An airman charged with five counts of animal cruelty at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota on Monday is the latest in a spate of recent alleged animal cruelty incidents happening at military bases around the country. Other allegations include soldiers shooting cats with blow darts at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; airmen shooting prairie dogs at Minot with blow darts; and reports of mutilated cats appearing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
“We are greatly saddened by the circumstances of this case and will continue to work with our local civil authorities to ensure an appropriate resolution,” said Abigail Kinder, Community Relations Advisor for Minot, about the airman being charged with animal cruelty. “Until the case has been decided by civil authorities, it is premature to comment on any potential additional actions by leadership.”
The airman being charged is Airman 1st Class Jim Michael Velez Diaz, 21. Katelynn Marie Mercier, 19, was also charged, though she is not a member of the military. The news was first reported by the Minot Daily News, which wrote that the Ward County Sheriff’s Office searched a house on base on May 26 after the office received a report of animal neglect. Inside, Patrol Deputy Ryan Ostrum found two dead, malnourished dogs and six other dogs that were also malnourished. The house was reportedly “in disarray, with garbage, dried animal urine and animal feces all around the home,” according to a sheriff’s department affidavit.
One of the dead dogs was locked inside in a kennel within a closet, along with a small amount of food and animal feces. The other was in a bathroom, where Ostrum also found garbage, feces, and dried urine. The deputy said he could see the other dogs’ ribs while interacting with them. A veterinarian, Dr. Logan Wood, examined the dead dogs, a three-month-old male boxer mix and a two-month-old golden retriever, and found that both had likely died of malnourishment. The surviving dogs included a three-year-old female mixed breed, a six-month-old shepherd husky mix, a 1-year-old female shepherd mix, all of whom had a body condition of “1 out of 9,” and were malnourished, the veterinarian wrote. The remaining three dogs were “relatively healthy” but still had low body condition scores, Wood said. The living dogs were taken to Souris Valley Animal Shelter, which now owns the animals.
Diaz and Mercier were each charged with five counts of Class C felony animal cruelty, according to the Minot Daily News. The maximum penalty for a Class C felony in North Dakota is five years imprisonment, a fine of ten thousand dollars, or both.
As bad as the Minot report sounds, it is only one of several incidents of animal abuse in military communities to make headlines recently. On Friday, Military.com reported that four cats have been found cut in half since February at Nellis Air Force Base, prompting security forces airmen, the Air Force equivalent of military police, to start an investigation.
“The only parts found have been the lower portion and the cuts have been clean indicating it is not a natural attack by a coyote or any other predator,” Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Schaefer said in a June email to airmen, Military.com wrote. Schaefer warned that there “may be some pre-serial killer tendencies going on,” though Nellis public affairs told Military.com that the comment “was his own opinion and not indicative of any previous or current concerns of danger to the community.”
No base residents reported their cats missing, and it’s not clear who the animals belonged to, Military.com wrote. The cats’ bodies were found by housing maintenance workers, and Schaefer told airmen to report suspicious activity or if they saw any attempts to catch stray animals.
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Just a week before the Nellis news broke, Army officials in Hawaii said they were looking into accusations made by an Oahu animal rescue group that soldiers at Schofield Barracks were shooting stray cats with blow darts, Military Times reported.
“It is our understanding that a group of soldiers purchased blow dart guns while on a recent training to Indonesia and brought them home to Hawaii,” the rescue group, KAT Charities, wrote on Facebook on June 2. “We have seen multiple cats with darts currently in them[.]”
The group posted a photo of a cat named Katniss who had been brought to the vet that morning with a dart protruding from its neck. The dart was removed, but the news coverage of the incident kept growing. In an article by local TV station KITV4, KAT Charities founder Dr. Karen Tyson accused soldiers specifically from the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division of buying blow dart guns while training in Indonesia and using them on cats. Maj. Oliver Schuster, deputy public affairs officer for the 25th Infantry Division, told Task & Purpose that the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, has not been to Indonesia in the past two years, but the division did have soldiers attend a training exercise in Indonesia last March. KAT Charities also reported finding cats near the base Popeyes with their stomachs cut open and their organs spilling out, KITV4 wrote.
Many feral cats live at Schofield Barracks, where volunteers conduct trap, neuter, and release operations to try to curb the overpopulation, KITV4 reported. U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii told the news station that it “was just made aware and is initiating an investigation into these reports.”
“We cannot speculate about the details at this time while the investigation is ongoing,” an unnamed Army spokesperson said before encouraging witnesses with firsthand information to contact the Schofield Barracks Military Police. “This type of behavior is not tolerated on the installation and is not in keeping with our Army values.”
Several prairie dogs in North Dakota were also struck by blow darts, believed to have been fired by service members. In May, the Minot Air Force Base family housing office made a Facebook post urging base community members to stop using blow darts on prairie dogs and dakrats, a specific kind of prairie dog found in North Dakota and a few neighboring states and Canadian provinces.
“Please do not use these weapons on prairie dogs/dakrats, it is inhumane,” the Facebook post wrote. Like the cats in Hawaii, prairie dog overpopulation appears to be a problem at Minot.
“There is no way to know how many there are,” said Nicholas Lester, 5th Civil Engineer Squadron pest management supervisor, in a July 2019 Air Force press release. “We eliminate three to five thousand a year. To say there are over ten thousand is a justifiable estimate.”
Base community members taking the matter into their own hands does not seem to be an appropriate solution, especially using blow darts. In 2021, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote that blow gun darts “are effective at killing small animals like rabbits and squirrels,” but when used against larger animals like deer, they are more likely to suffer and die over a long period of time. However, if the photos from Hawaii or the reaction from base housing at Minot are any judge, it appears smaller animals like cats and prairie dogs often suffer a similar fate from blow guns.
Besides being cruel to animals, such inhumane treatment could also indicate a threat to human community members. An article published on the FBI website in August said recent research shows “a well-documented link that [animal cruelty] is a predictive or co-occurring crime with violence against humans (including intimate partners, children, and elders) and is associated with other types of violent offenses,” the authors wrote.
“As time has progressed, an increasing number of fields have acknowledged the correlation and seriousness” of animal cruelty and domestic violence.
Animal abuse is a crime under military law, which spells out abuse, neglect, and abandonment of an animal, sexual acts with an animal, or cases where the accused caused the serious injury or death of an animal as the basis for a bad conduct discharge and up to five years confinement.
It’s not clear yet who exactly is responsible for the animal abuse at the bases at Nellis and Hawaii. But the initial court appearances of Diaz and Mercier, the Minot community members accused of neglecting eight dogs, on June 20 may provide some answers in at least one case.
Update: This story has been updated with a statement from the 25th Infantry Division clarifying whether the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment has been to Indonesia recently.
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