GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – This base best known for its 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 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 nonprofit organization to help soldiers or sailors on temporary assignment here adopt them and take them home.
The group's name? Operation Git-Meow.
"I have taken care of over 40, actually 50, cats in about 3½ years," says Git-Meow founder and foster-cat mom Tina Marie Parr, the wife of a base contractor. She's built a small shelter in her backyard and is scouting for something more permanent.
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 stay for a year or less, adopt a cat and, when they leave, let it go.
Cats probably arrived on the first sailing ship from the Old World, said Erika Kelly, who spotted the problem on a visit to the base and has now set up Operation Git-Meow.
Kelly estimates there are 500 to 600 feral cats at Guantanamo. "They're not fixed. They're not vaccinated," she said.
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.
Base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley said the Git-Meow "proposal is under review," even though it would deviate from Navy regulations.
Guantanamo-based group members also 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. Wichner, a defense attorney for accused Sept. 11 plot deputy, Ramzi Binalshibh, said of the cat, "I completely fell in love with the little guy and couldn't bear to think of anything bad happening to him."
She soon turned the kitten over to his current owner: Jim Harrington, Binalshibh's lead defense counsel, who commutes to Cuba from his home in upstate New York. Harrington's wife, Anne, re-christened him — what else? — "Gitmo."