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Science News

Cuba to send animals to depleted Venezuelan zoos

HAVANA (Reuters) - Venezuela sends oil to Cuba and now Cuba will ship zoo animals to Venezuela, giving a new dimension to ties between the socialist allies.

Two baby hyenas sit in their enclosure at Cuba's National Zoological Park on the outskirts of Havana August 7, 2008. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Officials at the Havana National Zoological Park are preparing to transport animals to Venezuela next month to replenish the South American country’s zoos, depleted by years of neglect.

Just as Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela in a barter arrangement for 92,000 barrels a day of oil, Venezuela will give medical equipment to Cuba in exchange for the animals, Havana zoo director Tomas Escobar said in a recent interview.

“We strengthen both: they complete their collection of animals and we get equipment,” said Escobar.

The list of animals is still being negotiated but among the 10 or so expected to go are a giraffe named “Evo” for Bolivia’s leftist leader Evo Morales, a lion, a pygmy hippopotamus, two hyenas, an antelope and an ankoli African cow.

A white rhinoceros may be sent later, Escobar said.

The animals are being evaluated for their fitness for the trip, but Escobar said Cuba has a reputation for giving its animals good care, despite economic hardships on the island.

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The zoo was hit hard by the economic crisis that followed the collapse of Cuba’s then benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991 and even now has to recycle needles used to medicate the animals.

But it still has managed to create one of the best collections of African animals in the world.

About 400 zebras and 300 lions have been born in captivity on its 840 acres on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, and many have been sent to zoos in other countries, Escobar said.

Some of the lions are descendants of lions that former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere gave former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the 1970s.

“Venezuela is going to get animals of very good quality,” Escobar assured.

The trade with Venezuela will allow the zoo, which opened in 1984, to get electronic microscopes, centrifuges and other equipment it now lacks in its veterinary facilities.

During the “special period,” as the crisis after the Soviet collapse is known in Cuba, some zoo animals were said to have been taken and used for food.

The animals for Venezuela will be shipped by air, and zoo officials expect no problem in adjusting to their new environment.

The only one that worries zoo employees is the six-month-old, 6-1/2 feet tall Evo. The giraffe has an interesting diet -- bananas, sweet potatoes, squash, milk and hard-boiled eggs -- and requires a lot of attention, said caretaker Jose Manuel Hernandez.

“It’s a very delicate animal and you have to treat it like a child,” he said.

Editing by Jeff Franks and Michael Christie

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