If you’re reading this, we’ve been evacuated (and you learned how to read!…). But don’t worry ol’ pal! I’ll send for you as soon as I can. I left one of each sock behind, so it’ll be like nothing changed. Food is in the pantry and water’s in the toilet. Call for Lassie if you need anything. See you again real soon, buddy!
In 1991, Ambassador Melissa F. Wells was faced with overseeing the kind of operation not normally covered during training — a full-scale evacuation of diplomatic pets from Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Thousands of citizens from Kinshasa were evacuated in September 1991 to escape a violent rebellion. During the rush, they were not permitted to take their pets. But these furry friends are often considered family and are cared for accordingly. So when the evacuees reached Washington, they immediately took measures to retrieve their beloved animals. Ambassador Wells was point-person for both human and pet evacuations.
This canine and kitty crusader was an accomplished diplomat and four-time ambassador, having served as chief of mission in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau (1976–77), Mozambique (1987–90), the Democratic Republic of Congo (1991–93), and Estonia (1998–2001), as well as lengthy service at the United Nations. She was interviewed by Judith Baroody in 2016.
Read about Wells’ account of her first carjacking in Uganda, her challenge of dealing with child soldiers in Mozambique, and her less-than-glamorous life as an ambassador. Read about some of the exotic pets Foreign Service people have had while abroad. Go here for other Moments on the Congo.
They all of a sudden rebelled and then they attacked the airport and looted the duty free shop
WELLS: I was in Kinshasa, Zaire which is today called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. … The evacuation of the humans was in September 1991. And the pets would have been in at least a month or maybe two later….
It all came about because the Zairian army, especially those located at the capital near Kinshasa, hadn’t been paid for a month or two. I mean, their wages were a pittance anyway and they mutinied. They all of a sudden rebelled and then they attacked the airport and looted the duty free shop. Then they started marching and gathering not just other soldiers, but other people, and a lot of looting, setting cars on fire.
There hadn’t been much loss of life, thank god, by that stage. But anyway, then they reached Kinshasa and…they went on a tremendous looting binge and our various foreign ministries, the State Department and the French and the Belgians, and the Brits, they all got nervous and they were all thinking, “Oh, here we go. This is just like with Lumumba in 1960,” [when the Congo declared independence] and so forth and ordered evacuations.
And then we realize we’ve got all these homes that they abandoned in a hurry — and that there were pets in them!
As far as the U.S. was concerned, haha, it’s not until you have to run an evacuation that you knew that you were responsible for Canadians, Israelis, and all sorts of other people that you never knew you were responsible for, but anyway. Humans were — there were about 3000 that we evacuated. Special planes had to come in because the airport in Kinshasa was closed. It was unusable and we had to get them across the Zaire River to Brazzaville.
So that was about 3000 and we sent small planes in to get the people…. Most men, most of them, a whole bunch of them, came in from the interior who were missionaries and many of them didn’t want to leave. We’d send the plane out and they’d say, “No, we aren’t going anywhere.”
But then the embassy was the largest embassy the United States had in Africa at that time and we had, I would say, between Foreign Service and U.S. citizens and local employees, we had well over 350 people. It was large.
And I was the ambassador. So anyway, we evacuate the U.S. citizens and the others that were there and then they go off and get across the river and get on a plan in Brazzaville.
And then we realize, of course, we’ve got all these homes that they abandoned in a hurry with furniture — and that there were pets in them! And no sooner had they gotten to Washington, they were sending us messages, “Please send me back my cat,” my dog, my parrot, my whatever.
So the first thing we did, I wasn’t myself involved, but staff collected these animals out of the homes that had been abandoned. The majority of the animals were cats and dogs. But we had a good number of parrots, birds, we had a couple of snakes — they were not poisonous. They were constrictor types.
Amazing what people will collect! We had one little baby gorilla. But I think he was just on a visit. He wasn’t a permanent pet. We had a home for him right away on the other side of the river — a special place that [famed anthropologist] Jane Goodall kept.
So we collected all these animals and so many petitions, requests coming in from the people who’d been evacuated, “We’ll pay anything to get our pet back.” We had to make sure we knew which pet belonged to which house.
So we got that organized and there was a wonderful woman there who loved animals. She was, as I recall, she was a Belgian national but who had worked as a local employee for many years at the embassy and it was her business to look after these animals, feed them. We had cages for many of them. We did the best we could. But now what to do with them?
“I was worried these animals would be attacked by local people, who were really hungry”
So, I went to see Air France and suggested that we get them across the river if they could organize a plane for these animals — just dogs and cats, none of the other more exotic ones —and whether we could get them back to Washington. They would have to go through Paris and probably change planes in Paris and then go on to Washington. So they gave us a figure of what this would cost and it was huge.
I wasn’t about to do this before I knew they were gonna pay for this — because the U.S. government wasn’t going to pay for this. So we told them what the cost would be and the people agreed. They said yes, they wanted their pets back….
Air France — they were wonderful. They called the whole project “Arche de Noe,” Noah’s Ark. (laughs) And there was the other problem: to get the dogs and cats out of Kinshasa we couldn’t go through the regular ferry station because it was full of people and it was awkward.
So there was a special pathway down to the edge of the river, not far from the ferry station where the ferry would then pull up and all these animals would get on the ferry.
Now it was a good 50 yards downhill on this path and my worry was that they were tough times in Kinshasa and there was a food shortage. And as you may know, Africans, they eat cats and dogs. I mean, there’s a shortage of food. They eat the monkeys, the animals….
So I was worried with these animals going down, that they would be attacked by local people, who were really hungry.
So I approached the French ambassador, who was my closest colleague there at the time, and asked whether he could lend me some of his Foreign Legionnaires to protect the pathway down to the river. And he said yes….
And comes the day we have the ferry. There were other people on the ferry but they were already on the ferry by the time the animals got on because some were on leashes, some were in cages, but they weren’t all in cages. And we’re ready to go down with our vehicles to take the animals to go to the path to go down, but where are the Legionnaires?
So I had to call the French ambassador and ask, “Help! I need these men to protect my animals!” “Oh Madame, desole! Oui, oui!”
“One cat had gone AWOL in Paris”
So sure enough, I think he sent two or three from somewhere that he could spare because they were on duty all through the city. And I wish I could have been there. I’d have loved to have taken a picture of the Foreign Legion protecting these animals being moved down the pathway and put on the ferry and then crossing the river.
We had people from the embassy, local people, accompanying the animals and making sure they got off and onto the plane in Brazzaville. But the Legionnaires would not leave. They stayed on the Zaire side. And the plane took off and eventually these animals reached Washington.
Only one cat had gone AWOL in Paris. Don’t know how. But the cat appeared at the Air France office at the airport with its little tags on, you know, three or four days later. Had a good time in Paris and was eventually repatriated at more expense to his owners! So that’s the story. (laughs)