Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Operation Cat Drop

Back in the 1950's, the World Health Organization was battling malaria, and had a wonderful tool: DDT. To rid an region of malaria, they sprayed DDT by airplane over the affected area.

This worked really well, except that it tended to kill off more than just mosquitos. Eventually, DDT was banned because of it's widespread effects on the environment.

Before the ban, though, DDT was responsible for one of the weirdest health solutions ever: Operation Cat Drop. The World Health Organization supposedly parachuted 14,000 live cats into Borneo.

In a prime example of DDT's widespread effects, the initial spraying of DDT wiped out the malaria mosquitos, but also killed off a parasitic wasp which controlled a thatch-eating caterpillar. So the villager's roofs were collapsing. Native geckos ate the poisoned insects, and cats ate the geckos, killing the cats. Without the cats to keep down their population, rats were overtaking the village. Faced with roofless, rat-infested vilages, the WHO was forced to act quickly, thus Operation Cat Drop was born.

Further research by me turns up this note: I should note here that there was an error in a previous version of this article. Accounts of this story across the internet cite the number of cats dropped as 14,000(!), a number that boggles the mind when you consider the logistics involved in pulling off such a maneuver. Even the New York Times, in a 1969 story, cited incorrect numbers. In fact, it appears that the number was in fact on the order of 10’s of cats. Specifically a British Royal Air Force Operations Record Book from March 13, 1960 lists an RAF flight out of Changi, Singapore that parachute-dropped various stores (seeds, stout for a chieftain) and “over 20 cats to wage war on rats that were threatening crops.”

In any case, this is one of the most interesting health campaigns, ever.

Text about Whidbey Island.

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