At Sigonella, one of the first things I noticed was all of the stray cats. They roam freely over both bases and little by little, I discovered gathering spots for the cats. Many building post signs advising you not to feed the cats, though many do feed them away from the buildings. More than one friend I have in Sicily has more cats than when she arrived (Ahem, Sara!).
Yet, cats are not the only animal you see running free in Sicily. Military members frequently face challenges shipping pets overseas, either direction. I learned a great deal about these difficulties when we brought Panther and Maki over on our Delta and Alitalia flights. Luckily, the entire process was incredibly smooth for us, but there was a lot of anxiety over preparing for all of the potential problems.
The pet needs to make several vet visits in preparation, and must be micro-chipped. The pet carrier has to meet specifications of each airline that services your travel route. Even finding that information on airline websites is intimidating at first. And, what if you have a long layover? You better check the airport facility for a pet area where you can let your pet out and “water” your cat or dog. And that’s if your pet can travel in the cabin with you, many pets must travel in hard crates with cargo. On top of these issues, planes generally have a set limit of pets allowed in cargo and allowed in the cabin. On a small plane, our two cats filled the 2-pet maximum.
With all of these variables at issue, and a major move in the mix, it is easy to understand why so many military pets are left behind at a friend or family’s home while a family takes its overseas tour. It is even easy enough to understand why a pet adopted while abroad might be left to another overseas family before a return to the states. Yet, it is difficult for most of us to accept simply abandoning the pet.
Unfortunately, this happens all too often in the military. In recent years, more action is being taken to combat the problems associated with abandoned pets on or near overseas military installations. The Department of Defense (DoD) is requesting a change to the Manual of Courts-Martial, and eventually a change to the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice – essentially like the “State law” of the military; federal laws and the U.S. Constitution apply to service members, but they get their own code, too). Congress is the UCMJ gatekeeper, though the President can make the change to the Manual.
The group wants the ability to enforce stiffer penalties against pet-owners who abandon their pets overseas. A service member can already be charged with “dereliction of duty” and “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline” (according to the article linked above), but the DoD wants a pet-specific offense to strengthen the cases and clarify the consequences in cases of pet abandonment.
Our pets are part of the family and while I would consider parting with them for health reasons, space or other rational reasons, I would never consider abandoning them and walking away. I am sure this is a difficult position for the families who end up doing so, and I hope that the threat of penalty pushes them to take evasive action ahead of time, so the urge to abandon the pet does not overwhelm the rational person who put so many resources into caring for the pet while it lived in their home.