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Venezuela's zoo animals are starving, and a one-time actor wants to airlift them out

Jim Wyss, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

BOGOTA, Colombia -- 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.

"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.

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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.

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.


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