Guantanamo Base Kills Plan to Save Feral Cats

A stray cat crouches in a cage in Southwest Asia, Sept. 28, 2015. The 463rd Military Detachment Veterinary Service uses a Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, Return program for feral cats who assist with pest control. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Racheal E. Watson)
A stray cat crouches in a cage in Southwest Asia, Sept. 28, 2015. The 463rd Military Detachment Veterinary Service uses a Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, Return program for feral cats who assist with pest control. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Racheal E. Watson)

MIAMI -- Guantanamo's commander has concluded he does not have the authority to allow teams of volunteer cat lovers to scoop up feral cats across the base to neuter and vaccinate them and spare them from extermination.

A nonprofit organization called Operation Git-Meow presented the proposal last month to the U.S. Navy base commander, Capt. Dave Culpepper -- along with an appeal for his help in establishing an adopt-a-cat program to help temporary troops and contract workers take home cats they befriend on base.

But base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley said this week that while Culpepper "is happy to entertain volunteers to help manage the feral cat population, including adopt-a-cat programs," he is bound by Department of Defense regulations that forbid the practice to control feral cats called trap, neuter and release.

In 2016, the base euthanized at least 186, according to a Navy response to Freedom of Information Act filing by the Miami Herald. "From what I understand, they are too sick or injured, or are dangerous," Ripley said of those cats given a "euthanasia solution" at the Veterinary Treatment Facility.

But, Ripley said, any cat that Git-Meow members bring to the base's vet clinic "for adoption are spayed and chipped" -- not killed.

Guantanamo, she said, is "committed to maintaining an animal control program as guided by Navy and Department of Defense regulations and ensuring all species are legally and humanely managed."

The proposed program for the 45-square-mile base best known for its prison for war-on-terror detainees put a spotlight on the residential nature of life behind a minefield in southeastern Cuba. Some 5,500 or so people live and work at the outpost, which has an airport, seaport, suburban-style neighborhoods, school for sailors' children and, according to activists, at least 500 feral cats.

Cats probably arrived on the first sailing ship from the Old World, according to Erika Kelly, who spotted the problem on a visit to the base and has now set up Operation Git-Meow as a corporation seeking IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Others might have made it through the Cuban minefield.

Undaunted by rejection from the skipper, her group is now preparing an appeal directly to the Department of the Navy to waive the regulation and permit what Kelly calls "a no-cost solution" -- permission for an all-volunteer force of civilian veterinarians, vet techs and cat lovers to sterilize, vaccinate and implant chips in feral cats. It's an unorthodox alliance of some troops, base residents and U.S.-based cat lovers who have carried out similar programs elsewhere -- for example, SPCA International's Global Animal Rescue program.

"We are extremely disappointed by the initial negative response," SPCA International's Meredith Ayan said by email Wednesday. "Operation Git-Meow will be submitting a formal request to the Department of the Navy for a three-year exception to policy. Based upon the unique situation at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an aggressive trap, neuter, vaccinate, and release program funded by our organization would be a far more effective approach than simply trapping and killing the cats."

Kelly added that her pitch to Navy headquarters will include a warning of the possibility of rabies on the base. "We're offering an option which is effective, humane and costs the taxpayers nothing," she said. "Part of our plan is to microchip every cat. So, even if there was a cat bite, the Navy would know exactly when that cat was vaccinated. Right now, all they can do is offer cat bite victims the rabies shots and, if they can't catch the cat, just hope the cat really wasn't rabid. This has happened in the last year."

Meantime, she said, her group is asking Culpepper -- who as base commander at times functions like a small-town mayor -- to more aggressively impose and police anti-cruelty rules on the outpost, starting with messages to the population of U.S. forces as well as American, Jamaican and Filipino citizens that "animal abuse and neglect, to include the abandonment of pets on the base, will not be tolerated."

Git-Meow has gone so far as to draft a proposed lawful order for the skipper to sign that would make "intentional torture or torment of any animal which injures, mutilates or kills" a violation punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"Every time we talk about the animal cruelty issues I'm told more and more about how severe and numerous they are and that it's a big problem," said Kelly, who offered examples cited by residents:

  • Family recently went on leave and left their cats and dogs in the backyard with some food and water. The pets developed a screw worm infection, described by Kelly as a flesh-eating parasite transferable to humans, and were half eaten alive by the time the family returned. All died.
  •  Multiple cats have been found over the years shot with the kind of harpoons used for spearfishing.

The base spokeswoman said by email Tuesday evening that she was aware of "rumors" of abusive treatment but "I can say that cruelty to animals will not be tolerated."

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