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

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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.

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.

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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.

The Miami Herald attempted to call the zoo, but a former employee confirmed that no telephone lines are working. Calls to the mayor’s office also went unanswered.

But officials have told local newspapers that the problem is being hyped by the press. And it’s also clear that social media is muddying the waters. One widely circulated and alarming image that purports to be of an emaciated lion was actually taken at a zoo in war-torn Yemen.

But there’s no doubt that the crisis is real. And given the chaos, Rubio is promoting Julia-Levy’s plan to medivac the animals out of the region, at least temporarily.

“The lion is dying,” she said of Danko. “And what we’re asking for is that we be allowed to provide help that has no political strings attached.”

But in Venezuela, offering help has become a political statement. The government insists there is no true hunger — of people — and has rejected offers of humanitarian aid.

Last week, the Red Cross, once again, publicly asked the socialist administration to allow the importation of much-needed medicine.

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Julia-Levy said he already has access to a C-130 cargo plane and commitments from parks and reserves in Mexico, the United States and Europe to take the animals. And while he says there’s nothing political about what he’s trying to do, he acknowledges that his efforts are being undermined by politics.

He claims local officials in Zulia state have given him tacit permission to evacuate some of the animals — but are worried about the reaction it might produce from the central government and President Nicolás Maduro.

“The first offer they made me was to come in the middle of the night, load the f------ airplane with these animals and ship them back to Mexico,” he said. “But that’s not the way you do things. That’s not the way you show your activism and commitment to the world. That’s the most bizarre way to do things.”

Julia-Levy is no stranger to controversy. The 46-year-old is the son of deceased Hollywood actor Raúl Juliá, who is best known for his roles in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and as Gomez Addams in the “Addams Family” franchise.

But the actor’s widow told the New York Times in 2005 that Julia-Levy is an imposter. It’s an accusation that Julia-Levy has successfully challenged in the Mexican courts and called “full of crap.”

He also says that he recently survived a shadowy kidnapping attempt in Mexico that left two people dead, and he shared pictures of the bloody carnage.

But Julia-Levy’s animal rights activism is well documented.

“My father introduced me to the world of Hollywood but it wasn’t attractive to me at the time,” said Julia-Levy, who has had some roles in Hollywood and Mexico. “Something kept moving my interest and goals in another direction, which is animals.”

He started the Raul Julia-Levy Foundation in 2007 — a private foundation based in Mexico — and spends much of his time being an advocate for stray dogs and the country’s circus animals. He has also been a vocal advocate for the release of Lolita, the orca whale at the Miami Seaquarium.

But right now he says he’s focused on making contact with Maduro — usually through Twitter messages — and tapping into his compassion. Julia-Levy says there are about 100 animals in urgent need of care and evacuation.

“I am begging the president to bring me the weakest animals, the sickest ones,” he said, “because they are going to die there soon if we don’t help.”

Jim Wyss: @jimwyss on Twitter