As Venezuela’s Food Crisis Worsens, Some Are Stealing Zoo Animals To Eat

Authorities suspect that animals stolen from Venezuela’s neglected zoos are sold as food, exposing a starving Venezuela in an economic crisis.

Venezuela authorities investigating numerous animal thefts from the Zulia Metropolitan Zoological Park in Maracaibo, Venezuela, suspect that the stolen zoo animals are being sold as food. “What we presume is that they [were taken] with the intention of eating them,” said Luis Morales of the National Police.

Reuters reports that at least ten species of animals including a buffalo, two wild boar-like collared peccaries, and two South American tapirs have gone missing from the zoo in the last two months. Zoo head Leonardo Nunez believes the buffalo was dismembered and cut into pieces before it was taken off-site, and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the tapirs are vulnerable to extinction.

Theft is not the only issue.

Zoos across Venezuela have lacked sufficient food supplies to feed their own animals, resorting to diets of chopped pumpkin and other scraps. Last year at the Caricuao Zoo in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, 50 animals died from starvation and malnutrition as vultures circled above. The Los Angeles Times reported in July that a mountain lion and an American buffalo are among this year’s casualties.

Ruperta, an emaciated elephant and once prominent attraction at the 40-year old Caricuao Zoo, now awaits a similar fate. “She’s been here ever since the zoo opened. It’s not right that she is dying of starvation,” said Maribel Garcia of the Caricuao Ecological Network, a volunteer support group claiming to have been ignored by the Maduro appointed zoo administration.

stolen zoo animals
Tapirs at Venezuela’s Zulia’s Metropolitan Zoological Park in Maracaibo. Photo by STRINGER/Reuters

Ghost Zoos

Because of the thefts and the deaths, the animal population at the Caricuao Zoo has dropped from 700 in 2006 to less than 150. Last year, it was confirmed that a black stallion was butchered for meat, and this year a prized leopard disappeared. Other stolen zoo animals include peacocks, mandarin ducks, goats and wild pigs.

Despite reports and personal accounts, the government denies the animals are starving or being slaughtered for consumption. According to Reuters, a government official told Venezuelan reporter Isaac Urrutia that the animals are treated “like family.” In which case, it does not seem the government thinks much of family.

Like Zulia, the Caricuao Zoo is for all practical purpose abandoned. It has become a no man’s land, due to lack of management, staff and security. Local resident Carlos Avila speaks to its deteriorating conditions:

“In my youth this was my favorite place in Caracas. There were exotic animals like ostriches, rhinoceros, lions, bison. Now people don’t come. It’s turned into a ghost zoo.”

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