An apparently malnourished African elephant in a Venezuelan zoo — her ribs showing through her sagging skin — has become the latest symbol the deep economic crisis in what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations.
As pictures of an emaciated 46-year-old elephant named Ruperta in the Caricuao Zoo began circulating in newspapers and social media, Venezuelans have launched a food drive to save the pachyderm.
Caracas’ El Universal reported that Ruperta is suffering from diarrhea and dehydration after zoo officials only had squash to feed her for several days. According to the newspaper, when neighbors tried to bring food to the elephant over the weekend, the donations were turned away by zoo officials citing sanitary issues.
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The government denied Ruperta is going hungry, saying that a stomach ailment had caused her to lose weight and required her to be on a restricted diet.
“Ruperta the elephant is in stable condition and under the permanent care of experts,” Venezuela’s National Institute of Parks said in a statement.
But in a nation where a grinding economic crisis is forcing many to skip meals and go hungry, Ruperta’s fate has touched a nerve.
If there’s not enough food for Venezuelans imagine what’s left for the animals “that can’t even complain,” wrote a Twitter user named 350 Ya!. “I’m like Ruperta because I’ve lost so much weight.”
Román Camacho, a local reporter who broke the story, said a whistle-blower within the park service alerted him that Ruperta had grown so hungry that she collapsed last Thursday.
Camacho eventually made his way to the zoo and snapped pictures that have been widely circulated. He said in a country where hunger has become so commonplace, it surprised him that news of Ruperta has traveled so fast.
“When the hunger crisis is so severe that it’s affecting the only African elephant in all of Venezuela, then people take notice,” he said.
Since last year, there have been multiple media reports of zoo animals going hungry in Venezuela.
According to El Nacional newspaper, on March 6, the workers union at the Caricuao Zoo asked the courts to intervene, saying that lack of food, cleaning, and basic supplies had contributed to the death of six macaws and a puma at the zoo.
Also last year, a horse at a local zoo was reportedly butchered by hungry Venezuelans.