COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — It's summer, and American soldiers everywhere are clearing out of their government houses, packing dining room tables and TVs, and heading to new assignments. But an increasing number are leaving something behind the family pet.
Many simply let their cat quietly slip out. Others dump their dog in a secluded area of their military base and speed away.
Abandoned pets are a growing part of the military culture, say authorities who have to deal with this aspect of the transient lives of soldiers.
A pack of feral Chows at Georgia's Fort Benning is a vivid case in point. The abandoned Chows, which lurk in the Georgia Pine forests of the 180,000-acre base surviving on dead animals, attacked a jogging soldier last March, says Christy Evans, an animal-care specialist at the Fort Benning vet clinic and kennel.
Dogs and cats are dropped off in remote corners of the post at a rate of more than 20 a week, she says.
But the US Armed Forces are fighting back. Adopting a Big Brother approach, the military is implanting microchips in cats and dogs that live on government land as much for animal control as for owner control.
"He or she is not getting away," says Fort Polk, La., Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky L. Jones of the soldier who abandons a pet. "Not that anyone is distrustful, but with the chip you can't hide."
Some soldiers are deploying overseas and can't take pets with them. Others don't want to bother with moving them. Most don't want to pay the $25 or $30 surrender fee often charged to give pets to a shelter.
"They think that setting them free is better than bringing them to the humane society," says Capt. Heather Mazzaccaro, chief of the Fort Polk vet clinic.
Regardless of a soldier's thinking, Fort Polk has used the chip to track down soldiers who have abandoned their pets and forced them to pay an adoption fee, and the cost of any necessary vaccinations costs totaling $20 to $40.
The Department of Defense allows each base to decide whether to make microchipping mandatory. So far, about 35 installations from all service branches have made microchipping a requirement for living on base, and more are adding such programs every month, says Maj. Steve Osborn, spokesman for the Army's Veterinary Command.
"It's a way to control our stray animal population and protect our working force, too," says Capt. Steven Baty, a veterinarian at Fort Carson, Colo., where microchipping has been mandatory since 1998.
And the program seems to work.
Col. Mike Kazmierski was garrison commander at Fort Carson in 1998 when the post began requiring residents to have their pets implanted. He says the post was having problems not only with abandoned pets but with stolen pets and with people denying ownership of problem dogs that attacked other dogs or bit people.
"People wouldn't admit to owning the dogs, and we'd have no records of their shots or anything," he says. "Once we started microchipping, we found stray rates went way down, and people took ownership of their pets."
The tiny chips, the size of a grain of rice, are injected under the skin on an animal's neck and contain a bar code that can be scanned and read by humane societies and veterinary clinics nationwide. The code is stored in a database, linking it to the owner's name, address, and phone number. The procedure costs about $15, takes two to three seconds, and is no more painful than a typical vaccination, Captain. Baty says.
Angela Strader reluctantly had her Rottweiler, Lexus, implanted with a microchip several years ago.
"At first I thought 'I'll move off post,' " says Ms. Strader, the wife of a soldier posted at Fort Carson. "I didn't know that much about it. Now I'm glad Lexus had the chip because she got lost."
Abandoned pets aren't at risk only for their own safety. They can, if left to fend for themselves long enough, cause public health problems, animal experts say. Left loose too long, they can spread disease and turn feral, running in packs and becoming aggressive enough to attack people.
Ms. Evans says the Chow pack, still roaming the 34,000-resident Fort Benning installation, poses a dangerous dilemma: "Nobody can get near them, and you can't shoot them."
Microchip enforcement varies by base. At Fort Polk, La., animal controllers are part of a weekly housing patrol, joining inspectors who check to make sure lawns are cut and that soldiers aren't violating housing regulations, such as working on their cars in driveways. The animal controller carries a portable scanner and runs the wand over dogs and cats, looking for numbers to light up the small screen. If the pets don't have a microchip, soldiers are warned, and if they don't comply, their animals are taken away, or the soldier is kicked off post, says Captain Mazzaccaro, at Ft. Polk.
Troops found guilty of abandoning pets can face animal cruelty and other nonjudicial charges, says Capt. David Anglin, of the Fort Benning Judge Advocate General's office. "A guilty conviction could become part of a service member's permanent record and in extreme cases it could destroy a person's military career," he says.