At PCS season, a push to protect pets
Stars and Stripes August 18, 2009
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Free dog. Cats for sale. Need a home for my pet before we move.
Every year, as military families begin preparing for the summer moving season, bulletin boards, Internet chat rooms and base newspapers are bombarded with those kinds of notices.
Too often, animal advocates contend, the animals are simply driven off base and pushed out of a car — abandoned in the local community.
“A lot of people view them as a disposable commodity,” said Jennifer Hazell, president of PAWS — the volunteer animal shelter on Misawa. “It’s like you don’t want your sofa anymore, so you leave it out on the curb. …It’s very aggravating. We try to do what we can do to hold people accountable.”
Hazell and others who spoke to Stripes for this story said they’re heartened to learn that there’s a push to add animal cruelty and abandonment as a charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The 2009 Commission on Military Justice – a nonprofit corporation comprised of professors, private practitioners and legal experts – discussed it during a meeting earlier this summer and will recommend Congress approve the change to the UCMJ.
"That would be wonderful because then we could say, 'see, here’s exactly where you went wrong and what’s going to happen to you,'" Hazell said during an interview at PAWS, which stands for Pet Are Worth Saving.
Animal advocates on bases said the biggest problem is the mind set that comes with an overseas assignment. Everything seems temporary: People buy a $500 car they hope will last two years, borrow furniture from the base because they didn’t ship their good stuff from the States, and they pick up a pet for the tour.
When it comes time to PCS to the next duty station, they’ll hit volunteer shelters looking to “donate” the cat or dog, Hazell said.
“Heartbreaking is a perfect word,” she said of the issue. “A lot of times, there is no reason for a must-get-rid-of [announcement].”
Expense certainly is no reason for dumping a family pet, volunteers said.
“You budget to buy a car. You budget to buy furniture. … Why wouldn’t you budget to take your cat with you, or your dog?” Hazell said. “It’s poor planning.”
While there are such logical reasons as severe allergies or emergency medical evacuations, too many people are simply moving and don’t want the animal, Hazell said.
Melanie Bemel, spokeswoman for the Okinawan American Animal Rescue Society, agreed. She said she conducts a briefing as part of the in-processing for military personnel on the island, and the reaction often is: “Oh, you mean I can take an animal back with me when I PCS? We want you take this animal in for the rest of its life.”
For now, those who volunteer to work with animals on military bases rely on standard base regulations that address owning pets. They often include the requirement to microchip the animals.
In some cases, organizations such as PAWS and the Okinawa group will give microchip scanners to off-base shelters or visit them to check for American-owned strays. But, they said, it’s impossible to tell how many people are abandoning animals.
When volunteers do find a U.S. servicemember’s animal in a shelter, they take possession of the animal and alert the owner’s command for potential administrative action. A servicemember could face court-martial under Article 134 — “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”
Hazell cited a recent case at Misawa in which someone reported seeing an American throw a cat out of a car window in the local community. PAWS tracked the person via the microchip and assessed a command-authorized monetary fine. The group also alerted the person’s command for possible administrative action. Base officials were unable Friday to say what, if any, action was taken.
The animal-interest groups pointed to education as the key to stemming the problem. Both PAWS and OAARS have Web sites that detail the process of taking animals along on any permanent change of station move.
And people who adopt from the organizations sign contracts, agreeing that they won’t abandon the animals.
Liz Rouse, who founded OAARS in 2004, said she believes the military should do more to control the problem.
“[If regulations] are enforced, it might help,” she said during a phone interview from Virginia, adding that animal owners wouldn’t be as likely to dump a pet if they had to explain why during their check-out process when leaving a base.
Then there’s that possibly of making animal cruelty and abandonment an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hopes are high within the volunteer groups that Congress approves it.
Bemel said that earlier in the year, her group hosted a hugely successful adoption fair, finding families for about 20 dogs and 17 cats.
But this summer has been busy for the organizations. Nearly 100 animals are waiting for new homes on Okinawa alone.
Bemel said the problem can seem insurmountable and can be depressing.
What keeps her going is knowing she’s made a difference for each animal she’s helped — even as she spots more strays on the streets.