A few years ago, there were so many donkeys, or burros, in the Venezuelan state of Falcón that they were a problem — herds everywhere, causing highway crashes and blocking airport runways.
But over the past three years, the herds have shrunk dramatically as thousands of burros have been slaughtered for their meat by Venezuelans suffering through a near-famine.
“There’s no more burros here,” said Odalys Martinez, a resident of the Paraguana Peninsula in northern Falcón.
The collapse of the Venezuelan economy is radically changing the eating habits in the oil-producing country, where large sectors of the population are being forced to pick through garbage and slaughter domestic animals to sate their hunger.
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The burros’ disappearance in Falcón has set off alarms among authorities in the state, where it had prospered after it was declared a protected species and was used by residents only to carry cargo or to plow agricultural lands.
“From 2015 to today, 2018, the burros disappeared,” said opposition parliament deputy Eliézer Sirit.
His fellow deputy, Luis Stefaneli, said burro was not part of the traditional Venezuelan diet, like in China, Spain and parts of Latin America.
The clandestine slaughter of the animals also has become a sanitary and environmental problem, Stefaneli added. There are no sanitary controls, and the burro has been disappearing from its native habitats.
The burro population was so large in Paraguana just a few years ago that it created serious security problems. The airport in the Falcon state capital, Coro, assigned a vehicle to clear the animals from the runway before all landings and takeoffs, to avoid a tragedy.
And along the isthmus that links Coro with Paraguana, 17 miles long and almost four miles wide, herds of burros sleeping or resting on the road often surprised drivers.
The 54-mile highway between Coro and Punto Fijo still has road signs with images of burros that warn “Danger, Animals on the Road.” In 2001, a legislator proposed building walls along the road to keep the animals away.
“What was a highly risky road yesterday because of the number of burros, is not dangerous any more,” said Sirit. “There are no burros. We ate them all. Total extinction.”
Years back, residents of Paraguana used to eat goat, fish and beef. And when those were in short supply they ate rabbits, grains and even iguanas.
Burro meat was not liked because it’s tough and smells, even from far away, according to residents who have eaten it. But it has become a necessity for many people.
A shortage of goat meat in Falcón was sparked mainly by thefts in a rural area affected by drought, lack of investments and electricity services, Sirit said.
He added that the idea of eating burro meat was introduced by Cuban medical personnel who arrived in Venezuela under the bilateral cooperation agreement known as Barrio Adentro.
“When the Cubans came to Venezuela, as part of the medical and sport delegations, they asked the people of Falcón for burro meat,” he said.
“Our people did not eat it. The burro was only a pack animal.,” he said. “Hunger eliminated the goats and the burros in the Paraguana Peninsula.”