After a period working with FAO with the Somali nomads I moved on and in 1990 began working in Mogadishu with the EU funded, rinderpest (cattle plague) campaign. Our family home was a rented villa in K4, Mogadishu. The villa was in front of the Ministry of Agriculture and had a good sized garden where my children Dana and Sarah would be playing when I returned home each afternoon.
One day as I drove in through the villa gates my children came running to the car to tell me that a man had come from the zoo and left a sick baby cheetah for me to treat. As I followed them into the shade of the neem trees I felt my temper rising as I realised what had happened. President Siad Barre had a pet cheetah that, some time ago had needed its claws trimmed, but this could not be done so he gave it to an Italian company. I was told that soldiers from the president’s tribe, who lived near the Kenyan border, hoping to win favours from the president, had recently killed a female cheetah and taken her cubs to give to him. Unfortunately only one cub had survived and, as no Somali vet wanted to take the risk of failing in its care, I realised that the animal had been sent to the ‘Foreign UN Vet’ who could be blamed if it died. Sure enough there in a small, metal cage was a bedraggled, half starved young cat with dirty, black spotted fur. President Barre’s new cheetah!
As I bent down to take a closer look at the poor animal my wife Dianne came down the villa, in fact it was a small house, steps to tell me that the man from the zoo had claimed that I had arranged for him to deliver the animal to my home. Appalled at its condition Dianne had removed a piece of rotting lung and an evil smelling cloth from the bottom of the cage before giving the cub fresh water and a little chopped raw meat. I told her that it was a ‘gift’ for the President to replace his old pet cheetah whereupon she said, “Well, not only have they cruelly killed wild animals in the hope of pleasing their president, they don’t know their wildcats! This is not a cheetah cub, it’s a serval!” Sure enough there in the cage was a small serval kitten. My wife went on to tell me that having removed the dirty cloth from the cage she had asked our villa guards to put the cage down on the clean sand in the shade of the trees while she went to get food and water for the animal. When she returned to the cage she was shocked to see three large, white maggots, falling out of the animal’s flesh and begin to burrow into the sand.
As a parasitologist she realised that these maggots were the larvae of the tumbu fly, (Cordylobia anthropophagia) and the kitten had been infected through contact with faecal contaminated soil. The larvae need to burrow into sandy soil to continue its life cycle and become an adult fly. The dirty rug under the poor animal had stopped the larvae from reaching the soil but when it had been removed they had started to emerge from within the cat’s flesh.
That afternoon some 15 to 18 larvae emerged from the poor animal’s flesh leaving large gaping holes in its skin with flesh and bone clearly visible. Imagine the pain that the poor, starving animal suffered. The only treatment I had was a nearly empty can of antibiotic spray and I knew very well that there were no veterinary drugs available in the government warehouse. We used all that was in the can trying to cover the open wounds that covered the legs and abdomen of the kitten. I would have to try to find other medication the following day as we had nothing in our medical supplies in the villa except Dettol and antiseptic cream!
The next day I tried all my contacts in the veterinary service in the hope that I could get some treatment for the Serval but to no avail. As I was putting down the phone after another fruitless call a colleague and good friend, Pasquale, came into the office and said that he had heard that I needed antibiotics to save a wild animal. In his hand he had 12 capsules of terramycin that he had been given, before he left Italy, for his own use in an emergency. Without hesitation he handed over the medication to me and said that he would come to visit my family and see the animal later that week.
When I got home that evening I gave the capsules to Dianne and we decided to give the cat one capsule a day in order to stop infection of the open wounds. Each capsule contained 250mg of antibiotic and we needed to spread out the dose over the 24 hour period so we decided to open the capsule and divide up the dose. So, every day, Dianne took a teaspoon of flour and placed it on an old wooden meat board, she then opened a capsule of terramycin onto the flour and then used a knife to mix the drug into the flour by repeatedly turning and dividing the mix with the knife. When she was satisfied that the antibiotic was mixed throughout the flour she divided the mixture into 4 equal sized portions and wrapped each ‘dose’ in foil. Every 6 hours she fed the cat raw meat that she had rubbed into the flour/antibiotic dose and so we were able to treat her for infection and slowly she began to recover.
At that time in Somalia the cost of meat was high and many Somalis that I worked with could not afford to buy meat for their families. I discovered that even in this situation Somali people would not consider eating the heart of a cow whereas I think that most other people would do so in the circumstances. Cow’s hearts were therefore very cheap and I brought home a constant supply for the young cat that began to thrive as the treatment succeeded. We put a soft collar on her and during the day we kept her tethered in the shade of the neem trees and at night we released her and our Somali guard dog, Seema, and she would hunt for insects and lizards. She was soon given the name of Spitfire by my wife as when Dianne approached her with food Spitfire would leap at her, spitting and snarling, as she grabbed the meat. However the rest of the time she was very docile and, like a domestic cat, would purr when stroked. She joined Seema as a household pet and became a favourite with all our friends.
The serval is a medium sized wild cat weighing between 7 to 12 Kg and has the longest legs of any of the cats. They stand at 54 -66cm at the shoulder and the body is 60-92 cm long. The species is nocturnal and preys on rodents, insects, reptiles, birds as well as fish and frogs. It is believed that the serval and the cheetah have a common ancestry.
As the weeks passed and Spitfire changed from a scrawny, maggot ridden kitten into a graceful, healthy young cat we began to make contacts with zoos and wildlife organisations outside the country in the hope of finding her a safe home. We certainly did not want her to go back to the President’s zoo and concerned as to how we could safely release her into the bush where she could again fall prey to human predators. To make matters worse the civil unrest in the country was increasing and we knew that at any time we could be forced to leave.
Then, one evening as we were leaving the villa to go to visit some friends, Spitfire bounded across the garden straight into the front wheel of our Landrover. I had only just started to reverse the car and she had run into the side of the front wheel but she had broken her left shoulder. As I gently carried Spitfire onto the veranda my heart sank as I knew that the chances of getting the leg to heal were remote. There was little we could do that night but tether her under the trees, with water and food and hold on to the glimmer of hope in the fact that she was able to stand and move on her three good legs. If we could somehow restrict her movement of the foreleg and give the fracture a chance to heal then there was a chance that, as a young cat, she would recover. Three of my colleagues, including my friend Dr Rautbauar, tried to help but we could not find anything to treat her as the government stores were empty as usual. There was no anaesthetic, splints, bandages or drugs and this situation was not for lack of drugs and veterinary supplies being sent into the country from the EU and elsewhere but because virtually everything was misappropriated, stolen or never even reached the stores because of the high level of corruption that pervaded the system. Surprisingly, nature and resilience of the animal took over and as the weeks passed Spitfire was walking quite normally on all four legs.
We were heading toward the end of 1990 and security in Mogadishu was deteriorating very fast and robbery was common. Travelling in the city was restricted for my expatriate colleagues and their children and a visit to see Spitfire, the cat that had already used ‘two of her nine lives’ became their entertainment. While our children played we adults would be discussing the preparations we had made to safeguard our families if full blown civil war started and we were evacuated.
As the situation deteriorated I was given home leave and the opportunity to take the family home to the UK for Christmas. As we left for the airport Spitfire was in her usual place under the trees and Seema was in the shade of the garden wall as the villa maids and guards waved goodbye. I did not anticipate returning to Somalia with my family but while in the UK we were in contact with a number of zoos who were interested in taking Spitfire if I could arrange to get her into Kenya. As the New Year began the news came through that Mogadishu had been ransacked by Barre’s soldiers then again by rebel forces.
I went back to Somalia later in the spring to take care of the FAO Relief and Emergency, firstly in Hargeisa then in Mogadishu. There I had a heavily guarded office not far away from K4 and one day my old guard from the villa turned up, emaciated, at the office and told me what had happened to our home. He told me how they stood no chance as the rebels had forced their way in and ransacked the house, looting furniture and our belongings before setting fire to the building. Seema and Spitfire were chained at the time and both were brutally hacked by the mob.
That was twenty years ago and the situation in Mogadishu and Somalia has deteriorated even more since then.