West Virginia pilot helps group rescue cats from Guantanamo Bay

The caterwauling from the back of the twin-engine Cessna came from a crowd of unwilling passengers.

Cats. There were 25 of them stashed in cat carriers bearing their names on strips of tape, among them Gomez, Groucho, Diablo, Droopy and Morticia.

They were howling their objections to being flown against their wishes from their home along Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to America.

“They made some ungodly kind of sounds on takeoff and landing,” said Mike Plante.

Plante took part in what must be one of the fuzziest international rescue airlifts ever when he flew his Cessna 310 out of Charleston’s Yeager Airport on May 12.

With a stopover to pick up a friend, he flew to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base at the southeastern end of Cuba to pick up his cargo of cats.

The American Naval base — known as Gitmo — is best known for its controversial wartime prison, housing detainees in a complex skirted by a Cuban minefield. But the 45-square-mile base is also home to a thriving population of abandoned and feral cats.

An American contractor who’d lived on the base for 26 years had been touched by the plight of the base’s free-range cats, Plante said. The policy on the base is to euthanize them if owners cannot be found for the friendlier ones, he said.

But the contractor, a woman named Ruby Meade, had opened her home, yard and business to 23 of the cats to go with the two house cats she already owned. People who knew she offered safe harbor for felines without families would drop them by her home or the machine shop she and her husband, Glynn ran on the base.

“You’d come in one day, and there’d be a new little kitten, all scrawny, trying to get something to eat. You’d coax ‘em out and take them to the vet,” Meade said in a phone interview.

Here was the rub — actually, there were lots of rubs, given all the cats accumulated by the couple through the years.

Meade, who first came to Guantanamo as a Naval enlistee and ended up as a government contractor, had decided to retire and move back to the states.

What would happen to all her cats?

Who ya gonna call?

By day, Plante runs a public relations firm, whose clients include Yeager Airport. On the side, he has for years helped a friend, Steve Merritt, the president of Bahamas Habitat, which lines up private pilots for disaster relief in the Bahamas, Haiti and Mexico. Merritt also works with the Virginia-based nonprofit Helping Paws Across Borders, an international veterinary and animal-rescue program.

When Operation Git-Meow offered Meade help with her cat quandary, the group reached out to Merritt, who reached out to Plante.

The result: a multi-cat airlift from Cuba originating in West Virginia.

But it took a crew of volunteers, a cross-Guantanamo cat caravan, and many months and mountains of military paperwork to pull off.

The wrangling with officialdom included a special exception granted by the Guantanamo commander to allow Plante to drop his Cessna onto the tarmac of the restricted-access Naval base.

“There’s no commercial service, per se, to Guantanamo,” Plante said. “If the Navy and the military arranged for charter flights in and out in order to get the cats back to America, it was going to cost something like $1,000 a cat.”

To be sure, Ruby Meade loves her some cats. You get a glimpse of her value system in the black T-shirt she wore the day of what might be called the “cat-lift” on May 14. In big letters, the shirt read: “CATS (because people suck).”

On the other hand, a $25,000 cat-lift to rescue Pepe, T-3, Boo, Baby and the other cats was a little beyond Ruby and Glynn’s government contract income.

So, the Operation Git-Meow effort, which involved a pro bono private pilot from West Virginia, matched with a successful $5,000 GoFundMe campaign and a clutch of cat-rescue volunteers, was just the ticket.

Erika Kelly is president of Operation Git-Meow, a group pushing for changes in how Gitmo deals with its homeless cats, with help from the global animal rescue group SPCA International.

Kelly hopes the recent cat-lift will bring publicity to Git-Meow’s proposal for a different way of dealing with the base’s feral and abandoned cats.

It is beyond the scope of this article to get too deep in the weeds in the jockeying between Gitmo and Operation Git-Meow over how the base might better handle its homeless and feral cats.

But as for Ruby Meade’s 25 cats, the worry was that should they be left behind, they’d go feral and be euthanized, Kelly said.

“Doing the airlift of Ruby’s cats was to help get them off the island” and to avoid that fate, she said.

Git-Meow has offered to bring to the base a three-year TNVR program — to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release abandoned and feral cats for whom homes cannot be found. The idea was nixed by the base commander, but Git-Meow has appealed to upper-level Navy brass, Kelly said.

“We think we can reduce the cat population there by 50 percent because of it being a closed-off small base,” she said.

The issue has gotten press in the Miami Herald by one of the paper’s Guantanamo beat reporters, Carol Rosenberg. She has interspersed her coverage of the base’s prison for alleged terrorists with a couple articles on Gitmo’s cat euthanasia policy. Earlier this year, the Herald even filed a Freedom of Information Act request to force the base to reveal how many cats had been euthanized in 2016 — a total of 186, according to base records.

The base’s feral cat problem has grown perhaps because of house cats abandoned by soldiers after their nine-month tours of duty, Kelly said. Or perhaps by semi-social wild cats befriended by the base’s Filipino and Jamaican workers, or perhaps they wandered through the Cuban mine field that rings part of the base without being blown up, she said.

The base officially estimates it is home to about 500 feral cats, but Kelly and others peg the number higher, at perhaps 2,000.

“You can see at Guantanamo how quickly a couple of abandoned cats adds up to a big feral cat problem,” Kelly said.

As for the Guantanamo 25 ­— Ruby Meade’s cats — they got a bunch of help moving up to high-class new digs in the U.S.

A base veterinarian had to come to Meade’s trailer the week before and then the day of the airlift to make sure their shots were up to date and to check them for a verboten screwworm they might carry into America.

Volunteers showed up at her home at 5:30 a.m. that Sunday to load the cats into carriers and stock them inside a small yellow bus. Off the bus went and then onto a ferry for a 30-minute cruise across Guantanamo Bay to the airfield on the other side. The bus drove onto the tarmac, right up to Plante’s Cessna where volunteers handed the carriers up into the plane.

And the cats took this trip well?

“No, they were not happy at all,” Meade said.

She tried to comfort them, sticking her fingers into the carriers for a nose scratch, trying to soothe them. Meade objects to the label of “feral” for her felines.

“I wouldn’t call them feral because I can pick up every one of them. They would have been feral cats of we hadn’t taken them in,” she said.

Then, after wheels up, Plante and Merritt flew the cats off into the wild blue yonder. If they could have looked out their carriers, the cats would have seen below only the shoreline of their former home because the Cessna was prohibited from flying across Cuban airspace and had to skirt the island.

While they were quite vocal about the flight as it began and ended, they were fairly mellow cats in the air, said Plante. “At altitude, they were all pretty quiet and not making much noise.”

Two local TV crews greeted them at touchdown in South Carolina to celebrate the successful cat-lift.

More volunteers helped ferry the cats back to their new home in Lancaster, South Carolina, where the Meades have retrofitted an old barn. It’s equipped with heated beds and things for the cats to climb on. A cat door leads into an outdoor fenced pen with 8-foot walls and rabbit wire across the top to keep out predator birds who might turn a happy ending into one not so much.

All the cats are fixed and vaccinated with microchips under their skin in case they ever get lost ­and found ­again, said Git-Meow’s Kelly. “They’ve got this big huge area to live out the rest of their lives.”

Speaking from her now cat-filled property, Meade said the Guantanamo 25 are getting acclimated to being U.S. residents. Six cats live in the house and the other 19 in the upgraded barn.

“They’re all different,” Meade said. “Everybody thinks, ‘How do you tell them apart?’ Well, they all have different personalities. They know their names.”

She said she is still amazed and appreciative of how the cat-lift was pulled off with so much persistence and international cooperation.

“If somebody had told me this was going to happen six months ago...” she said.

One thing hasn’t changed from when they were Cuban cats, she said.

“They walk around with me.”

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

Funerals for Thursday, November 21, 2019

Bias, Kenneth - 7 p.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

Carrow, Mildred - 1 p.m., Marmet Memorial Gardens, Marmet.

Coleman, Aaron - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.

Fore, George - 7 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Midkiff, Cleo - 2 p.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Outman, Roxine -  2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Shamblin, Cathy - 7 p.m., Christ Community Church, Scott Depot.