SOUTHWEST ASIA –
SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Attention Garfield, Felix, Heathcliff, Sylvester and Tom: Cancel your spot on the USO tour coming to Southwest Asia. Fast. Your agent should have told you: You don't want to be mistaken for a feline of mass destruction.
For the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron's entomology flight, work is all about the cats. Hundreds of them. They roam like gnats on a hot night and have the potential - like their insect counterparts - to spread diseases like bird flu, rabies and plague.
As part of the public health flight on base, entomology's job is to take care of Airmen by killing the bugs and beasts that potentially carry diseases onto the base, called "vectors."
Armed with a litany of traps, cages and pesticides, Staff Sgt. Robbie Crumpton, deployed from the 315th Civil Engineer Squadron here, said the toughest part of his and Airman Mark Bashaw's job is staying ahead of the curve.
"We're trying to figure out what vectors are coming in. It's starting to cool off so we're seeing more flies and gnats," he said. "We're working closer with public health to figure out what to do for control methods. The last thing we want to do is use pesticides that affect the base population. It's a balancing act."
That balancing act includes housekeeping, preventive measures; physical and chemical treatment orchestrated into an integrated pest-management program, according to Lt. Col. Greg Williams, 380th ECES commander.
"Keeping living and working areas free of food helps avoid the presence of pests in the first place," the colonel said. "While taking breakfast to work may be convenient, it also invites critters to visit."
The entomology shop works to prevent vectors by physically sealing cracks and seams in facilities. It also chemically treats areas of standing water to prevent breeding insects. A monitoring program measures effectiveness of prevention efforts. When prevention is not enough, the real work begins. However, entomology can only work with the American portions of the base, leaving large swaths unattended.
The work usually starts with bugs like flies. Flies are capable of carrying over 100 pathogens, such as typhoid, cholera, bacillary dysentery, tuberculosis, anthrax and parasitic worms. Worse, some strains have become immune to common insecticides. Sand flies can transmit leishmaniasis. Mosquitoes can carry malaria and West Nile virus.
Using a trap called a "barf bag" - which is nothing more than a bag of protein - Sergeant Crump-ton catches as many as 20,000 flies. Another trap uses light to attract bugs and collects samples to be analyzed by entomology and public health.
As for the FMDs, it's a more difficult process.
Feral cats linger in many places across the base but usually near where there's food. One of the favorite hangouts is near the combat dining facility near the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group headquarters. A feral cat - also called a stray cat or alley cat - has been separated from domestication and becomes wild. The term also refers to descendants of such cats, but not to wild cats, whose ancestors were never domesticated.
Cats roaming the base can carry diseases like rabies, cat-scratch fever and the avian influenza virus (from eating dead birds). Fleas on the cats can carry plague. So it's entomology's job to capture and kill the cats.
The cats are caught in cages set in various locations across base. To date, Sergeant Crumpton said the flight has caught more than 150 cats.
"They're all over the base. The big problem is we only control a small part of the base," he said. "There's a lot of concern with catching the cats," he said.
Sergeant Crumpton, a reservist in Air Force Reserve Command, has three of his own cats at home - Cally, Tommy and Free Willy. The NCO said he can separate what he does at work from his pets at home.
"It's totally different. You can view these as a disease carrier," he said. "We're protecting the base population from these cats." The flight's success, said Sergeant Crumpton, is holding off disease.
"Controlling vectors is the most satisfying part," he said. "Sure, there will be people who get bitten by flying insects occasionally, but if we're doing our job, then we will have done our best to control the spread of anything bad."