US Embassy Baghdad Kittens
Born:February 23, 2009
General Services warehouse
U.S. Embassy Baghdad compound
Tigris River, Iraq
The story: On 23 February 2009 a sergeant who worked with the Embassy’s Office of Provincial Affairs (OPA) was sorting through boxes of protective personal equipment (PPE) to distribute to team members. While he was going through the boxes an orange cat suddenly leapt out at and frightened him. Inside the empty helmet box the sergeant discovered three newborn kittens. The manager of the warehouse, who did care for animals, placed the large box with the kittens inside, outside of the warehouse. Separated from their mother.
Later that evening I (Carol) went by the warehouse to feed the father cat, Atropina, as I always had. I’d seen the mother cat around but didn’t know her very well though I knew she was pregnant. The Peruvian guards called to me, “Miss, miss, gatico! Cat!” pointing to the box. I looked inside the box and found the three kittens, and knew immediately she had given birth. One of the guards pointed inside to the warehouse, saying, “Atropina! Miss, Atropina!” Atropina and the mother cat, both orange tabbies, appeared similar to one another so it could be easy to mix them up. I, however, knew Atropina well and that was not Atropina sitting inside the warehouse.
The mother cat sat about twenty feet inside the warehouse looking out in the direction of the box. I realized she longed to be with her kittens but could not, would not, go through the public area of the warehouse where forklifts and people came and went. My heart ached for her. I cursed the manager for heartlessly separating the mother and her kittens. I picked up the large box holding the three kittens and carried it inside to the mother. I walked with her to an interior aisle away from people and showed her the kittens in the box. She sniffed, inspected, and put her mother over the scruff of the neck of one of the kittens. I interrupted her because I knew her intent: to hide the kittens in the warehouse, in which case we would unlikely see them again. Not see them again, that is, until they were well beyond the six to eight week window for being socialized with humans. By then, they would be well on their way to being feral, which would make them harder to catch for the TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) program, which would contribute the feline population explosion on the compound – which I was trying to interrupt and prevent.
I was able to get Mommy Cat to release the kitten back to the box. She was bedraggled, her eyes weary, her body thin. I offered her tuna fish which she gobbled down, so I gave her more. She finished it off.
In my mind I went through the possible scenarios for this circumstance. I would not keep the kittens and mother separated, they had to be together. I did not have a secure carrier with me. She was semi-feral, a stray, and would not come to me. How to get them together, and then what? It was nine o’clock p.m. I did have my gloves with me. One of the warehouse workers, Andres, from Central America, had followed me into the quiet aisle.
“Andre, I need your help.”
“I need you to get beside this box with the kittens. I’m going to pick up this mother cat and place her inside the box. She’s going to object and possibly struggle, so once I place her there I need you to quickly close the box flaps.”
“Okay.” Thank goodness. I had a helper. I pulled on the heavy canvas engineer gloves I had found discarded beside a construction area several weeks earlier. I approached Mommy Cat, and she allowed me to lift her very light body, and placed her deftly inside the box. With my hands over the box preventing her escape I said, “Now!” to Andre and he secured the flaps.
Big sigh. They were together. What I was going to do now I didn’t know, but at least they were secure for the next few hours, at least until morning, when I could come up with an alternative. One of the workers said, “Miss Frieda, she no want cats inside warehouse, she say no cats.” The flaps were down on the box but with little effort she could easily escape and carry the kittens off during the night.
I rummaged around the inside of the warehouse’s interior and found a white cabinet door. It would be heavy enough to hold the flaps down over night. I placed the box with the family of kittens outside the warehouse door and placed the door atop the box. I had paper and a magic marker with me so I could write a sign to leave the cats alone and that I was the point-of-contact. I provided Mommy Cat food and water and went home.
In the next following days I made four trips per day to provide water and food to Mommy Cat and to allow her out to use the litter box. I always wore the gloves because though she accepted the food I offered, she would claw or bite at me when I removed my hand. Perhaps she thought I was taking a kitten. She was voracious and ate hungrily of chicken, turkey, ham and beef. As she became more trusting of me, she would accept food directly from my gloved hand. Then I’d leave my gloved hand inside the box and gently stroke the kittens. That was a big day, being able, being permitted by Mommy Cat to touch her babies.
I found an animal carrier and placed her and the kittens inside. I knew she would not go anywhere without the kittens so it was safe to allow her out to use the litter box (the gravel around the warehouse was the area the cats used) without concern of her running away.
I recruited four volunteers to assist me with caregiving duties. We maintained a log of every visit we made with the family for the next three months, until the end of May. We relocated the family to a quieter area away from the warehouse, near one of the guard towers. The guards loved the kittens and contributed to feeding, watering and general oversight.
The three kittens and their mother endured harsh conditions. Fortunately, it was not yet the worst of summer, it was still “spring” so the temperatures ranged from the seventies to the nineties from March to the end of May. There were, however, dust storms. The dust is a fine talcum, more powder or ash than sand. The wind blows and sends the tiny particles into every nook and cranny. We had built a nice shelter for the family when the kittens had grown enough to wander outside of the carrier, so they had a place to retreat from the dust storms. At least ten mortar attacks occurred during their lives on the Embassy compound, and a few landed within fifty yards of their shelter. They heard duck and cover alarms, sirens, and shouting. They heard guards talking and laughing together.
They had a cadre of Embassy fans, too. Folks who claimed their allegiance to animals were invited to visit. They said the best part of their day was when they got to visit the cats. (Embassy Baghdad’s Management does not allow any animals as pets, and discouraged the feeding and befriending of stray cats.) People were delighted with the liveliness of the kittens, and the mother who had grown completely domesticated (within a few weeks I no longer had to wear gloves, and she even let us pet her, purring).
In April I completed applications for the family’s transport to the United States with SPCA-International’s Operation Baghdad Pups (began fall 2007). T hey caught one of the last of OBP’s flights of the season (from June to October it is too hot for animal transport to or from the Middle East). On Sunday, 24 May 2009, the three kittens – Isis, Shivers and Rosco – were picked up by a personal security detail for transport to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Six hours later they were on a flight to Kuwait, and four days later on an international flight, via Amsterdam, to Washington, D.C.