The voice on the other end of the line came with great authority when I picked the call. “How are you sir? Are you Dr Joseph Mugachia?” The caller posed in quick succession.
He said he was David, a livestock insurance manager in Nairobi and then asked if I was a snake specialist.
I informed him I was an experienced veterinary surgeon, specialised in pharmacology and toxicology, though I had expertise concerning the economic significance of snakes.
“Pharmacology is the study of medicines while toxicology deals with studying poisons,” I informed David, and asked him if someone wished to insure snakes.
He explained that he had a claim from one of his customers and it involved snakes.
The customer, an urban dairy farmer in Nairobi, had insured eight high quality Friesian cows and apparently, in one night, all the animals had been killed by snakes.
The farmer had presented a post-mortem report from a veterinary doctor, showing the cows were victims of snake bites, what the doctor called “snake envenomation”.
“You see, I’m no veterinary expert, but I cannot visualise snakes attacking eight cows in a night,” David said.
I immediately knew his was going to be an interesting case. David further told me his insurance company had rejected the farmer’s claim but the claimant had threatened to escalate the matter to the Insurance Regulatory Authority or even the courts if they failed to honour the claim.
The contract had expressly stated that accidental death of the insured cows would be compensated fully according to the sum assured.
“Unfortunately for my employer, this case has been going on for three years. How will you get the evidence to evaluate the claim?” David wondered.
I explained to David there were methods of investigating cases like his and obtaining conclusive evidence on the factual position of the matter.
David sounded relieved and we agreed to meet in his office the following day for full briefing and consultancy agreement.
David and his colleagues were very curious to understand how an event that had occurred three years earlier could be investigated.
“Guys, this is what we call forensic investigation and the veterinary surgeon must work like a smart sleuth. Trust me to either incriminate the snakes or exonerate them,” I assured the insurance team.
David handed me a small file containing pictures of all the cows, alive and dead, from different elevations, the post-mortem report for each cow, insurance health report for the animals, the farmers’ insurance claim, the insurance claim rejection letter and the farmer’s letter threatening action on the insurance company.
The positions had been very well drawn for the disputing parties. The insurance company felt exposed because it had not sought expert advice from the time it doubted the validity of the claim.
Back at my office, I scrutinised the documents and photos. It was obvious something was scientifically wrong with the claim as it was inconsistent with snake behaviour.
Snakes kill for very few reasons namely for food, if they are threatened or to defend their territory. Snakes are also lone animals only coming together for mating.
It was, therefore, unfathomable how snakes could kill eight cows at once. When they kill for food, they attack animals they can swallow whole since the serpents do not chew. No snake will imagine a cow as dinner.
INCREASED HUMAN HABITATION
An interesting finding in the photographs was that some cows had foam in the trachea and the nostrils. Yet, the doctor’s post-mortem report had indicated that nothing abnormal was seen during the post-mortem examination.
None of the photos showed any bleeding in the internal organs of the animals. Toxins of the venomous snakes found around Nairobi will normally cause bleeding in the lungs, heart and other internal organs.
Additionally, no photo showed signs of snake bite marks on the intact skin or in the skinned carcasses. Such signs include skin breakage with small puncture wounds mostly on the lower legs, tail, head or underside of the body. These are the areas that are likely to come into contact with attacking snakes.
The bite mark areas will usually have tissue reactions such as swelling, bleeding, oozing fluid, reddening and blackening due to tissue damage caused by the snake venom.
Having been satisfied the snake bite claim was suspect, I visited the Museums of Kenya in Nairobi and collected details of the snakes found at Kahawa Sukari.
The only venomous snakes that could possibly bite cows in the area were puff adders and cobras but they were rare because of increased human habitation.
Finally, I separately interviewed the author of the post-mortem report, the owner of the cows, the farm’s watchman and farmhand.
The doctor could not explain his discounting of key findings during post-mortem examination nor explain how he arrived at his conclusion of “snake envenomation”.
FRAUD IS A CRIME
The owner of the cows snubbed my interview and only kept mumbling that I had conspired with the insurance company not to compensate him.
The farmhand and the watchman told me the cows had died within a period of six to 12 hours after being fed with grass from an unfamiliar source. The owner had sworn he would not lose when his animals were insured.
This information came out when I presented the two workers with factual evidence on the extremely low presence of venomous snakes in the area, the medical presentation of a snake bite and the fact that normal snake behaviour does not include forming snake armies to attack other animals.
David was elated when I presented to him my report concluding that snakes were innocent. The cows most likely died of poisoning by a plant called the deadly night shade or Datura stramonium.
It was obvious the owner of the animals and the doctor who performed post-mortem examination on the cows had conspired to defraud the insurance company.
The insurance company gave a final rejection of the claim and the farmer never contested the decision.
Even after insuring your animals, take good care of them and strictly to abide by the insurance premium terms and conditions to benefit from compensation in case of accidental injury or death.
And remember, fraud is a crime punishable by law.
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