Pets are being slaughtered for meat in shortage-stricken Zimbabwe and record numbers of animals have been surrendered to shelters or abandoned by owners no longer able to feed them, according to animal welfare groups.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it could not feed surrendered animals or find new homes and was being forced to kill them and destroy the corpses.
Animals, like humans, are being hard hit by Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, with official inflation of more than 7,600 percent, the highest in the world. Independent estimates put real inflation closer to 25,000 percent and the International Monetary Fund has forecast it reaching 100,000 percent by the end of the year.
Vets have run out of the drug used to put down the animals and are relying on intermittent donations from neighboring South Africa. One veterinary practice was waiting for supplies to destroy about 20 animals, and on Friday could neither feed them adequately nor fatally inject them.
In its latest bulletin to donors and supporters, the SPCA said it launched an awareness campaign on "the ethical and moral issues regarding the killing and consumption of trusted companion animals."
"But in the face of starvation and the burgeoning number of stray and abandoned animals the moral issues become far more complex and we should not be too hasty in our condemnations when animals and people are suffering equally," it said.
One animal rights activist, who asked not to be named out of fear of arrest, called the situation "too ghastly for words."
"We are accused of giving the country a bad name," the activist said.
Zimbabwean and international human rights groups accuse the government of intimidating, threatening, harassing and physically attacking critics and those casting the government in a bad light.
Sweeping media laws have seen the closure of independent and opposition newspapers; speeches and gatherings are tightly controlled, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has applauded police for beating opposition activists.
Animal activists say they have been threatened with arrest for speaking out and SPCA offices were raided by secret police agents of the Central Intelligence Organization on Thursday. SPCA inspectors said they were ordered not to release details of surrendered, abandoned, slain or eaten pets.
No comment was immediately available from the government.
Mugabe's critics say corruption and his power stewardship of the economy has led to the crisis. They point to the often violent government seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000 and disrupted the agriculture-based economy in what was once a regional breadbasket.
Meat, cornmeal, bread and other staples vanished from shops and stores. A government order to slash prices of all goods and services in June worsened acute food shortages and has left stores virtually empty of basic foodstuffs.
Food and food waste shortages have also emboldened rats to forage for scraps in homes and far beyond their usual hideaways, pest control specialists said.
Leftover food that would have been discarded has become too precious to throw away and common garbage was in short supply, said a rat catcher in western Harare.
"We are getting rat problems where we never saw them before," he said, asking not to be identified in the mounting climate of fear of the authorities. "Please, I don't want any trouble."
Illegally slaughtered meat sells for more than 10 times the government's fixed price on the thriving black market.
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