Yongsan cats: Army garrison faces furry invasion as soldiers move south of Seoul
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 26, 2018
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The population on this Army post has plunged since the U.S. military moved its headquarters south of Seoul over the summer. But one group is clawing its way up — stray cats.
They can be spotted running upstairs, hiding under cars, prowling around trash cans and even stuck in trees.
Nobody is sure where they all came from. But Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Robertson has a pretty good idea.
“People left their pets behind,” he said at a town hall meeting last month on Yongsan, which has been steadily emptying after U.S. Forces Korea and many other units moved to the newly expanded Camp Humphreys as part of a long-delayed relocation plan.
“As we have more civilians and military units leave … the leadership within those units needs to make sure that we don’t leave our animals behind because that is really how this problem was created,” he added.
Officials estimate the garrison has about 70 stray cats, and they want to contain the problem before that number multiplies when kitty season begins in the spring.
Enter Kerri Burrows, a 38-year-old military spouse with a master’s degree in nonprofit management and some two decades of experience working with feral felines.
She noticed the problem after moving to Yongsan with her husband in July and volunteered to help.
“I have never seen so many stray cats. They’re everywhere,” she said in a recent interview. “My husband would come home from work and be like, ‘Kerri, there’s a project out there waiting for you. You’d better get on it.’”
Burrows, a native of Columbia, Mo., has offered to spearhead a program known as trap, neuter, release, which is aimed at reducing the problem over time by sterilizing and vaccinating the cats.
She said she has recruited South Korean veterinarians to do the surgery pro bono and is eager to begin in late February. But she is waiting for the garrison’s go-ahead to get started.
“There are no military resources that are going to this at all,” she said, although she will borrow traps. “They just need to give me permission.”
Burrows pointed out that a precedent exists. U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii authorized a similar pilot program last year.
The garrison’s Department of Public Works and a legal team are reviewing the issue and trying to come up with a new policy for bases that fall under Yongsan’s control in the Seoul area and to the north, spokesman Wes Hayes said.
“We value Ms. Burrows expertise and opinion on this and it would be difficult to do it without her,” he said. “We’re just looking for the most ethical and humane way to treat these animals that are on the garrison.”
When asked about past Facebook warnings not to feed the cats, Hayes said officials were waiting for the new policy to issue further guidance.
In the past, DPW workers would capture the strays, then take them to the vet clinic on Yongsan where they would be placed in an adoption program or euthanized, depending on their condition.
Julie Kelemen, a garrison spokeswoman, said they would find about 10 cats per month.
But veterinary services have largely moved to Humphreys, leaving DPW with nowhere to take the strays. South Korea has animal shelters, but they are already crowded.
Yongsan Garrison, which is spread over some 630 acres in one of the trendiest parts of Seoul, has been shrinking with many buildings shuttered and stores closed.
However, the barbed-wire lined perimeter will remain largely intact until South Korea gets the keys back in a few years.
That has left the cats with plenty of empty space to occupy. Military bases frequently have an abundance of stray cats, but the rapid spike in numbers on Yongsan has raised alarm.
The cats also have become more emboldened and visible with fewer people to scare them away. Bowls filled with food are placed strategically around the base as animal lovers, including this reporter, try to help them get through the winter.
“This is a really, really great place for them to live,” Burrows said. “They don’t have the dangers of cars that they do outside the gates. And they have all kinds of places to hide and birds to eat.”
For the most part, the cats keep to themselves and garrison officials said no major problems have been reported.
But they are prolific breeders, meaning the problem will only worsen over time. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has warned that feral cats have been linked to human exposure to rabies in the United States.
The issue also could prove a headache for the South Koreans, who are expected to turn the area into a park. “As they take over the post, that’s not a problem that they want to inherit,” Burrows said.
There is some debate over how best to deal with strays.
Many advocates argue that it’s difficult to socialize feral cats to live with people, so they’re not suitable for adoption. That leaves releasing the animals back to their outdoor colonies after sterilization and vaccination as the more humane alternative.
But others say the cats should be euthanized because efforts to control the population are difficult to maintain and flawed.
Burrows conceded it’s an imperfect process but said trap-neuter-release programs have succeeded in reducing the population in other communities and euthanasia will only allow other cats to fill the vacuum. Veterinarians performing the procedures will snip the cats’ ears to indicate they’ve been fixed.
“Cats are very territorial,” she said. “If some disappear and you suddenly have all of this free real estate … somebody else moves in.”
The Department of Public Works and a legal team are reviewing the stray cat issue at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, South Korea, and trying to come up with a new policy for bases that fall under the Army facility's control in the Seoul area and to the north, said spokesman Wes Hayes.
KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES