Venezuela denies zoo animals starving, says one happy family

CARACAS - Venezuela's government denied on Monday that zoo animals were dying of starvation amid a national food shortage, saying they were being lovingly treated "like family."

Minister for Ecosocialism and Water Ernesto Paiva toured Caricuao zoo in Caracas, where a union leader last week said 50 animals including Vietnamese pigs, tapirs, rabbits and birds had starved to death in the last six months.

"The animals are very dear, treated as if they were family, in fact they all have names," said Paiva, adding that they were being seen by nutritionists to ensure they had an adequate diet.

The official said widespread media reports of deplorable conditions for zoo animals in the recession-hit OPEC nation were part of a campaign of "lies" against the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

A union leader for employees of state parks agency Inparques, which oversees zoos, and sources at various facilities have said animals are suffering across the country, with lions being fed mangoes instead of meat and bears receiving less than half of their required intake.

Despite the minister's assurances that the Caricuao animals were healthy and adequately fed, state prosecutors are investigating the deaths of "various species of wildlife" there.