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Cats' Adventures & Travels 22
Jesse Knott was a decorated Staff Sergeant, with front-line experience with US forces in Iraq. Within a day or two of being deployed to Hutal in the Maiwand district of southern Afghanistan in June 2010, he came across a young stray cat who wandered in and out of the camp, and started to befriend him. At first quite amenable, a little later the cat began showing signs of being abused and fearful: a couple of times Jesse saw paint in his coat and on another occasion fur on his back had been shaved so close there were skin cuts. Then he showed up with a badly injured paw and a possible hip injury. Jesse treated the wounds and the pair bonded he decided he had to adopt the little fellow, and named him Koshka (Russian for 'cat').
Soldiers are not allowed pets, but for this deployment Jesse had been assigned a base job rather than usual infantry duties, and consequently had a tiny office where he found space for Koshka and the authorities turned a bit of a blind eye. In the middle of fighting a war, Jesse said the cat was a reminder of normal life back home in Oregon City. 'You lose faith in a lot,' he said, 'but sometimes it's the smallest things that bring you back.'
However, the moment Koshka truly became 'family' was when a suicide bomb attack took the lives of two of Jesse's platoon friends and injured others in December 2010. 'I was so devastated that I lost all hope. Two of my friends were violently taken away,' he said. He was in tears in his office when Koshka came over and crawled onto his lap. 'I had tears in my eyes; he locked eyes with me, reached out with his paw and pressed it to my lips, then climbed down into my lap, curled up and shared the moment with me. I'd lost hope in myself; I'd lost faith. Then all of a sudden this cat came over and it was like, "Hey, you're you".' In that moment, Jesse said, he realised the cat could not stay in Afghanistan in the war zone, and his determination to keep Koshka safe was absolute. 'He pulled me out of one of my darkest times, so I had to pull him out of one of his darkest places.' It was an urgent requirement, as Knott was due to be redeployed and time was fast running out before he would have to leave Koshka behind at the camp and lose any control over his fate.
Dangerous rescue plan
After a number of calls and emails he had eventually found the Afghan Stray Animals League (ASAL), who would take Koshka in and then arrange his trip to America, but first he had to get the cat to their shelter in the capital city of Kabul, halfway across the country to the north. It was not possible to get him on a military convoy but, with only about a week to go before Jesse was due to leave the camp, a local interpreter bravely said he'd take Koshka to Kabul where he was taking a short spell of leave to visit family. If the Taliban had caught the Afghan at one of their innumerable checkpoints, doing a favour for an American, it would almost certainly have meant death for both him and the cat. 'The risk to him [the interpreter] was immense,' Jesse said. 'The cat was wearing a bright purple harness and was in an American-made cat carrier.'
It took days without news before he heard that eventually Koshka had made it safely to Kabul, and it was about a month in all before the cat arrived in the States. At the ASAL shelter he was neutered and given his shots, and his papers and travel arrangements were organised. From Kabul he was flown to Islamabad in Pakistan, then via Europe to New York, and finally on to Portland, Oregon. The cost was almost 3000 dollars (nearly £2000 in 2013), raised by Jesse's parents, family and friends. For them, it was money well spent; there was no question for the family that their newest addition was worth the cost. 'He was my saving grace,' Jesse said. 'He kept me alive through that tour.'
The Oregon Humane Society's Diamond Collar Hero Award recognises 'both pets and people for remarkable achievements'. At the end of February 2013 Koshka and Jesse received the award for their 'selflessness and courage' (right): the OHS have posted a touching video clip at YouTube. As they comment near the end, 'Sometimes we save an animal. Sometimes, an animal saves us.'
Later in 2013, as mentioned on his Facebook page, Koshka was featured in an article in the American Cat Fancy magazine (July); and in November he won the ASPCA's Cat of the Year award. Koshka didn't attend the luncheon in New York as Jesse felt he had been through enough travel stress to last a lifetime when he was brought out of Afghanistan; but Jesse went with his service dog, Ellie, to accept the award.
Towards the end of 2013 Jesse was due to leave the US Army, having completed eight years' military service, and was considering becoming a certified service dog trainer.
In early 2022 Koshka was still posting at his Facebook page and looking well.
The US-based Afghan Stray Animals League (ASAL) organised Koshka's journey to the States. Read a little more about them and other charities doing similar work at our companion page:
And here are two more cats rescued by their soldiers, Mousetrap and Tinker Bell
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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