ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – U.S. troops flew two endangered cheetah cubs to the Ethiopian capital Tuesday after instigating their rescue from a remote village where a restaurant owner had held them captive and abused them.
The male and female cubs — whom the soldiers named Scout and Patch — were released on the grounds of the Ethiopian president's official residence after their 680-mile journey from the eastern hamlet of Gode.
"This is the first kind of rescue of animals, let alone cheetahs, that we have done," said Sgt. Leah Cobble, 26, of Washington, as she cuddled the two purring cubs on the runway of Bole International Airport before handing them to government veterinarian Fekadu Shiferaw.
The saga of the cubs started last month when U.S. counterterrorism troops, carrying out humanitarian work in the Gode region, discovered the animals' owner was keeping them tied up with ropes around their necks at his restaurant and forcing them to fight each other for the amusement of patrons and village children. One cub is blind in one eye.
The soldiers alerted the Ethiopian government and a U.S.-based cheetah rescue organization, drawing international attention to the cubs' plight. They also tried to persuade restaurant owner Mohamed Hudle to hand over the cubs, but he wanted $1,000 for each animal — 10 times the average income in this impoverished nation of 77 million people.
Fekadu, the veterinarian, intervened. He flew to the village Saturday, confiscated the cubs, and handed them over to U.S. forces for Tuesday's transport. The vet said Mohamed was not paid for the animals and that both had received antibiotic treatment and appeared in good health.
"Had we not had the help of the U.S. military, it would not have been possible to rescue these animals," Fekadu said after arriving with the cubs aboard the U.S. plane.
The cheetah is endangered worldwide because of loss of habitat, poaching and other factors, according to the Ohio-based Cheetah Conservation Fund.
Keeping wild animals is illegal without a license, but Ethiopia's wildlife laws are rarely enforced. Fekadu said the cubs eventually may have been sent to the Middle East as part of the wildlife trafficking trade in this part of Africa.
Mohamed said he bought the cubs from poachers who had kicked the female cub — Patch — in the face, blinding her.
The cubs will now live at the National Palace, home to President Girma Woldegirogis, along with three rescued lions and some vervet monkeys.
But palace animal keeper Kura Tulu said financial help may be needed to give the cubs the best of care. There is only an annual budget of $3,500 to look after all the animals at the palace, Kura said.
U.S. soldiers in the Horn of Africa are part of a task force that provides intelligence-gathering help to countries in the region, tries to bolster cooperation and border protection, and carries out humanitarian projects — digging wells, building bridges, helping construct schools — aimed at improving the U.S. military's image among Muslims.
"This is not the usual kind of support we offer," Cobble said of the cheetah rescue. "This was a way to support the Ethiopian authorities and local leaders and we were happy to do that. It has turned out very well for everyone, but mostly the cheetahs."
Soldiers said the cheetahs, riding in a cardboard box, purred throughout their 1 1/2-hour flight from Gode.
"The cheetahs really brought the soft side out in the troops," Cobble said. "They were all cooing over the cats like children."