Fraternization fears threaten Resolute Support’s Feline Force Protection Program
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 27, 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan — Cricket, a small striped cat with yellow eyes, follows Leslie O’Connor throughout NATO’s Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul.
O’Connor, a civilian auditor, is one of a handful of volunteers who manage the Feline Force Protection Program, which captures strays on the base and has them vaccinated and spayed or neutered.
After their operations, the cats are returned to the base — with one ear clipped to show that they have been treated — where they are fed and used to chase away other feral felines that may have rabies or other diseases.
It’s “a critical part of the prevention medicine program at Resolute Support,” the program’s Facebook page says.
But the increasing domesticity of the cats, exhibited by Cricket’s attachment to O’Connor, has some health experts here worried, and a number of recent cat bites has resulted in calls for the program to be scrapped.
“I think it gives people the thought process that they can pet the cats and that they can associate with them and take care of them,” said Air Force Maj. James Hougas, who served as the main physician at the Kabul base for a couple months last year. “People think that these cats are safe, when in reality they’re not.”
Hougas said that after assuming his position, he treated three people “attacked” by cats in less than two months. Many residents can’t identify the cats and forget to check if their ears are clipped. If the animal breaks a person’s skin and causes bleeding, he or she must receive treatment, which is painful and can cost as much as $3,000 per person.
“From a deployed environment perspective, and keeping people safe, could it make more sense to try to keep cats off the base in other ways?” Hougas asked. “I’m not necessarily advocating euthanizing them, but if they were all feral people might just leave them alone and not try to pet them.”
O’Connor and the other Feline Force Protection Program volunteers think not.
“We really don’t want to have any animals on base, but we can’t keep the cats out because they’ll climb the wall, they’ll slide through, they’ll find a way in,” she said. “Since we can’t keep them out, we might as will keep the population that are here safe to be around.”
There are estimated to be about 25 vaccinated cats living on base, volunteer Kelli Brooks said. The number has been stable for some time.
She’s convinced cat numbers would skyrocket if the program were shut down.
“If you don’t trap and neuter these animals, there are going to be cats and kittens running all over the place,” she said. “And the series of shots they get, if we don’t do that, there are going to be diseases coming on base.”
Since 2013, the Nowzad clinic — the only official dog and cat shelter in Afghanistan — has vaccinated more than 100 cats captured at the NATO base. The cats are then returned to the base and released, but some of them run off.
The volunteers keep records on all the animals in a small office and know when they need boosters. A number of embassies in Kabul, including the U.S. Embassy, have similar programs.
“It wouldn’t be a good idea to euthanize the cats, because they are free from rabies,” said Abdul Hadi, a senior veterinarian at the clinic, when asked about alternative ways of curbing the cat population. “This is the best method because it protects unknown cats from coming over there.”
He added: “I am completely sure that those cats we trap and release are safe. There should be no worries about those cats.”
Rabies is a major public health concern in Afghanistan. In 2011, Army Spc. Kevin Shumaker became the first U.S. servicemember to die from the disease since 1974, after a stray dog bit him at a remote Afghan base. Almost all human cases in the country are transmitted by dogs, health officials say.
General Order No. 1, which outlines prohibited activities and standards of conduct for U.S. troops and civilians working for the military in Afghanistan, is meant to help protect Americans in the country from such incidents.
It prohibits “adopting as pets or mascots, caring for, or feeding any type of domestic or wild animal.”
The Feline Force Protection Program violates the order, but it is NATO, not the United States military, that funds the program and covers all of the veterinary bills.
Nevertheless, O’Connor said, the recent string of cat bites has been discussed by officials, and she worries it could put the program in jeopardy.
“Shutting down the program would be super-devastating for us because it actually works,” she said. “So we want to try to educate the public to please just leave the cats alone. They have a job to do. Just leave them be so they can do their job.”