$27 a month at the official exchange rate, is barely enough to buy two kilos (4.5 pounds) of meat.
So people are living off rice and tubers like yuca — also known as cassava — according to a study by major Venezuelan universities. It said a staggering 87 percent of the population was living in poverty last year.
Dirwings Arrieta, the mayor of San Francisco, has announced an overhaul at the zoo including upgrades to the water system and raises for staff — but said nothing about all the hungry animals.
Other zoos are also hurting.
In 2016 at the Caricuao Zoo in Caracas, a horse was killed by assailants who salvaged its flesh to eat. In the state of Falcon, two wild pigs were stolen from a zoo.
Peacocks and other birds have been stolen from Bararida Zoo in Barquisimeto, 250 kilometres (155 miles) southwest of Caracas, said Carlos Silva, a veterinarian who has worked there for 13 years.
Citing the situation in Zulia, Mexican actor and philanthropist Raul Julia, who runs a wildlife foundation in California, has offered to help the animals.
Silva said zoos in Venezuela are enduring a “dark age.”
“What we have seen in Zulia is something you see in countries at war. All because of politics, of which the animals know nothing.”