Cats on duty with NATO

Cats on duty with NATO
14 May 2004

By U.S. Army Col. Jared Kline

SHAPE, Belgium -- It is midnight at the NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. All is as it should be. Most of the garrison is asleep and there has not been a rocket attack in weeks. The camp is dotted with reinforced concrete bunkers, stocked with food and water, in case of mortar attacks or other hostile actions.

Soldiers with night vision devices and automatic rifles patrol the perimeter. But they are not the only ones guarding the lives of the sleeping garrison. Independently from the heavily armed and well-equipped soldiers, a special company patrols the interior of the camp. It is a company of cats.

Over 5,000 years ago, people in Egypt began leaving food out for cats, to encourage them to stay in the vicinity to hunt for mice, rats, and snakes. Mice and rats threatened their grain stocks, and poisonous snakes threatened the people themselves.

In return for these handouts, the cats killed, dispersed, and generally suppressed the pests. It was a sort of contract between man and cat, and it began a long association of mutual benefit.

Fast forward to the present day. The situation at NATO Headquarters-Kabul, is essentially a continuation of the relationship established on the banks of the Nile River at the dawn of history.

It took a hard lesson to establish the Kabul Cat Company.

According to the United Nations the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is a mere 43-years due to the level of disease. Nearly 33% of Afghan women die during pregnancy. Children have a 16% chance of dying at birth, and of the remaining 84% who are fortunate enough to survive at least 16% will die before their sixth birthday.

Leishmaniasis, tuberculosis, e-coli, and a host of unknown diseases ravage the population. Rabies is widespread. There are eleven different types of poisonous snakes in Afghanistan, seven of which have no known anti-venom.

Deploying soldiers to live and operate in such an environment must be a cause for urgent concern for military medical authorities. These medical authorities noticed that there were many cats in the camp, some of which were being adopted as mascots by the soldiers.

As a precaution against rabies every cat on the installation was captured and transported to a wilderness many miles away.

Within two months it was apparent that this was a mistake.

Flea-ridden rats, formerly unknown at the camp, occupied it in swarms. The rats brought their own rabies threat, while their dried droppings spread disease throughout the garrison.

Cobras, looking for shelter from the searing Afghan sun, lurked in the bunkers. Other snakes, looking for food, were attracted by the presence of these rodents. It was a serious military problem and there was only one solution.

The cats had to come back.

Today, approximately 60-70 cats patrol the installation. Now there is not a rat to be found.

The soldiers have given names to some of the cats. Throughout history, military units have often adopted animals as mascots and pets.

For as long as there have been armies, soldiers deployed on hard missions far from family and friends, pets have been welcomed to remind them of home. Our NATO soldiers of today are no less human than the soldiers of days gone by.

Tolerated by military medical authorities, loved by soldiers and feared by rats and snakes, the Kabul Cat Company carries on, at no cost to NATO or the nations. Soldiers complete their missions in Kabul and return home, healthy in mind and body, to their homes in Europe and North America.

It is midnight at the NATO headquarters in Kabul. All is as it should be.

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