The young zoo guide points into the cougar cage. “As you can see, the animals’ ribs are not visible,” she tells a family visiting the Caricuao Zoo in Caracas, one of the largest in Venezuela. “The bellies have fat on them. Here the animals are well fed," she says defensively.
In Venezuela, where the country is facing severe food shortages, officials have largely denied that animals are in danger, despite a number of media reports suggesting the nation’s zoo animals are starving.
Early last month, Caricuao officials recognized the deaths of two tapirs. They said one of the animals ate a piece of plastic that produced a bowel obstruction, and the other had stomach ulcers. On the night of July 24, a horse was stolen and killed on a mountain close to the park “to be stripped of its meat,” the prosecutor investigating the case wrote in a press release.
But Marlene Sifontes, the union leader for employees of state parks agency Inparques, says the number of animal deaths is higher. According to Sifontes, budget and management failures plus severe shortages have led to delayed food shipments and hungry animals. “Forty wild pigs, one Vietnamese pig, two tapirs and one porcupine have died this year,” Sifontes says. “It’s taken up to 15 days to get food.”
Like most Venezuelans, zoo animals are on the “Maduro diet,” a common expression to explain weight loss due to difficulties finding and paying for food. Last year, the Survey of Venezuelan Living Conditions -- conducted by three major universities, UCAB, UCV and USB -- warned that 87% of respondents did not have enough money to buy food and 12% were eating less than twice a day. That number has since grown.
President Nicolas Maduro blames the United States and other countries for waging an “economic war” on Venezuela.
Five months ago, animal diets were reformulated at Caricuao in an effort to keep pace with inflation and shortages. Carrots were swapped for pumpkin and rations were adjusted to reduce costs. "We are experiencing what everyone else in the country is,” a zoo worker says. “It requires more effort but the food arrives." They deny that animals are dying of hunger. Mangoes, which have become the base of many Venezuelans’ diets, are being collected by the park for animals.
Ruperta, the only elephant at Caricuao, weighs a ton and a half and should eat 3% of her weight every day. That translates to more than 110 pounds of vegetables and about 440 kilos of grass. Last Tuesday, the animal had dry and leathery skin, and sucked up mangoes thrown by a caregiver with her trunk.
Zoo workers said that between June and July there was a shortage of supplies, but that what is most affecting animal nutrition is the monotonous diet. “In the administration they say everything’s fine and this is the land of Narnia,” one employee said. "There is a lack of food and variety, they don’t bring us everything the animals need. Just like in humans, this produces human malnutrition, skin problems, kidney problems. Moreover, people throw anything to the animals, like fruits with pits, and the hungry animals will eat it.”
The Minister of Ecosocialism and Water Ernesto Paiva visited Caricuao last week and said the media is trying to spread “the idea that animals are dying of hunger.” In a press release, he wrote: "The animals are very dear to us and treated as if they were family.”
It's a similar situation at other zoos in the city. Between Juny 7 and 14, Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda Park, which has 13 animal exhibits, did not receive fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, minerals and entrails, the staple diet of most species in captivity. Then, the food storage cellar broke down. Workers complained that they needed outside food donations to be able to feed the animals.
Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda has also seen a number of animal casualties. Of four endangered ara militaris macaws, just one is left. Birds and monkeys are showing the effects of malnutrition. Some are aggressive and listless, which park workers say is a sign they are hungry.
In March, Western Venezuela’s Paraguana Zoo was closed due to a lack of resources. Three spectacled bears, an endangered Venezuelan species, were transferred to a shelter in the state of Merida in the Andes. The zoo will also move four tapirs, one puma and six monkeys to other zoos.
Esmeralda Mujica, president of the Venezuelan Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said that the situation is worrying. "It is absurd to think that there would be food for zoos if there is none for us,” she said. “The situation is the same for all Venezuelans. We have no money, we have no medicine, no antibiotics for animals.”
The organization, made up mainly of animal scientists and biologists, plans to propose a number of solutions to the Ministry of Ecosocialism and Water. Mujica said that the Latin American Association of Zoos has offered to send international aid for animals in captivity. But that would require authorization by the national government to receive shipments and create a mechanism to allow for foreign cooperation.