By Betsy Hiel
Sunday, November 29, 2009
DOUDA, Djibouti — The sleek yellow, black-spotted cat watches the humans before trotting toward them.
Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Maddox kneels and reaches through a wire fence, pouring water into a cupped hand. The male cheetah, Awaleh, sits and licks, then purrs.
Maddox, 44, of Huntersville, N.C., says his work at DECAN animal refuge, a few miles from the border with Somalia, is like “a vacation deployment.”
A member of the 360th Civil Affairs Brigade, Maddox is based at Camp Lemonier, a Navy expeditionary base on Africa’s horn. His civil affairs company has worked in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda with local doctors and veterinarians.
He got this assignment when a bee allergy ended his travels.
French veterinarian Bertrand Lafrance opened DECAN Refuge (Decouvrir et Aider la Nature in French, or Discover and Aid Nature) in 2003 on 34 desert acres. It’s home to gazelles, oryx, zebras, wild African asses, ostriches, hyenas, lynxes, turtles; a rescued hawk has a single wing, the other cut off by its former owner to keep it from flying.
The star attractions, however, are cheetahs.
Lafrance has rescued cheetahs for a decade. Cats confiscated from smugglers once were sent to a center in Dubai, until Djiboutian police began giving them to him. He kept them in his 33-by-33-foot garden.
“The police caught so many that, one day, there were eight in my garden,” he says. So he persuaded the Djiboutian government to create this refuge.
Maddox brings military volunteers here twice a week to fix tools or fences, burn brush and care for the animals. Navy Seabees plan to build an education center.
Lafrance considers their work invaluable. It has led to donations from Americans, who he says “are much more generous” than other nationalities.
Maddox clearly is in his element.
“No sudden movement or they could charge,” he cautions around a herd of African asses rolling in the dirt. The animals are huge, with horizontal black-and-white leg stripes.
At a small acacia bush, he points to paw prints: “The lynx’s lair — that’s a perfect hiding spot.”
Two oryx with long, straight horns rest under a tree to escape what he calls the “blazing hot” temperature — 117 degrees.
He pulls on a glove to allow four ostriches to nip his hand, warning that their toes can “flay you open. It’s as good as a knife.”
Past zebras and gazelles, he points out turtles he laughingly describes as “frisky” before imitating their moaning “mystical” sound.
As afternoon turns to dusk, he leads the way to six cheetahs. Solitary animals, they must be caged separately.
Most were confiscated at Djibouti’s port. But the male, Awaleh, was domesticated by legionnaires and wrestled with the French soldiers; he still enjoys a match, Maddox says.
Lafrance found Tessai, a female cat, chained to a restaurant table.
“When I was alone, I gave her an injection to make her sleep and left quickly,” he confides. “A friend of mine went to the restaurant and said ‘Look, the cheetah is sick! You have to take it to the vet, Dr. Lafrance.’ “
The restaurant owners refused, and Lafrance feared they would kill Tessai for her hide. So he persuaded the local police to confiscate her.
The refuge is trying to breed the cheetahs, a difficult task. Tessai had three kittens, but all died of dehydration in the extreme heat.
Lafrance hopes to expand his refuge and is trying to acquire several lions from Yemen.
Maddox, who is finding volunteers to carry on his work when his tour ends, praises the French vet for turning “a little slice of Djibouti into a piece of heaven, in my mind.”
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org