A green-eyed brown tabby cat is seen close up. The cat is not from Yongsan and is not part of the story.
Photo not related to story (Eileen Cahill)

The cats of Yongsan, part 2: Doing the most good

A Korean charity collaborated with Korean vets and US military personnel to neuter about 200 feral cats at the soon-to-be-former Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. What will happen when the base closes? (Continued from part 1.)

Despite its increasing popularity as a humane, effective way of controlling feral cat populations, trap-neuter-release has its detractors. Cats get in people’s trash, said Kerri Burrows, who spearheaded the TNR project at Yongsan Garrison along with Nabiya and the Korean Veterinary Medical Association.

“Cats that are unaltered get into fights. All that kind of stuff, right?” She and her rescue partners had to address public health concerns before any trapping could start.

Cats can transmit diseases through their feces, and there’s the possibility — however remote — that a child could get bitten or scratched. If people are feeding cats in close proximity to housing developments, Kerri said, “you tend to have cats just lounging around and people don’t like it.” 

TNR advocates have to overcome all those objections if the military is to get on board and waive its usual pest control guidance at other bases in addition to Yongsan.

One US Army base in Hawaii, she said, has a “very specific, very detailed, intense TNR program” in partnership with a nonprofit group that sterilizes the adult cats and fosters the kittens. To feed cats at the Hawaiian base, volunteers have to take a class and become certified cat feeders.

“And the base has set up feeding stations in specific areas so you can’t feed outside your office door,” she said. “You can only feed at these feeding stations and you have to be a licensed feeder and … as is true with government, they turned it into a whole bunch of hoops that you had to jump through to just feed a cat.” 

Importance of partnerships

While acknowledging that Seoul isn’t Hawaii — where a unique ecosystem presents a special set of challenges for TNR organizers — Kerri said the Yongsan base is home to native wild animals too. There are “pheasants everywhere on this base,” she said. “Beautiful, beautiful pheasants. There’s lots of woods here.” 

Hawaii, she said, is at one end of a spectrum for the kinds of TNR programs that animal advocates can establish — “a really detailed program.” 

“And I think that’s one of the reasons why the government in particular, they don’t want to take that on,” she said. “Like, they don’t have — their veterinary corps is not big enough to handle that.” 

But ignoring the problem isn’t a solution either. 

“So we’re trying to get them to the point that if we have this public-private partnership, where nonprofit groups like Nabiya come in, and we can work together to manage the population, then the onus is not all on the veterinary corps to handle it. … Because when you’re going to do TNR, you can’t just go trap cats and then release them. Like, there’s all kinds of situations, right? There’s very pregnant moms, there’s kittens that you find, there’s ill animals that are — there are sometimes very friendly cats that get trapped or cats with microchips, like, there are all these instances that you have to deal with. It’s not just about going out and trapping cats and getting them fixed. There’s all kinds of variables that come up. And that’s why it’s really important to work in a shelter system that has the capacity to be able to handle those one-offs.”

From Missouri to Minnesota: Long-distance rescue

During our interview in late February, I asked Kerri about a number of thorny issues in the animal rescue world. For one thing, I mentioned the proliferation of long-distance transport programs. Here in Korea, local rescuers — both Korean and foreign — sometimes partner with overseas rescues to find homes for dogs in Korean pounds. Many of these dogs would be highly adoptable in some parts of the world, but are less adoptable here. Nabiya, despite its focus on cats, has sent a number of dogs to the US for adoption in cooperation with US partners. Meanwhile, within North America, dogs in bad pounds get transported to faraway cities where they’ll have a better chance.  

But some people question the ethics of spending money to transport animals over long distances instead of seeking to rehome them within their communities. Some ask what happens if a health or behavior problem emerges and the faraway adopter needs help.

Kerri played a major role in a program that involved transporting dogs from Missouri in the southern US to Minnesota in the north. She does have ethical qualms about transport programs, but she sees positive aspects too. 

“So I think Korea is very different,” she said. “I think if we have a funder that wants to move dogs, and cats, out of Korea, then why not? The problem here is so pervasive that I think that we really can do a lot of good.” 

She pointed to the existence of willing donors eager to support transport programs. 

“That’s what they want to spend their money on,” she said. “They want to save the golden retrievers of Korea and bring them to the United States, and it’s their money. So as much as those of us who are like, you know, very big picture — I mean, like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not the most effective use of funds!’ — like, it’s their money. If that’s what they want to pay for, then that’s fine.” 

Transport train

Dog transports boil down to “a supply and demand issue,” she said, adding that “it’s not really a cat thing. It’s definitely a dog thing.”

People often say, “I want a cocker spaniel” or “I want a border collie,” she continued. “So they want a specific breed of dog. They don’t just say I want an orange cat.” 

In the southern US, she said, there’s a greater variety of dogs because there are more unaltered animals. But in the Midwest, Northeast and Northwest, many more pit bulls need homes “because that’s the last population that’s not altered. And so nobody wants a pit bull. So we go shopping in these southern shelters, and we transport animals up from Louisiana and Alabama because people want cute fuzzy animals. They want little 10-pound Maltese mixes.”

Kerri opened up about her experience in the US, transporting dogs from Missouri to Minnesota. 

 “Because Minnesota had really excellent spay-neuter funding and they just really didn’t have a population of dogs who needed homes,” she said. “So lots and lots of Minneapolis shelters were coming to Missouri to get dogs. And so we hopped on that transport train and got — you know, we moved a ton of dogs to Minnesota.” 

But Kerri and her colleagues “got a lot of flak from it, because in order for the Minneapolis shelter to take one of our black dogs, then we had to send them a cute fluffy one too, you know? So we were, like, dealing dogs, right? And so, yeah, ethically … ”

But that fluffy dog is getting a good home, I said. Isn’t that the important thing? 

“But I could easily have placed that fluffy dog in Missouri, you know? I had tons of fluffy dog owners in Missouri that wanted that dog but I didn’t have any black dog owners, right? So in order to get my black dog into an opportunity, then I had to send my fluffy dog with it. And so we definitely got some flak about that, like, wheeling and dealing of dogs. I get it. I understand. I do understand.” 

Trust factor

We talked about the cynicism that so many people have about animal nonprofits — so many of us don’t know which rescues and shelters we should trust because of doubts about policies, governance and how funds are used. I brought up my own preference for small individual rescues and private shelters run by people I know personally.

With a laugh, Kerri told me her perspective was “the exact opposite.”

“But I get it,” she said. Having raised money for shelters before, she said, “I know that stories sell.” The same is true of human charities, she said. 

By stories, she meant success stories showing how a charity benefited a specific animal (or human). Rehabilitating an aggressive dog or a very sick cat and telling the world about it is one way to win over potential donors.

“Speaking from the fundraising side, raising money for shelters,” she said, “stories sell, right? What gets people to donate their money is that compassionate, empathetic story of ‘we are saving lives.’”

Kerri’s “other nonprofit life” involved food banks, she said. “And that’s how we raised money there, too. We tell stories. Success. And that’s what makes people choose to decide to give to us, right?” 

She says nonprofits have to balance two things when they’re fundraising. “We have to be able to sell a story, and we have to be able to sell a product. So we sell stories for funding and we sell dogs to keep the lights on. I mean, you know, it’s sort of a noncompassionate way to view it.” 

But even though rescuers have a mandate to place homeless animals in good homes, to match them with the perfect families, in a sense they’re not all that different from used car salespeople.

“But I have to raise money to fulfill my mission, right? And so what I have to do is I have to convince people that I’m doing good. Right? And those stories … the stories of saving the animals from bad situations and giving them the second chance and just a little bit of training makes them an excellent pet, that’s where we get our funding from. But those of us who are in the ditches in the shelter, we also have to deal with the dog that ripped off someone’s nose. True story.

“And what am I going to do with that dog, and what happens if that woman goes to the newspaper? I am doomed. My shelter will be shut down. I will lose everything, including my insurance as a shelter, right? So I have logistical things to worry about, like how am I going to keep the lights on? How am I going to have insurance? How am I going to be able to keep volunteers? Because volunteers get frustrated when all you’re asked to do is deal with dogs that bite you.”

Brother Wolf

Kerri mentioned a shelter in North Carolina called Brother Wolf. Until recently, she told me, it used to be a sanctuary shelter — a permanent home for animals deemed too dangerous to adopt out.

“They’re no longer a sanctuary shelter. What they were doing, what they were selling, is that they were saving animals, which they were. The reality was that they were keeping those animals in cages and they were walking them three times a day, but otherwise they stayed in Vari Kennels the rest of their lives because they were aggressive animals and they couldn’t be handled.”

A Vari Kennel is a brand of travel crate.  

“But they sold to the general public that yes, indeed, we are saving animals. And so that’s where that no-kill gets really shady. Because they did — they did not kill anything but they ended up sort of warehousing. So what makes them any different than a hoarder?” 

Big groups vs. small

Referring to large, well-known animal charities, she said, “Those are organizations that have big salaries and big budgets and they are big lobbyists.

“And as a shelter worker in rural Missouri, I can do my job more efficiently when I have those people doing big things. And so there is room in my perception, there is room for those organizations because I as a shelter worker, scooping poop, day in and day out, caring for animals that I’m overwhelmed by, I’m not changing laws. I am not doing the most good in that respect. So I need those big organizations and those big salaries and those big political movements to make systemic change.” 

The Winograd question 

Kerri and I talked about local charities and regulations for nonprofits. We talked about mental health issues afflicting animal advocates and about “rescues gone wrong.” I also asked Kerri “the Nathan Winograd question” — whether she was familiar with the work of the outspoken US author, no-kill advocate and former shelter director and how she felt about his ideas. She had a lot to say.

“I agree with him,” she said at one point. “But I also am pretty firmly on the side of meeting people where they are, and that includes meeting shelters where they are. So if you come into a shelter and you are spouting no-kill, and they are a shelter where they have — OK, so this, this happened to me. I moved into a rural town in Missouri. The shelter had 2 1/2 employees and some people from the jail that had to come out and help clean and they had — they had animals everywhere. They had so many animals. So I walk into the shelter and I’m like, ‘Oh, you can make all these changes, you can do all these things’ and ‘enrichment’ and ‘transport’ and they were like, ‘Get out of my face. I don’t even want to talk to you,’ because they’re exhausted. They have too many animals, they don’t get paid anything, and they are overwhelmed.”

Kerri mentioned Nathan Winograd’s no-kill equation — a set of programs that a shelter needs to have in place if it is to save all incoming animals who can be saved. (Animals who can’t be saved, in his view, might include those in the final stages of a painful terminal illness, or dangerously aggressive dogs.) TNR is high on the list, an essential element of the equation. 

“When you bring that up to a shelter director who’s overwhelmed and drowning in kittens, they’re like, ‘Shut up. I can’t. I just can’t.’ So one of the things that we have to do in sheltering and we have to do in life is we have to meet people where they are, right? So you’re like, OK, you’re not going to be a no-kill shelter tomorrow. But maybe we can work on instituting this small change, and that can make a difference. And once we do that, maybe we can institute this small change and that can make a difference. And I think that’s really how the no-kill system has grown.”

Kerri expressed support for a few of the big, famous organizations that Nathan Winograd has derided. She sees them as having implemented the ideas he proposed more than 10 years ago in his book “Redemption.” 

Later, when the conversation circled back to Nathan Winograd, she said, “I am not an animal welfare loudmouth. But you kind of need those, to keep people stirred up a little bit, to keep people on their toes.” She disagrees with a lot of what Nathan Winograd says, but she values his tenacity, she said.

It sounded to me like Kerri was uncomfortable with the no-kill activist’s general approach, I said. Was there anything specific that she really disagreed with? 

“No,” she said. “I think that his tenets of a no-kill shelter are spot on. Those are the things you need to have a no-kill shelter. I think that his methods in how he pushed his agenda were — they were sometimes harsh. And I am much more of a person who really wants to find a common ground. And he really was like, ‘No, we need change and we need it now.’ I do — I see the value in that. I see the value in someone who’s willing to rattle the cage, right, because that’s really how we make the change. I disagreed with the force in which he pushed his agenda sometimes, but I think his basic tenets are good. And I don’t think that even he could have assumed or could have seen how the words no-kill could have twisted against us.” 

Gray zone

In most parts of the US, Kerri says, shelters have succeeded in saving nearly all dogs who need homes, as long as they’re friendly. Now they’re under pressure to save aggressive dogs too. It causes confusion when “people hear it’s a no-kill shelter and what they hear is no-kill and what they understand is ‘no-kill, zero kill,’ and that’s just not the reality, right?” 

Nathan Winograd’s no-kill ethic does allow for exceptions for aggressive dogs with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation. But in recent years, as I mentioned to Kerri, he seems to be questioning those decisions more and more and challenging the way society deals with aggressive dogs. 

“So we’re in this like subjective gray zone now, right?” Kerri said. When the no-kill movement started, she said, “it was black and white, like, we have got to make change. And now everything’s gotten really gray because we have done so well, which is great. But now we’re in this really tough gray zone where I may believe an animal needs to live and you may believe the animal needs to die, and how do we come to terms with that? And that’s really difficult because people have to compromise, and nobody gets their way when we compromise. And there’s always going to be someone who said you could have done more, you could have done more. …. So animal welfare workers have one of the highest suicide rates of nonprofit employees because could we — could I have done more? Could I have done something else for that animal, to save them? It plagues us all the time. And so that gray area is where we are now. And I think that 20 years ago, when I got started in that, I would have never thought that we would have gotten there because we were so overwhelmed with happy animals that needed homes. How could we have ever thought that we were going to get in a situation where all the happy animals had homes and all we were left with were dogs that needed serious rehabilitation?” 

Yongsan after USFK

What’s next for the Yongsan cats? What will happen when the base is handed over to Korea and is no longer US property? Given that the land is being turned into a public park, I asked Kerri if the cats would eventually be the responsibility of the Yongsan-gu Office. 

Kerri said she thought so, and she thought that was the reason the TNR program had gone ahead in the first place.

“Because the Yongsan-gu Office realized that this is going to be their problem. So why not start solving it before they get the land? Although there’s a whole lot of politics about who’s going to get the land.”

That came as a surprise to me, since I’d seen news reports suggesting the park project was a done deal. The base probably will be turned into a park eventually, she said, but it may be 20 years before that happens. 

“And that’s definitely one of the dilemmas that we’ve come across here is that the feeders are going to go away. Right? The gates are going to close.” 

Even the Korean cat moms? Will they have to go away too? 

“The gates’ll close. No one will have access anymore. Right? So that’s one of the things that has been difficult here is that we don’t know what the future holds for these cats. But we don’t have — we don’t have another option. There’s no place to take them. Nobody wants an extra 250 cats.” 

No one knows for sure when the base will close, she said, and there’s no guarantee that the feeders will be allowed in when it does.

“So we have to work under the assumption that at some point, these cats will probably not have access to food from feeders.”

Doing the most good

Thanks to the TNR program, the cats are still getting fed. 

“And feeders are working a little bit more out in the open now, because of the program,” Kerri said. “Because as long as they’re working with me, it’s not illegal to feed. If you’re working with the TNR program, you can feed the cats.”

But the Yongsan project isn’t like most TNR situations. Most of the time, Kerri explained, TNR volunteers return cats to the field and someone manages the colony to make sure they’re fed and cared for. At Yongsan, nothing is certain.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” she said. “So we have to do the most good. And the most good is to fix them and vaccinate them and feed them as long as we can. But once we … we eventually have to wean them off of the food because they have to learn how to hunt. And they have to learn to expand their roaming areas in order to eat. And so we’re not doing them any favors by continuing to pile and pile and pile on food.” 

March 2021 update

Parts of the Yongsan base have been turned over to Korea. As of this writing, no TNR work was going on there due to the COVID-19 situation and it was unclear when it might restart. Kerri has returned to the United States and works in animal welfare.

“Since coming back to the US,” Kerri wrote in March 2021, “I’ve joined the team at Palm Valley Animal Society working in data and grant management. As the largest shelter in southern Texas, we see more than 20K animals a year. I’m loving working with a fast-paced team of people implementing the best practices in sheltering. It’s such a pleasant change from many of my animal welfare experiences!”

The TNR project at Yongsan Garrison was a three-way partnership involving United States Forces Korea, Nabiya and the Korean Veterinary Medical Association. 

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