The cats of Yongsan: How one military wife took on TNR, part 1

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Kerri Burrows used to go hiking on Namsan every week. On one hike, she saw a poster about stray cats. She couldn’t read it very well, but one of her Korean friends translated.

“And it essentially said, you know, the cats are part of our community, we want to take care of them, please don’t be mean to them. And I think that is really progressive,” she said in an interview in late February.

We were discussing her work for stray cats at Yongsan Garrison, where she lives with her air force pilot husband and their daughter.

“And there are a whole lot of places in the US that don’t do that,” she said. 

It seemed like a big change, I said, compared with 10 or 15 years ago. 

“I’m just coming in on the tail end of it,” she said, celebrating the trend here toward controlling stray cat numbers through trap-neuter-return programs. Many cities, she said, “still have ordinances to trap and kill, even though we know that it’s not the most effective method of managing the population.”

It was Nabiya, a local cat rescue, that put me in touch with Kerri. Longtime Nabiya volunteer Cody Yoshizawa praised her TNR work at Yongsan, the US territory at the heart of Seoul that is set to be turned back over to Korea sometime soon. Kerri convinced Yongsan Garrison to take on the project in partnership with Nabiya and the Korean Veterinary Medical Association, and so far they’ve sterilized about 200 cats.

When we spoke, they were preparing to get through the last 50 or so unaltered cats in the colony. At the same time, they were wrestling with the question of what will happen to the cats when the gates finally close. 

That day Kerri took me behind the high walls and barbed wire, and she shared an in-depth look at TNR and its challenges. I got a glimpse of the feeding stations and some of the well-fed base cats who’ve benefited from the project. We also discussed animal sheltering and shelter reform efforts here and in North America. 

Kerri, Nabiya and the Yongsan base cats

Animals are Kerri’s life. When she came to Korea with her family about 18 months ago, the first thing she did was look for an animal shelter and offer to help.

“That’s sort of my MO when I move into a new location, is to find a shelter,” she said. Nabiya was one of the few shelters in town that had an English-speaking liaison, so she started volunteering about once a week. 

Kerri has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and a certificate in animal shelter management. She’s worked as a vet tech in Alabama and Missouri and held various paid and volunteer positions at US animal shelters over the past 20 years. She’s been a board member and a transport coordinator. She’s fostered animals in her home.  

“Part of the downside of this life that I live is that I move all the time. And so every single time you move, you have to reinvent yourself and come up with a new profession. And sometimes that profession is in animal welfare—that’s the one that gets the paycheck—and sometimes it’s not and I have to do animal welfare on the side. 

“But I have managed to do something with sheltering pretty much everywhere we’ve been, minus when my kid was just a little tiny baby. I didn’t do much then. I was kind of consumed with that whole motherhood thing.”

Kerri has also done TNR in the United States. “This is the biggest TNR project that I’ve taken on,” she said. “And this is definitely the first time that I have been working in coordination with the military.” 

So many cats

In 2004, United States Forces Korea agreed to turn over Yongsan Garrison to the Korean government and relocate its troops south of the capital to Pyeongtaek. It’s been a long process: Kerri estimates that 1,000-1,500 USFK staff members still work there, and the base remains home to about 50 military families and 100 US Embassy households.

Every military base where Kerri has lived has had a wild cat population. Wild, or feral, cats are the descendants of lost or abandoned house cats who’ve had to fend for themselves and gain survival skills. They’re extremely scared of people, and it’s very difficult for most to adapt to indoor life.

At Yongsan, Kerri found the presence of the cats especially noticeable as more and more troops vacated the base in preparation for its eventual handover. 

“As the population of Yongsan has decreased, the cats have really flourished,” she said, though she couldn’t say for sure whether that was cause and effect. Maybe the cats got more comfortable as the human population diminished, and just became more visible, she said. Or maybe fewer people were feeding them and they had to do more roaming to get food. 

“There are so many cats here. It’s just ridiculous,” she said in the car after she signed me in. As she pulled into the Dragon Hill Hotel parking lot, she told me how things got started during the first week or so after her family arrived at the base. 

“So this is the Dragon Hill Hotel,” she said. “This is where everyone comes when they are coming in. So you come in and stay here until you’re assigned housing. 

“And so while we were staying here, there was a baby kitten that was hit in this intersection. And was dead. I was like, ugh, man, they must have a bad cat problem here. So I just kept kind of watching and you know, I would see lots of them.”

Broaching the subject

One day, she said, the command sergeant major posted on the Garrison Facebook page, “Please don’t feed the cats. It’s illegal to feed the cats.”

The official guidance from the US Department of Defense is to do nothing about stray cats unless someone complains. Under military rules, stray cats are considered pests. 

But when the message went out saying it’s illegal to feed the cats, Kerri emailed back. “I said, ‘Hey, I see that you have a cat problem and I have lots of experience in managing cat populations. Can I come talk to you?’

“And he emailed me right back, like within about 15 minutes. He’s like, ‘Hey, definitely, let’s chat.’ So I met with him, and every time you have a meeting in the military you have to meet with 15 people because you have to meet with all these points of contact. So I had to meet with the vets and the legal office and all that kind of stuff because it’s illegal to TNR cats on government property.” 

I asked if that was the general policy for US military bases throughout the world.

Yes, she told me, but then clarified that military “guidance” was different from military “policy.” 

“It’s pest control guidance is what it is. It’s not a policy, which is how we got away with doing it. Because it’s not a policy. It’s just recommended guidance by the Department of Defense.”

Creating goodwill

Under the guidance, she said, stray animals can’t be released on government property. But Kerri managed to negotiate an exception.  

“So because the pest control is just guidance we were able to get a command waiver. So I talked to the command sergeant major, and then what ended up happening is he went back to Col. Washington, who is the commander of the base, and they met with the Yongsan-gu Office.

“And because the base is closing, and because there’s lots of politics involved and lots of … I think they’re stretching to make goodwill, because this has been, you know, they agreed to turn over the base in the early 2000s. And we’re now at 2020 and we’re still here. So I think there’s definitely an effort to have goodwill, and the Yongsan-gu Office is very supportive of TNR.”

Kerri said that’s partly because of Nabiya—because of the connections its founder, Yu Juyun, has made and the work she’s done to persuade people. 

“This is her home,” Kerri said. “She grew up in Yongsan. And so she has lots of friends in City Hall, and she, you know, was supportive of TNR and has been pushing them to do TNR for a long time.

“So because Yongsan-gu agreed to do it, agreed to support it and thought it was a good idea, then we were able to get the command waiver to make it happen. So it took about four—four or five months to get all the legal stuff taken care of. To get around the guidance to redo the post policy on stray animals. So there was lots of legal hoops that I had to jump through first.”

The cat moms

The program finally got underway in March 2019. But while Kerri was patiently negotiating for permission to TNR cats on the base, a group of Korean “cat moms” was already trapping cats illegally.

“We didn’t do our first TNR until the end of April last year. So we did 75 the first time and when the policy changed, there was a group of Korean women who were working on the base illegally, trapping cats. And they did about 30 before I caught them.” 

I was curious about the cat moms, and I asked Kerri if they’d trespassed on the base. 

The answer was no—the cat moms had access to the base through different connections. One was employed by the army, one was the spouse of a retired service member, and so on. 

“We’re all working towards the same goal,” Kerri said. “But this is a government program.” Following the guidelines isn’t optional.

“I sort of pulled them in and was like, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do this, you have to do it under my direction, because I’m the one that has the golden ticket from the Department of Defense.’ So once we had that all under control, we did 75 the first time. 

“And then we did another one in October, and we did just over 100 that time. And we’ll do the next one—I really wanted to do the next one this weekend.”

Some people felt it was still too cold to trap cats in February, she said, so the next round was still ahead. 

The cats vs. the colony

We talked for a long time about the differences between shelter medicine and private practice veterinary medicine. There’s a wide chasm between the two, Kerri explained, and this has led to disagreements and cultural clashes with the Korean cat moms. For example, the cat moms wanted to keep the cats in traps for five days after surgery. They were concerned about the cats’ well-being and worried about cats having to recover from surgery out in the cold. But Kerri said being held for such a long time is extremely stressful for feral cats. 

“And so it is really hard on their immune system,” she said. “So we trap them, which scares them, then we put them under anesthesia, which is hard on their bodies, and then we cut them open, right? So the faster we can recover them and get them out to their natural environment—it’s like when you go to the hospital.”

Korean hospitals tend to keep patients twice as long as US hospitals, she said. “Part of that’s financial, but in general, you recover better at home.” 

It’s the same for feral cats, she said. “They typically, as long as they are healthy, are going to recover better in their own environment, which is out in the wild for these cats.”

Getting to as many cats as possible in a short time is important in a TNR program because that’s the only way to make a dent in the population. Kerri described the MASH surgery center where the vets work. 

“So the building is right up the street,” she said. “It was an old office building. We put folding tables out. Surgeons do surgery on top of—we stack up cat food bags. They put their surgical drapes over the top of them. … And the first time they did all 73 surgeries in less than five hours. So it really is about quantity.” 

Nabiya’s role

Yu Juyun from Nabiya has mediated many discussions between Kerri and the cat moms. She’s also the one who brought in a team of vets to perform the surgery.

“So the veterinary association that’s doing the surgeries,” Kerri said, “it’s a group of vets and this is what they do on the weekends. They go out to rural shelters, they go out and do TNRs, they do—I’m pretty sure they do every single Sunday, there’s a group of them that goes out.” 

The association pays for all the supplies and the vets donate their time, she said. “And so for the two TNRs that we’ve done, and we have one more planned, there are about 25 vets, technicians and volunteers that come in to the base and do surgery. 

“So we trap on Friday and Saturday. The cats have surgery on Sunday, we recover on Monday and Tuesday and then release.” 

The cats are always scanned for microchips, but so far they haven’t trapped a single microchipped cat. 

“They do have a once-over medical on them once they’re anesthetized to see if there’s any issues or if we notice problems,” Kerri said. “They give them—it’s like a concoction of different medicines—hydration, liver function, antibiotic—to sort of boost them. And they tip their ears and then vaccinate them.” 

Kerri pointed out that the association is spending a lot of money to provide all these services. Yongsan Garrison paid for 100 traps for the project.

“Which I kind of thought was overkill at first,” she said. “But then our second one, we trapped 101 cats. So we definitely needed every single one of those traps.” 

A TNR partnership

Kerri applauded Nabiya’s founder and all the vets involved in the project. “Because otherwise we would have never been able to do it without veterinary support,” she said.

“I mean, that’s the most expensive part of TNR is to get people to do the surgeries. And, you know, they’re spending a lot of their time on a Sunday morning to come in here and take care of all these cats. So it’s actually been pretty amazing that it’s been no cost. It’s really been a partnership. And … that part of it is so much more progressive than what I come from in the US. Like, veterinary associations in the US, they would never do that.” 

Nabiya also cares for sick cats who couldn’t survive outdoors. 

“We’ve had just a handful—three, I think—adults who they were too sick,” Kerri said. Two of the cats had “really horrible stomatitis and just were in general ill health,” she said. Stomatitis is a painful inflammation of the mouth. The third cat had to have a leg amputation, which Nabiya paid for. 

“And he actually just got adopted and he’s semi-feral, but probably could become a normal antisocial cat,” she added.

Kittens younger than 12 weeks are considered tamable and go into foster care. In April 2019 the team found a litter of kittens in a tree stump and Nabiya took the whole litter. Kerri also fosters kittens in her home and had just placed her last foster when we spoke. 

She never would have taken on the TNR problem if she hadn’t been a volunteer at Nabiya, she said. 

“Because I needed that support, you know—a place to take a cat that we knew was going to die but probably had, you know, had maybe a year left.” 

The military is just not suited to handle that, she said, and that’s probably part of the reason the “pest control” guidance still exists. 

“Because it takes money to do it. And, you know, we buy guns and airplanes.” 

Looking beyond Korea

TNR still isn’t common practice on US military bases around the world. The Yongsan project is considered an exception to the pest control guidance.

The status quo on most bases, Kerri said, is that “feral cats are trapped—not in a concerted effort, though. So more like a nuisance cat. Someone complains the cat got in their trash. Someone complains the cat’s hanging out on the playground, whatever. 

“The DPW, which is Department of Public Works in the army, it’s something else in the air force—anyway, they would typically—or if there was an animal control officer assigned to the base, they would trap the cat. The cat would be taken to the base animal clinic. They have to be held for 72 hours, which is basic. Three to five days is the standard in animal control across the US about how long you have to keep a stray before you make a decision about euthanasia. So at three days, if no one claimed an animal it would be put to sleep.”

Her ultimate goal is for the Yongsan project to inspire change at other military bases throughout the world. 

“I have collected all the data from this project,” she said, “and I would love to be able to take this project, and there are a couple of other military bases that have allowed some level of TNR to happen, and take that data and take it back to the Department of Defense and get the guidance, the pest control guidance, changed and make it more friendly.”

She said she’s working with a group that’s trying to help cats in Guantanamo Bay, where the estimated cat population is 5,000. 

“Guantanamo’s a really horrible situation right now,” she said. “They are trapping and killing. They are sometimes adopting out kittens. Because Guantanamo is such an isolated situation. You know, there’s usually one vet on the entire base and that one vet handles all veterinary management for the entire US base and the politics there are lots more sticky even than they are here. And so it’s really, really complicated down there. And because it’s not really US soil, but it is US soil, you know, it’s very, very, very sticky there. So that’s probably going to be one of the last places that’s going to get assistance. But there is a nonprofit that’s working to try and change that.”

To change things for the cats at Guantanamo, she said, legislation might be needed, “because of the political aspect of that.” But in the Department of Defense, “if we have case studies like this, we could probably get the policy changed, or the guidance changed. It’s just a process of jumping through all the hoops and trying to convince people, right?”

Out in the field

Later, we got back in Kerri’s car and she showed me around the base, explaining that she’d divided it into quadrants as part of a strategy to catch the remaining cats—the trap-savvy felines scattered in pockets on different parts of the property. 

“So, so most of this is closed,” she said. “All these buildings. And there’s a big population of cats down here.” 

She pointed out cats as we passed. 

“Oh, there’s another one,” she said. “That one’s already done.” The TNR’d cats were ear-tipped, so they were easily identifiable.

We saw more cats as she drove past feeding stations.

“So that one’s ear-tipped already,” she said. “So we’ve done about 55 down here, I think. So there’s a taxi driver who feeds cats down here, and he has a little bell and he comes out with his little bell, and he calls all the cats and they come in for dinner.”

So many of the cats were orange and white, I said, and Kerri agreed. 

“Look how fat he is. Holy cow! He’s huge.”

Kerri noticed many of the cats before I did. 

“He’s already done,” Kerri said. “He looks good. That’s a boy.”

The cats were waiting for their snacks, she said as we passed a feeding station.

“That one’s done too,” Kerri said, and I asked if I could get out and take a picture. I got one, but it wasn’t that sharp. 

Kerri drove past a fence and said the land on the other side had already been turned over and was no longer US property. When another cat walked by, Kerri said, “So she’s done too. That’s good. We’ve got to make sure that all the girls are done. Oh my gosh.” 

Kerri mentioned that a number of taxi drivers regularly come to the area and feed cats. 

“But this is probably the biggest area, the biggest concentration of cats,” she said. “When it’s warm out they like to sleep right on the other side of the fence so they can wait for the taxi driver to come because he pushes food bowls underneath the fence for them.”

The drivers pay for the food themselves, she said. “They have huge hearts.” 

The taxi drivers are Koreans, Kerri confirmed when I asked, and mostly older people. “Very, very few American people are feeding cats. It’s primarily Koreans who have access to the post or Koreans who are working on the post.” 

There was a typhoon in September that did a lot of damage, Kerri said as she drove to another feeding station. 

“So a lot of the feeding stations that were hidden are not so hidden anymore because we lost so many trees from the typhoon.”

This final stage of the TNR project will be the hardest, she said. 

“And so every cage has to be—every animal has to have a unique number so I know where to send them back to, so they go back to the right location. So when we’re doing trapping we’re usually trapping in 15 different locations on average. So the feeders have been pretty good about helping out with trapping. Some feeders want to do their own trapping. Some feeders just want to feed and they don’t want to help with trapping at all. So to recruit volunteers I usually sucker my friends into becoming cat trappers on the weekend. My husband has become quite adept at catching cats in traps.”

The project is the work of about 10 people, she said, with volunteers taking on different roles. I commented on the size of the base and how much work it must be.

“It is much bigger than what you think, especially—there’s all these like nooks and crannies and there are buildings in the oddest locations. You know, you come over a hill, you’re like, really? I can’t believe they have a building in this location. And there’ll be, you know, five workers left in that building and they’ll be feeding there.”

She mentioned the three resident cats outside her husband’s office. “They are the fattest feral cats I have ever seen,” she said. “But they all hang out outside and there’s two males and a female and the female gets fed in one location. And the males get fed in a different location ’cause sometimes they don’t get along and, you know, they have their own little family there. And I do really worry, like, what happens when all of this—all the people have to go, what happens to all of these cats? But I can’t—I am not going to be able to come up with a solution for that. Where I could be effective was to stop them from reproducing.” 

Worrying about how politics might impact the cats when the base closes, she said, “You do what you can.” 

If Kerri and the volunteers can sterilize 50 cats in this final round, she said, “I will feel like it’s been pretty successful.” 

But the remaining population of unaltered cats is much less concentrated this time around. The volunteers will have to go to many different locations. 

“Because there’s maybe one or two cats left in that location. Versus, you know, the first time that we were at Camp Coyner, where there were 10 of us—10 people down there trapping at once—and we got 35 cats in a couple of hours. So it’s just going to be—every time you do it, it just gets harder as you have fewer and fewer cats that need to be trapped and they recognize the traps and they’re like, ‘Ah, I know what happened the last time those came out.’ 

“So they definitely get trap savvy. Harder and harder to convince them. It doesn’t matter how much tuna you put out. Usually by Saturday night at about 8 o’clock we’re dealing with, like, the holdouts. The ones who have been watching the traps for 24 hours and they’re like, ‘I’m not going in, I’m not going in.’ And we’re trying to convince them, ‘Just go in the trap! Please, go in the trap!’”

She showed me another feeding station where a ginger cat was hanging around. I got out of the car but scared the cat away as I approached to take a picture. Kerri wasn’t fazed, saying the cat was feral but happy and “clearly not starving.”

Changing minds, changing times

Humor aside, having committed cat feeders is a big help, she said. 

“Definitely, that is a huge factor in the success of the project is that people are willing to feed the cats.” 

Another, she added, is that the command was willing to overlook the “illegal” cat feeding. 

“I’m like, ‘I can’t trap cats unless I feed them. So you can’t be ticketing people for feeding cats. You have to—you have to let it go.’ And they were willing to do that, which is huge for the army to say we’re going to break a rule, because we are all about rules in the military. So this is definitely an out-of-the-box solution for them. Which is so far behind the times, but one of the ways you change people’s minds is you show them, right? That’s what we’re trying to do is just show them, ‘Look, this works.’” 

Update as of April 2020

As of this writing, TNR work at Yongsan is suspended due to the COVID-19 situation. No one knows when it will restart.

One Reply to “The cats of Yongsan: How one military wife took on TNR, part 1”

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