A filtered close-up of a tortoiseshell cat with yellow eyes, not from Osan and not related to the story

Fighting for cats at the Osan Air Base

Stray cats, long considered “pests” by the US military, were shot in the head at the Osan Air Base in South Korea last year. Have things changed? A military wife speaks out.


In May, the South Korean media revealed shocking images from the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. Not only were stray cats being killed for population control — they were being cornered in traps and shot in the head.

The cat shootings might never have come to light if not for “Meredith” (not her real name), a military spouse who went public with the information on Korean television. She spoke from the shadows because she feared retaliation, and when we talked via Zoom in early June she had to leave out details to protect other informants. 

A former attorney, Meredith has always loved animals. Long before she accompanied her husband to Korea, she volunteered at shelters and trained the dogs there. When she lived in Colorado, she helped care for dogs whose families had been evacuated during a wildfire. 

And even though she’s allergic to cats, she rescued a cat who was crying next to a dumpster near her apartment building at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek. Then she adopted a friend for the cat from Homeward Bound, a rescue charity run by military spouses at the Osan Air Base.

Meredith said she went to the media only after the military failed to address her concerns internally. 

Pests or best friends?

Even before she knew what was going on at Osan, Meredith was concerned about the feral cats at Camp Humphreys. Sometime around August 2021, she heard about the shootings at Osan but didn’t have proof. Hoping to persuade the higher-ups to start a trap-neuter-release program, she sent a message through a US military channel called Interactive Customer Evaluation. ICE directs concerns and feedback to the appropriate agencies. 

Her message went to the base vet command, which is in charge of handling stray animal problems. She got a response on Sept. 28, 2021.

“And basically, the response was that the cats are pests, don’t feed them,” she said. “And that’s about it.” 

The vet command argued that feeding the cats would make the problem worse, but Meredith disagreed. 

“Because starving cats and well-fed cats both breed. A cat doesn’t breed in accordance with resources. It breeds in accordance with hormones, and it’s instinctual.”

At a town hall meeting around November last year, Meredith again brought up the idea of a TNR program at Camp Humphreys. The garrison commander, Col. Seth Graves, was open to the idea, she recalled. 

Meanwhile, news about the Osan cats was spreading on social media pages for US military spouses. People were astonished, and some refused to believe it was happening. Meredith asked for proof, and in December she saw video evidence.

Researching Korean law

Though the military bases are considered US territory and aren’t directly subject to Korean law, they are obliged to follow Korean laws under the Status of Forces Agreement. 

“They have a Status of Forces Agreement. So they have to follow — they’re supposed to follow host countries’ laws, and it actually says in technical guidelines that they have to consider host country regulations and laws and follow host country laws, unless there’s an exception to the Status of Forces Agreement.”

Feeling compelled to do something, Meredith looked up Korea’s Animal Protection Act. As she suspected, shooting cats in the head wasn’t an acceptable practice under Korean law. 

She complained to the US Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, or JAG Corps, a government law organization. “And basically, they said that there’s nothing I could do and that I’d have to write to Congress.”

But she wanted to get public support before taking that step. 

“I don’t want Congress just to blow off my concern,” she said. “So I thought I should contact Osan’s command first, and let them know that what they are doing, I believe, is illegal. But I wanted to make sure that what they were doing was illegal.”

Digging deeper

First she contacted Pyeongtaek City Hall and spoke with two people there. 

“I believe they were attorneys,” she said. “And they said, yes, it is illegal to shoot cats in the head under the Korean Animal Protection Act.”

The Korean government pays for TNR twice a year, the attorneys told Meredith. “Granted, eventually the money runs out. But they do pay for TNR twice a year and for the public to catch the cats, take the cats in to their local vet — a vet that participates in the TNR program. And then the public gets the cats back and they release them to where they found them.”

She found out that the air force’s Pest Management Office was shooting birds too. “And I should add these cats weren’t just being trapped and shot from the airfield — they were being trapped and shot from all over post. Birds were apparently being shot too, from areas outside of the airfield.”

The bird shootings were part of the military’s “BASH program,” short for Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Striking Hazard. The air force spends millions of dollars on this, Meredith said. 

“Because they want to keep the airfield safe from birds. Because they can get sucked into the engine and be very dangerous for pilots.” 

But Meredith said the BASH program is supposed to keep the airfield safe by using loud noises to scare animals away. Not by shooting them. And she doesn’t know of a single case where a cat has presented a safety threat on the airfield, despite having asked the military authorities to cite examples. 

In late May, shortly after Meredith appeared on Korean TV, another news report uncovered allegations that animals were being shot at the Kunsan Air Base in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, under the BASH program. Meredith hadn’t seen the report before our interview in June and was appalled to hear about it.

Guidelines not followed

The US military has a number of publications that anyone can view online. Guidelines for military bases are full of fear-based messages about rabies and other diseases, and those guidelines inform policies on feral animals.¹ But while rabies is present in Korea, it’s exceedingly rare. In Korean cats, it’s practically unheard of. 

Under technical guidelines that the US Air Force is obliged to follow, Meredith explained, there’s supposed to be a “feral animal risk mitigation” program at each base.²

“And I don’t think they have this program set up.” 

The guidelines, Meredith stressed, say US military personnel have to follow host country laws unless there’s an exception to policy. 

“But I don’t know of any exception to policy that allows Pest Management to trap and shoot cats in the head. Also, they were leaving traps outside overnight and weekends, all weekend, and freezing cold temperatures in the rain, in the snow during the wintertime, which is actually against their guidelines as well. So I do not know if any cats died or were injured from that. But I would not be surprised if they were, sadly.”

Lost or feral?

Under Korea’s Animal Protection Act, pounds are obligated to hold stray animals for 10 days before adopting them out or killing them. But on military bases, the rule is three days. I tried to get Meredith to clarify whether that was an exception under the Status of Forces Agreement, and she said Pest Management wasn’t even adhering to the three-day rule.

She also wasn’t sure if the scanners at Osan’s vet clinic could detect Korean microchips.

“They were only scanning for US microchips, and if the cat did not have a US microchip, they would give the cat back to Pest Management. And basically, Pest Management would take the cat and corner the cat in the trap and shoot the cat.”

Meredith found out from another person that more than 10 cats had been shot at Osan. “And Pest Management kept records of this, and Osan’s vet kept records of the bodies that they disposed of. Because after the fact, they would take the cat bodies back and give them to the vet clinic, and they would dispose of the cats. So they know about this. And so, basically, this person saw dead bodies in bags. … And eventually, they witnessed it, but they didn’t have any video of it, but they witnessed the aftermath, and not to get graphic but bloody pavement and whatnot.”

Two people later filed complaints with the Inspector General, she said. This is an office at the Osan Air Base that “serves as an extra set of eyes and ears for the installation commander,” according to its website, and is supposed to address complaints about “mismanagement, violation of policy, injustice, fraud waste and abuse.”

“I believe it was two people,” Meredith continued. “And unfortunately, the IG complaint found that no laws were violated. No guidelines were violated.”

Questioning the investigation

The 44-page document from the Inspector General, dated Oct. 29, 2021, consists of four pages of military guidelines repeated over and over again along with a questionnaire. Names were redacted.

The guidelines say, “Pest Management personnel must consider all non-lethal options before resorting to shooting. Where shooting is justified and appropriate, conduct shooting safely. … After shooting, quickly remove the deceased animal and deliver the carcass to the Osan Veterinary Treatment Facility for disposal.”

The questionnaire asks respondents if they’ve “unlawfully executed any cats,” if they have “any knowledge of any cats being unlawfully executed by any member of Pest Management,” if they have “any knowledge of health & environmental violations regarding the designated animal termination area,” and other questions along those lines.

Apparently, no one thought any rules had been broken or misconduct covered up. No one feared reprisal for being “open & honest.”

Several pictures follow the report, but no cats appear in any of the pictures. A sign on a building reads “Pest Management,” and other pictures show what seems to be a garage. There’s a close-up of a drain in a clean concrete floor.

The investigator, whose name is also redacted, concludes, “While conducting this investigation of the 51 CES Pest Management Office, I surveyed and digitally documented their designated animal termination area with pictures, and interviewed all Airmen that are assigned to the Pest Management Office in question of terminating cats outside of prescribed regulations. After assessing all allegations in-depth, I have determined that there are no unauthorized methods of terminating nor disposing of cats by the Pest Management Office on Osan Air Base. Additionally, I have determined that the designated animal termination area is properly cleaned and does not violating any environmental or safety regulations. Lastly, I have determined that the designated animal termination area is not within the view of the base nor the local populace.”

Meredith pointed out that the report didn’t even mention the Status of Forces Agreement, or any Korean law.

Put it in writing

Before the summer of 2021, according to Meredith, the veterinary command at Osan routinely killed stray cats by injection. But vet technicians filed complaints and quit because the work was traumatizing. She thinks the shootings must have started sometime around August 2021.

News reports published in May 2022, before Meredith and I first spoke, indicated that cats were no longer being shot.

“I’ve been told that it’s stopped,” she said when I asked for confirmation. “But I’m concerned because I haven’t seen anything in writing. So the army works by regulations, by memorandums, by guidelines, and so does the air force, the military.  … So I think it’s stopped, but I’m worried that just because it’s stopped with this command, doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.”

Unacceptable silence

I asked Meredith why she felt it was important to go public with her complaint, to reach out beyond the US military community. She said the chain of command stopped responding to her messages.

“So I didn’t know what was going on. And I told them, I made six requests. And they said that they were going to meet some of those requests. But I never got updates,” and months went by without a word. “And that was just unacceptable to me.” 

Knowing about the horrible things that had happened to cats, and knowing traps had been left out overnight despite assurances that wouldn’t happen, ”I stressed about it and worried about it. … I just couldn’t — I couldn’t deal with it.”

She contacted a couple of well-known international animal charities but got no help. Then she wrote to the Armed Forces Pest Control Board, which writes the pest management guidelines. “And I told them, can you please make it more pronounced that we must follow host country laws?” 

But again, Meredith was stonewalled. That’s when she reached out to the Beagle Rescue Network, which became the liaison between her and KBS, the Korean TV station that aired the story.

An amazing rescue organization

I asked if she thought the KBS program had done some good.

“I hope so,” she said. “I think there’s more awareness now. But I’m not sure what Osan is doing to build confidence in the public that this won’t happen again. Because that’s all I care about. This not ever happening again. And I have not seen a response from them. So I’m not sure — I know there’s a lot of outrage on, and people care. I just don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Meredith praised the Beagle Rescue Network for helping her bring the information to the Korean public.

“They have been so helpful,” she said. “I’m so glad that — they were absolutely wonderful. And they truly care. I just — they’re amazing, an amazing rescue organization.” 

There’s ongoing talk of the US military and the Korean government working together on a future TNR program, but so far there’s been no official statement.

“The one thing that I just want to stress is that we are not allowed to help the cats at all, unfortunately, on any of these bases,” Meredith said. “Like, we will get in trouble. And we’re not allowed to feed them. We’re not allowed to shelter them. Pest Management destroys food — feed stations, and they destroy shelter and (the Commission of Public Works), well, on Camp Humphreys, and they have done it as well. And I don’t think it’s because they’re being mean.” They’re following regulations, she said.

Working toward TNR

Having supported Meredith and another whistleblower in coming forward, the Beagle Rescue Network was talking with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs about the possibility of establishing TNR programs at military bases across Korea.

“That’s our final goal,” Jeong Buyun of the Beagle Rescue Network said in June, adding that it might take time but “I think we can make it happen.” 

Buyun said KBS had received a response from the Osan base indicating willingness to take part in a TNR program if the city of Pyeongtaek organized one. 

In September, when I asked for an update, she said the organization hadn’t heard anything in two or three months. Negotiations between the base and the Pyeongtaek city government were ongoing, she said, but the sticking point was that the military authorities didn’t want to release neutered cats on the base. Releasing TNR’ed cats back to the trapping site is mandatory under Korean law, she added.

Forgotten lessons 

TNR is not unprecedented at US military bases in Korea. Before the pandemic, the US Army worked with a Korean cat charity and a Korean vet association to TNR more than 200 feral cats at its base in Yongsan, central Seoul. 

Kerri Burrows, the military spouse who played a major role in setting up that program, wrote in September, “It’s unfortunate that the progress we made with the US military at Yongsan has been forgotten. The work done there was the start of moving the military toward a more progressive, humane standard for a problem that plagues nearly every military installation. I still have hope though that command leaders will rethink their stance toward feral cat management and work to implement a humane population control protocol.”

September 2022 update

Meredith and her family are no longer in Korea. When we spoke again recently, she sounded pessimistic. The US military remained uncommunicative and wouldn’t share information with “outsiders,” she said. After sending three emails, she’d received no response.

Through “hearsay,” she’s learned that Osan supposedly found a “humane” way of controlling its cat population, but she’s skeptical because of the secrecy surrounding the plan.

“I don’t trust them because a ‘humane’ solution could be to capture all strays and euthanize them at the vet (like before),” she wrote in September, “or capture all strays and release them in the wild far from post or capture all strays and turn them into the Pyeongtaek city pound where they will be killed after 10 days.” If the plan is so great, she reasoned, why not tell everyone?

A petition at The Petition Site had 1,349 signatures as of this writing in late September, and a Change.org petition had 874. At the Animal Rescue Site, a petition to save the Osan base cats had more than 27,000 signatures.

Questions for Osan’s commander

Before publishing this blog post I emailed Osan’s commander, Col. Joshua Wood, asking him to clarify:

  • if cats were still being killed there and if not, what measures were underway to control cat populations. 
  • if there were any new guidelines in writing, and whether it was true that people on the base weren’t allowed to help cats in distress. 
  • if US military personnel had destroyed feeding stations set up by local “cat moms” (as Meredith told me).
  • what people on the base were supposed to do if they found sick, lost or injured cats.
  • whether there were any plans for a TNR program on the base.
  • if he could comment on allegations that the US military violated Korea’s Animal Protection Act, and therefore violated the Status of Forces Agreement, by cornering cats and shooting them in the head. 
  • if traps were really left out overnight in freezing weather in violation of US military guidelines. 

And finally, I mentioned that people had accused the Osan Air Base of ignoring inquiries about the cats. I said some people wanted a new set of standard operating procedures to be made available in writing and shared freely, and I invited Col. Wood to comment on that too. 

A week after sending the email, I contacted Osan’s public affairs office and a spokeswoman said she’d seen my email. She said the base had been very busy with a military exercise, but she assured me I’d get an answer. Now, after another week with no follow-up message, I’m putting this blog post into the world. I’ll update it if I hear back from the US military. 


Notes

¹ See TG 3Feral Animal Risk Mitigation in Operational Areas (PDF), August 2020, page 13. Linked to https://www.acq.osd.mil/eie/afpmb/technicalguides.html.

² See TG 3Feral Animal Risk Mitigation in Operational Areas (PDF), August 2020. Linked to https://www.acq.osd.mil/eie/afpmb/technicalguides.html.

The featured image is not from the Osan Air Base and has no connection to the US military. That’s Yangee, my 2010 foster kitty.

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