Having rescued Cuba with cheap oil, Venezuela is to be paid back in zebras
SOON after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, goes an old Cuban joke, the signs at the Havana zoo that read “Please do not feed the animals” were changed to “Please do not take the animals’ food”. When the Soviet Union crumbled and withdrew its aid to Cuba, triggering the so-called “special period” that began in the early 1990s, times became even harder and the joke changed. The new signs, so the story went, begged visitors not to eat the animals.
For those who lived through it, the special period was anything but funny. Domestic cats disappeared from the streets and reappeared on the dinner table. The zoo population thinned out. “The peacocks, the buffalo and even the rhea [a South American bird that resembles an ostrich] disappeared,” says a Havana resident. “The hyaenas became vegetarians, the zoo was depopulated and even the tigers had only sweet potatoes and a bit of cassava to eat.”
But while the old 26th Avenue Zoo in Havana was losing its animals, the revolutionary authorities somehow maintained a safari park outside the city. Captive breeding programmes for zebras and some primates survived. And now the comrades in Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chávez, provides Cuba with a generous oil subsidy that put an end to the special period, are to benefit from it.
The Caricuao zoo in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is a shadow of its former self. Its last giraffe, Napoleón, died 15 years ago. Ruperta, the last elephant, has been alone for over two years. Gone are the zebras, kangaroos and ostriches. Its director, Carlos Audrines, attributes the decline more to a “crisis of management” than lack of cash, like much else in Venezuela. But thanks to high oil prices and revolutionary solidarity, plans are now afoot to refurbish the rundown facilities and restock the zoo.
Cuba is to supply 19 animals from species of which it now has a surplus. They include a giraffe, two lions, four zebras, a rhino and a pygmy hippo. In what Mr Audrines describes as a barter arrangement (in which the Cubans seem to get the rough end), Caracas will trade them for eight macaws, two tapirs, a puma and four capybaras. Further swaps are planned. Negotiations are also under way with zoos in Moscow and Quito.
The animals from Cuba can expect the diet to be better in their new home and the visitors to be slightly more free-range. But the Venezuelan animals may not be so pleased with the deal. The puma is being kept under a green awning during quarantine to prevent an attack of nerves, say the Caricuao zoo keepers. The mood of the notoriously outspoken Venezuelan macaws on being packed off to an island where freedom of speech is a luxury can only be guessed at.