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WADI BAI, Libya (Reuters)- Flopped in the baking sand, deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's ostrich thrashes wildly, then lays its beak in the dust to die.
"Gaddafi didn't care for people, he killed them with tanks. How can you expect him to care about his animals?" rebel commander Abu Bakr Essa asks indignantly.
The dying bird is among around 1,000 ostriches abandoned without food or water at Wadi Bai, Gaddafi's vast private menagerie in the sun-blasted desert west of Sirte.
The sprawling reserve covering hundreds of square miles also contains large flocks of rare-breed camels, together with herds of hybrid cattle, and several breeds of sheep and goats.
The reserve has been taken over by fighters loyal to Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council, from Misrata to the west, together with volunteers stirred by the animals' plight.
"Gaddafi left it and went," said Belgasem Al Sosi, a veterinarian from Misrata who is now doing his best to care for the huge animal collection. "They (Gaddafi's workers) left the animals with no food and no water."
Sosi says at least 100 ostriches have perished since the farm was abandoned after Gaddafi's regime fell in August when rebels moved into Tripoli. Several lay collapsed in one sweltering pen, either dead and rotting or too weak to stand.
The large birds have also been targeted by some civilians and fighters searching for food. Fighting between NTC forces and Gaddafi loyalists holding on to Sirte has created a humanitarian crisis in the city, with shortages of food, water and fuel.
"We tell the people not to steal them," said Al Siddeiq Al Fitory, a resident of Misrata who volunteered to look after the farm.
"We tell them 'those animals are for all Libyans, and you should get authority or a license from all the Libyans to get any' . and they go without any problem," added Fitory, a large man with a booming voice who commanded a natural authority.
Fighters from Misrata have brought in feed in recent weeks including bales of hay and sacks of grain for the surviving birds, which they now say are secure.
Elderly veterinarian Sosi has given the sick ones injections of antibiotics and vitamins in the hope that they can recover under the care of volunteers.
The herd of camels - including a number of white dromedaries from Saudi Arabia which are prized for their milk - together with the hybrid Jersey-Libyan cattle, and long-horned sheep and goats, are being cared for by herders and fed with irrigated pasture and hay.
With a doctorate in international relations, Mohamad Al Majdoub makes an unlikely curator for Gaddafi's animals, but he feels that caring for the menagerie is all a part of forging a free Libya.
"We have to protect it," said Majdoub. "They are part of Libya's patrimony . they are part of our future."
Editing by Rosalind Russell