This base best known for its wartime prison has cats. Lots of cats. Kitty cats. Dumpster cats. House cats. Abandoned cats. Foster cats. Stray cats. Tabby cats. Cuban cats.
And, by the estimate of activists who want to do something about it, it has upward of 500 feral cats.
In an unusual alliance, some troops, civilians and visitors have teamed up with the global animal rescue group SPCA International and are asking the Navy’s permission to sterilize the cats. They’re also setting up a non-profit organization to help soldiers or sailors on temporary assignment here adopt them and take the home.
The group’s name? Operation Git-Meow.
“I have taken care of over 40, actually 50, cats in about three and a half years,” says Git-Meow founder and foster-cat mom Tina Marie Parr, the wife of a base contractor. She has built a small shelter in her backyard and is scouting for something larger, more permanent. “The reason I do it is to help the population of cats here to be able to get some decent homes.”
On a recent evening, a mangy cat was scavenging outside a dumpster at Camp Justice’s tent city. The creature looked like it had been in a fight and was blind.
Some residents attribute the abundance of stray cats to the transient, at times lonely nature of life on this remote base of 5,500 people; some of them stay for a year or less, adopt a cat and, when they leave, let it go. Guards at the prison of 41 captives mostly do nine-month tours away from home. Most Filipino and Jamaican contract workers come without family, too.
Cats probably arrived on the first sailing ship from the Old World, says 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.
Kelly estimates that there are 500 to 600 feral cats at Guantánamo. “They’re not fixed. They’re not vaccinated,” she says. “They’re interacting with people, over-breeding, and it’s unhealthy for the people and unhealthy for the cats.”
Make no mistake, the group is made up of cat lovers. Especially those who were alarmed to hear that, rather than fix the ferals, folks on base were having them exterminated. Git-Meow members recently met with the dog-owning base commander, Navy Capt. Dave Culpepper, to offer an alternative solution at no cost to taxpayers:
They proposed that the skipper permit civilian volunteers on base periodically — trappers to catch the wild cats, veterinarians and vet techs to neuter and vaccinate them — to control and calm rather than try to kill off the feral cat population.
That would require a special waiver of a Navy regulation.
U.S. military rules specifically prohibit “trap-neuter-release programs due to the adverse impacts stray animals pose such as the potential threat to public health; the threat to wildlife, including endangered species and migratory birds; and damage to natural habitats,” base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley said by email. “Navy regulations ensure all species are legally and humanely managed.”
Ripley does not speak for the war-on-terror prison, which boasts that it “conducts safe, humane, legal, and transparent care and custody of detainees.” Contrary to an earlier report, prison spokesman Navy Cmdr. John Robinson said, “no detainees have or are allowed to have any pets.”
Ripley refused to disclose how many cats had been put to death at the base in recent years. She called it a sensitive topic.
In the meantime, the Git-Meow “proposal is under review,” said Ripley, even though it would deviate from Navy regulations.
“We do this all over the world,” says Meredith Ayan, executive director of SPCA International, during a recent scouting visit. Her Global Animal Rescue program has sponsored a program to trap, neuter and release wild cats in Rio de Janeiro, helped U.S. troops bring home dogs they befriended in Iraq, and spayed or neutered cats and dogs in Panama.
The group also plans to snip an ear tip of each fixed cat in a process called “ear tipping.” It’s a universal sign of an altered feral cat.
Guantánamo-based group members aspire to build a shelter to tame some. Off-duty troops seeking a timeout would be welcome to come, stroke and cuddle them in a sanctuary of sorts.
But that’s just the beginning. These cat lovers are designing a sponsorship system for U.S. troops and contractors to actually adopt one. Not all military flights on and off the base will allow people to bring pets. And for those that do, it can be costly.
Consider the experience of Army Reserve Maj. Alaina Wichner, who spent $1,000 to airlift a stray from the base last year. She spotted the “Cuban brown tiger tabby” one day outside the razor wire of Guantánamo’s war court complex, Camp Justice — “in the middle of the road meowing at the top of his kitty lungs.”
Wichner is the kind of kind of cat lover who knows what a cat is saying. And, to her, this kitty’s meow meant: “Hello! There has been a big mistake! I’m not a stray cat! I belong with people! I don’t like eating leftover spaghetti mixed with rocks and dirt!”
Wichner is also a defense attorney for accused Sept. 11 plot deputy, Ramzi bin al Shibh. She comes and goes on a weekly war court shuttle from Andrews Air Force Base. But pets are forbidden on military commissions flights. So she hired a courier to bring the cat on a commercial flight from Guantánamo and promptly nicknamed him “1K” for the price of the air ticket.
“I completely fell in love with the little guy and couldn’t bear to think of anything bad happening to him,” Wichner recalls, adding that she soon turned the kitten over to his current owner: attorney Jim Harrington, bin al Shibh’s lead defense counsel, who commutes to the base in Cuba from his home in upstate New York.
“I am fairly certain he is the only Cuban cat in Buffalo,” said Wichner, adding that she does not mind that her nickname did not stick.
Harrington’s wife, Anne, promptly rechristened him — what else? — “Gitmo.”