Serval: Moto and me

Moto, the serval kitten, was traumatised by the loss of his mother, so photographer Suzi Eszterhas adopted him. But could she be a good parent to an orphaned serval?

Serval: Moto and me
He was traumatised by the loss of his mother, so photographer Suzi Eszterhas adopted him. But could she be a good parent to an orphaned serval?
I nearly killed Moto twice. I was feeding him milk with a baby’s bottle, and though I had found a teat with the smallest possible hole, it was still too big for a baby serval.
Once he choked so badly that, in a panic, I rang a vet working nearby who I knew had raised kittens. “He’s dying, he’s dying,” I screamed down the phone. Little Moto’s tongue had turned blue and gone stiff, and I knew I was losing him.
He was about two months old at that point, and became so excited when you put the teat in his mouth that he couldn’t drink the milk fast enough. Unfortunately, there’s no way of telling a serval kitten, “Now, honey, don’t drink so fast,” so there he was, choking and dying.
The vet told me to turn him upside down and shake him, but it didn’t work. Finally, she said: “Hit him as hard as you can. Don’t worry about breaking his ribs – he’s going to die, just hit him.” So I did and the milk came flying out of his mouth and he started to breathe again.
Taking a risk
I had come to Kenya two years earlier, in 2004, to photograph a family of cheetahs. I didn’t have any commissions: I simply quit my day job, moved out of my rented apartment in the US and raided my savings. Looking back, it was quite a reckless thing to do. And it was almost a total disaster.
I had planned to work in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but by the time I showed up, the cheetah cubs had disappeared. With the help of some researchers, I found another suitable cheetah family in the Masai Mara – but then the guide I’d booked didn’t turn up to meet me at the airstrip.
At first, the pilot wasn’t even going to let me off the plane – we were in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t afford to stay at the nearest tourist lodge but eventually found my way to the ranger station and they let me camp.
I rented a 4x4 and before long had managed to locate the cheetahs I was going to photograph.
Playing with fire
I had been in the Mara for over a year and had moved on to photographing hyenas when the rangers asked if I could look after a baby cheetah. I wasn’t sure I had the resources to raise a big cat, but it turned out that it was a serval kitten, which made the decision easier.
Though I’d made friends at the lodge, I spent every day in the field on my own, so I was really excited about having a little buddy to take care of.
The poor kitten was so traumatised. He had been handed to the rangers by tourists, who found him crossing a road near a controlled burn (the name I gave him, Moto, means ‘fire’).
I suppose his mother had been moving him to a safer location but dropped him when the vehicle turned up. (The people who ‘rescued’ him, though well meaning, would have done better to see if his mum came back for him first.)
Bonding exercise
I spent the first few hours picking fleas off Moto. But what should I feed him? A friend knew an elderly lady in Nairobi, who had raised orphan civets, and found out what she gave them – cow’s milk, egg and a bit of fish oil. So I borrowed a baby’s bottle from the lodge and luckily he took to it straightaway.
Moto clearly wasn’t eating enough, though. He was too skinny and looked listless. The woman in Nairobi said that I had to make him think I was his mother so that he would bond with me.
But I couldn’t just abandon my hyena photography project and hang out with him for the next week. Then I had an idea: I asked a tailor at the lodge to sew a ‘kangaroo pouch’ into some of my t-shirts so that Moto could come with me.
I kept him safe in the pouch all of the time – even when I went to the bar at the lodge to have a drink. People would come over and ask if they could see him. “He’s sooo cute,” they’d coo as I unbuttoned the pouch. But he always hissed at strangers, despite being so affectionate towards me.
Hunting lessons
My next task was to wean Moto. I started him off on chopped chicken breast, but also spread the word among the rangers that I would pay them a few shillings for any dead rats that they could provide (a serval’s natural diet).
Six weeks later, the first rodent was delivered. Moto immediately went berserk. Hissing fiercely, he raced into my tent and was extremely aggressive if I went anywhere near him.
Moto was clearly ready for his next lesson, so I asked if anyone at the lodge could bring me maimed rats. It sounds unpleasant, but that’s what his mum would have given him to practise on. The only rule was that no one could use poison.
The day Moto received his first live rat, it was brutal. He was completely incompetent at killing, so the torment went on and on. I felt awful for the rat, but knew it was what would have happened in the wild. I’ve seen enough feline mothers – lions, leopards and cheetahs – bring back live gazelle fawns for their offspring.
If Moto was going to survive in the wild, he had to be able to kill rats on his own, and this was the only way he would learn. (I also gave him chickens, because servals sometimes hunt ground-living birds such as guineafowl.)
Until my Moti was about three months old, he was either in his pouch, with me in the jeep – he loved going on game drives – or in the tent. But, eventually, I started taking him on supervised walks around the camp.
To begin with he was frightened of everything, but gradually he became more confident and would wander off.
It was so hard to let him go, though he was getting wilder every day and by now I was covered in scratch marks – he must have been feeling his oats.
I realised that I could no longer confine him to the tent at night (when he was most active) and left the zip open so that he could come and go as he pleased. Once a night, he’d return, rub up against me, purring, and be his old sweet self. Then he’d leave. I assumed he was catching food for himself – everything from rats to smaller prey such as lizards and locusts.
No time for goodbyes
One night, Moto went out and simply never came back. I had often imagined releasing him and I expected that not knowing where he’d gone would be hard. But it was so much worse when he just vanished on his own.
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