MARACAY, Venezuela -- Rafael Toro, a student at Venezuela's top veterinary school, suspected something was amiss when a beloved horse called Miss Congeniality didn't greet him at the fence one recent morning along with others in the campus' small herd.
The bright-eyed, bay-colored mare had earned her nickname for helping disabled students overcome their fear of riding horses. They say she was smart and even trotted up when you called her name.
To his shock, Toro discovered the horse's skin and dismembered bones hidden among trees in the corner pasture of the sprawling campus in the central Venezuelan city of Maracay. Thieves overnight had hopped the fence, slaughtered the horse and made off with her meat - either to sell or to feed their hungry families.
"I burst into tears," said Toro, who delivered the grim news to other students. "We came here, and together we all cried."
The slaughter isn't an isolated incident. Across Venezuela, as the once-wealthy oil nation's economy collapses andto afford scarce food, crimes of hunger and desperation are soaring.
Ranchers across the country complain their livestock herds are meeting the same fate. There are media reports of small groups of men caught smuggling stolen horse meat - accompanied by gory pictures of dismembered horses.
Professors on campus at Central University of Venezuela in Maracay complain that thieves have walked off with air conditioners and electrical wires, forcing them to teach in dark classrooms with sweat running down their backs.
But in a new low, bandits have turned their attention to slaughtering horses and cattle vital to training the South American nation's next generation of veterinarians.
The meat from a full-grown horse could fetch roughly $1,400 at market, based on the equivalent prices of Venezuelan beef, making it a lucrative venture in a country where a worker's monthly minimum wage is under $10 at the widely-used black market rate.
Months before Miss Congeniality's demise, crooks slaughtered two horses donated to the university and that were temporarily quarantined at a nearby pasture, Toro said. Since late 2016, seven cows - including a prized bull at the center of the school's breeding program - have fallen prey to overnight bandits sneaking onto campus.
"A loss like that is pretty expensive," said professor Daniel Vargas, who oversees the university's cattle program.
Venezuelans have traditionally been repulsed by the thought of eating horse meat, making recent developments here especially puzzling, say professors, who suspect customers are buying horse meat at their local butcher thinking it is beef.
The faculty reports each case, but police have yet to arrest any suspects. The school's budget has been frozen for over a decade, leading security guards to walk off the job and leave the campus an open target, university officials said.
"It could be an inside job, or someone from outside," said Isis Vivas, dean of the veterinary school. "Anything is possible."
Toro, a lifelong animal lover who plans to graduate next year, believes Miss Congeniality was singled out from the small heard of five horses. She was four years old, plump and in the prime of life.
Amid the tragic loss, he safeguards her skull so future generations of students can continue to learn from her, such as gauging a horse's age by examining the teeth.
"We would have liked for her to stick around here with us and leave us her offspring," Toro said. "Sadly, this is not the case."
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