Josh Shaffer

This cat escaped death at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Now he happily purrs in Pinehurst.

Hooch holds court in Pinehurst with Tater Tot the beagle. Formerly of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Hooch obtained feline refugee status and escaped the precarious compound with its community of beloved but trouble-prone cats.
Hooch holds court in Pinehurst with Tater Tot the beagle. Formerly of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Hooch obtained feline refugee status and escaped the precarious compound with its community of beloved but trouble-prone cats. Courtesy of Kathleen Lavin

From his days as a kitten, Hooch jaunted through the Afghan war zone with whiskered poise – a streetwise feline born at the U.S. Embassy, a patriot cat who scared off rats and scorpions, enjoying head-scratches from the occasional diplomat.

Then one day in 2011, Hooch let pride lead him into danger. In the middle of an ambassador’s speech, he strutted across the podium in Kabul, tail held high. The order came down one day later: Kill all embassy cats.

The kerfuffle that followed made international headlines as the community of embassy cats – Gordo, Ferdinand, Mother Teresa – found aid from a pro-cat committee that sought to spare them the ax, arguing that they provided a boost to both public health and morale.

And in the middle of that fracas stood Kathleen Lavin of Pinehurst, a government contractor and IT specialist who often slipped Hooch a can of tuna. Soon after the death order came down, embassy workers started sneaking cats into their living quarters. As this was happening, Lavin’s plans took root. The story of her daring rescue, declassified at last, can now be told.

“I decided it was time for Freckles to leave his Afghanistan name behind,” said Lavin, 63, revealing her cat’s overseas identity. “He would be forever known as Hooch. ... He was going to North Carolina.”

Three of Lavin’s friends paid $1,000 for Lavin to stow her refugee cat on board a Turkish airline, which involved a frenzy of shots and paperwork. Further complicating their movement was Hooch’s hygiene, having lived his life not only outdoors but in a third-world country where war had raged for a decade. Lavin gave Hooch a bath.

Then came the problem of Kabul airport security, which Hooch experienced as a first-time crate animal.

Did you know that kitty litter looks an awful lot like explosives in the X-ray machine?

Kathleen Lavin, discussing how she helped fly a cat from Afghanistan to NC

“Did you know that kitty litter looks an awful lot like explosives in the X-ray machine?” Lavin asked.

Hooch flew to Istanbul in the cabin, his plane lacking a pressurized hold. He managed stress by howling. Once he arrived stateside, United Airlines immediately routed him to a line with 300 people and submit to a crate inspection. Lavin and Hooch nearly got separated on the flight to Raleigh thanks to delays and nearly missed connections, but they eventually arrived in Pinehurst, where Hooch met his friend Tater Tot the rescue beagle.

“Life is good for them,” Lavin said.

Six years later, Hooch has grown into a domesticated, 17-pound beast. The sound of golf clubs has replaced the noise of explosions in the distance. But Hooch still carries himself with the same worldly aplomb – a fur-covered survivor, a voyager in spots.

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