YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Defense Department is seeking greater authority from the president to prosecute servicemembers who abandon their pets — a perennial problem within the transient military community.
The Pentagon wants to broaden its current animal cruelty policy to include abandonment and to cover personal pets, not just “public animals” owned by the military, said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale.
Troops already can be charged with “dereliction of duty” and “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline” for abandoning or physically harming their family pets, Breasseale said. But specifying the bad behavior in the Manual for Courts-Martial — the rulebook for prosecutions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — would strengthen those cases and increase the chance of prosecution.
Pet abandonment “is a kind of cruelty,” he said. “It is a kind of abuse.”
Animal rights advocates have been urging the military to take action for years. But some fear the problem may get worse since a military-contracted airline implemented a breed ban in March.
Tiffany Jackson of the Okinawan American Rescue Society said she has personally rescued about 20 pit bulls in the past three years that were abandoned on the island. Now because of this policy change, she fears there with be more, she said.
All pets treated at military veterinary facilities are required to be implanted with microchips that include owner information, which are used to track down negligent pet owners, military veterinarians have said. The Defense Department, however, does not track statistics related to animal abandonment and abuse, according to Breasseale.
President Barack Obama is expected to rule on the Pentagon’s request this spring, Breasseale said. Military justice experts say the president likely will sign off on the proposal, as is typically the case for proposed changes to the courts-martial manual.
Altering the UCMJ itself is much more contentious, they say, because it requires approval from Congress.
The Military Justice Commission, an independent reform group co-sponsored by the National Institute of Military Justice, noted the pet abandonment problem and the need for military intervention in its 2009 report.
“Because this abuse and abandonment often takes place overseas and is beyond the reach of local civilian authorities, servicemembers can go unpunished for the conduct,” the report said.
The U.S. military community has become notorious for pet abandonment in places such as Germany and Hawaii, home to large military populations.
In Kaiserslautern, Germany, local shelters refuse to let Americans adopt pets for fear the animals will be ditched when their owners leave the country. Last year, the Hawaii Legislature even asked the military to step in.
“Members of the military and Coast Guard often relinquish their pet to a local shelter, or worse, abandon the animal because they have no one available to care for it,” according to the March 2011 resolution.
It asked the military to “make resources available to improve opportunities for continual care for domestic animals” and work with animal shelters and rescue organizations to resolve the issue.
U.S. Pacific Command responded by forming a working group, but it determined that the programs and policies already in place were both “comprehensive and effective,” according to a PACOM statement emailed to Stars and Stripes.
But the abandonment problem persists, said Lt. Theresa Donnelly, who last year launched Hawaii Military Pets, a private organization that promotes responsible pet ownership.
Even the possibility of prosecution for abandonment “will get people talking about the issue,” the Hawaii-based sailor said.
But the root of the problem is more societal, she said.
“There’s still an attitude that a pet is disposable,” Donnelly said.
Military pet advocates support the Pentagon push for more authority to punish troops who abandon their animals, but many contend the effort shouldn’t stop there. They say streamlining the military’s various pet policies — which vary from service to service, country to country and base to base — and creating a website to access that information is also necessary.
“But let’s not be angry at those who give up their animals,” Donnelly said. “Let’s educate them on ways they can keep their pets and create a community where a pet is considered a lifetime commitment.”