‘Operation Git-Meow’: The mission to save Gitmo’s feral cats

T3 was a small kitten when Ruby Meade found him five years ago at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, sneaking in to eat food and hiding if a human approached him. (Photo: Operation Git-Meow)

The Guantánamo Bay Naval Base may be best known for its controversial military prison, but it’s recently been in the news for a group of animal lovers’ mission to solve its feral cat problem: Operation Git-Meow.

Erika Kelly, the president and founder of Operation Git-Meow, says the base — nicknamed Gitmo — needs to think of new methods for managing its feral cat population, because the old ways haven’t been working.

“Euthanasia hasn’t worked. It’s been in place for 15 years and it’s not making any dent in the cat population because they’re just completely overwhelmed,” Kelly told Yahoo News on Monday.

Operation Git-Meow recently helped longtime Guantánamo Bay contractors Ruby and Glynn Meade move 25 cats (some feral, some fed by humans) to their new farm in South Carolina. All of the cats, which have been neutered, vaccinated and microchipped, will live in a large temperature-controlled barn with a completely fenced and roofed outdoor pen — so they’ll have both indoor and outdoor space.

“The most recent trip was a big adventure,” Kelly said. “They’d basically all been taken in by this couple who lived on the base for almost 30 years together. We were able to fly all of them off at once because it’s pretty expensive to fly all the cats out of Guantanamo even if you’re a resident.”

Erika Kelly, the president and founder of Operation Git-Meow, hands a check to pilots Stephen Merritt and Michael Plante to help them with the costs they incurred on their recent trip to Guantánamo Bay. (Photo: Naval Station Guantánamo Bay)

For the most recent trip, volunteers with Operation Git-Meow landed in Cuba on May 12 and left with the 25 cats two days later. But this is only the beginning of addressing a much larger problem.

According to Kelly, typical estimates place the feral cat population at around 500, but she thinks there may be as many as 2,000. She’s been working with SPCA International and Helping Paws Across Borders to provide help humanely managing the population.

Kelly, a 26-year-old from Springfield, Va., said many of the cats are semisocial — they were born and live outdoors but still rely on humans for food. They come into regular contact with wild animals (from whom they can contract diseases) and people, but with minimal or no veterinary care.

She has been advocating for Guantánamo Bay to embrace TNVR (trap, neuter, vaccinate, return) clinics and do away with their current policy of euthanizing segments of the population once a year.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act filed by the Miami Herald, the Navy said the base euthanized at least 186 cats last year.

Ruby and Glynn Meade started looking out for Morticia when she showed up four years ago. (Photo: Operation Git-Meow)

“They have contracted a cat killer who comes to shoot them every year,” Kelly said. “The reason TNVR is more effective is that you get a vacuum effect if you don’t put them back, where there’s open territory with food sources because the other cats were living there. Other cats will come in from other places and infiltrate. If you do the TNVR clinic, then over time the cat population gradually reduces but they maintain their territory for the rest of the time that they’re there.”

Operation Git-Meow proposed launching a TNVR program at the base in late March, but the Navy would not allow it, she said. So her group sent their proposal to the Navy directly in late April, she said.

“Personally I’m pretty sure they know of and have read the proposal based on what I’ve heard. I’m not sure if we’ll get a response,” Kelly said. “So a lot of what I’m trying to do is get and build media and social media attention on the issue to hopefully push the Navy to actually meeting with us to consider the exception.”

She argues TNVR is particularly effective in closed-off areas like Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, which is only 45 square miles and blocked off by a solid fence.

For the military base, Kelly said, the only new cats coming in would be fixed and vaccinated pets that had been abandoned by soldiers or other workers.

Operation Git-Meow estimates that with a 3-year exception they could reduce the cat population by at least 50 percent. If that were effective, the group would hope to continue.

Members of Operation Git-Meow help transport cats back to the United States. (Photo: Naval Station Guantánamo Bay)

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