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Airlift Venezuelas starving zoo animals

Issued: 2018-03-14

By Jim Wyss

March 13, 2018 04:48 PM

It sounds like a plan ripped from a Hollywood script.

A massive, C-130 Hercules cargo plane lands in western Venezuela, loads up starving and sick zoo animals in the dead of night and then transfers them to national parks around the world.

But that’s exactly what Raul Julia-Levy — an animal rights activist and actor who is hounded by controversy — is hoping to do.

Jarred by images of bone-thin lions and grim reports that zookeepers have resorted to feeding “lesser” zoo animals to hungry carnivores amid a nationwide hunger crisis, Julia-Levy is lobbying Venezuela to green-light a mass evacuation.

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“The situation with all the lions and the tigers is something that is beyond reason, and so beyond anything you might think is possible,” he said from Mexico City, where he’s trying to organize the effort. “I can’t imagine a place in the world where they let the animals suffer so much.”

Venezuela has been producing such grim news lately that many have become numb to it. Hyperinflation, food shortages, rampant crime and political turmoil are fueling a mass exodus and reports of crushing hunger.

But even amid that news, the fate of Venezuela’s zoo animals has triggered a new round of shock.

When pictures of a skinny elephant named Ruperta at the Caricuao Zoo emerged last year, the story made international headlines. This year, it has been pictures of emaciated pumas that have appalled the world.

Read More: Venezuelan exodus reshapes a region

Most of the problems at Venezuela’s zoos boil down to the nation’s dire economy, said Doris Rubio, with Venezuela’s Association for the Defense and Protection of Animals.

Her branch of the organization keeps tabs on the Municipal Zoo of Zulia State in western Venezuela, where Julia-Levy is hoping to evacuate a lion named Danko.

Built on 99 acres of land in 1973, the zoo sits about 14 miles south of Venezuela’s second largest city, Maracaibo, and used to be a regional tourist attraction.

Rubio says the first real problems began about four years ago, when 56 horses from the local racetrack came down with a disease. Rather than euthanizing them, the cash-strapped government decided to feed them to the zoo’s predators.

But while they were waiting to become a meal, there wasn’t enough money to keep the horses themselves fed.

“The horses were left to fend for themselves without any food or water,” she said. “We tried to raise the alarm about it, but nobody listened. It was incredibly sad to see them end their days like that. They didn’t deserve to die that way.”

Since then, problems have only gotten worse. And amid the negative press, the zoo shut its gates to the public.

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Lenin Danieri, a local journalist, managed to sneak into the complex last month. He said it’s broken down and dirty, and that many of the cages are empty — giving credence to reports that some animals have been killed to feed others, or that animals are being stolen by hungry locals.

“The problem is, there’s no record books and no one’s keeping track,” he said. “One day an animal is there and the next it’s gone.”

Rubio also described widespread problems at the zoo: Refrigerators used to store meat for the animals are broken, and the hydraulic pumping system isn’t functioning, so the manatees don’t have enough water in their tank.

Danko the lion seems dangerously hungry and lethargic, she said, and there’s a tiger with a sarcoma on its neck that zoo officials haven’t been able to treat because there’s no anesthesia.


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