Although he regularly greets guests at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, Keoni Vaughn will never forget one passionate visitor who showed up a couple of years ago.
“He came to the cat sanctuary … from Japan to spend the day with us — 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., five hours, only to fly back to Japan the same day,” said Vaughn, the shelter’s executive director.
“Talk about the ultimate cat lover. He was in heaven.”
Heaven, of course, means different things to different people, but for cat lovers, it just might be full of purring bundles of fur — in black, brown, white, gray or ginger. If that’s your bliss, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, just a few minutes’ walk along a red-dirt path from the island’s airport, is home to 620 cats.
Most are feral, but about 250 of them welcome the daily dose of tourists who come to cuddle and play with them.
Humans who arrive with snacks are particularly welcome. The sound of shaking bags of cat treats starts a feline frenzy. “If you’ve got treats, you’re going to get swarmed,” Vaughn said.
Rachel Staples and her husband, Chris Linck, of Houston visited the sanctuary while honeymooning on Lanai in December. “This is our kitty fix with this many cats around,” said Staples, a lifelong pet owner. “It’s like a dream.”
The cats aren’t the only creatures that benefit. “I have people who put a towel on the ground and they take a nap,” Vaughn said. “They’re so relaxed.”
Napping being a favorite feline pastime, cats can often be found sprawled on chairs, tables and purpose-built houses. Despite its large population, the shelter is immaculate.
The Lanai Cat Sanctuary, opened in 2009 with 100 critters, is a win-win situation: Not only does it protect the cats, but it also protects the petrels, an endangered species of bird that the cats were killing.
“In 2006, a huge colony of petrels — the uau, the native Hawaiian petrel — was discovered,” said Kathy Carroll, the sanctuary’s founder. “There were about a thousand nests, at least, up in the mountains.”
The seabirds return to the same nests every year, Vaughn said. “They lay one egg,” he said. “They are ground nesters, so it’s a perfect opportunity for cats to predate on these birds.”
To save the birds, wildlife officials prepared to trap and kill the cats. Carroll stepped in, offering to create a makeshift shelter in an empty horse stall.
The temporary digs evolved into the current half-acre site surrounded by cat-proof fencing. Vaughn, who is allergic to cats, pointed to the tall grass and shrubbery that provide plenty of cover for the wilder felines.
“[They] remain in the bushes until we go home, and then they come out,” he said.
About 11,000 people a year visit the sanctuary. Admission is free. Many tourists make day trips to Lanai just to interact with the cats.
Kerstin Schroder and her husband, David Agresti, of Birmingham, Ala., did just that, traveling on the Maui-to-Lanai passenger ferry on a windy day in December.
“I don’t see any cats here that fight, which tells me they are happy,” Schroder said. “I love it here.
“They have one cat that has no ears … and only one eye. Instead of just euthanizing them, as long as they don’t have pain and can still enjoy their lives, they take care of them. I find it very, very encouraging.”
The shelter is a 1½-mile drive (it’s closer to walk it) from the airport, and a 25-minute drive from the ferry that serves the island from Maui, so shuttle vans meet the boats.
“Some people come and spend 15-20 minutes. They take a quick tour with us,” Vaughn said. “Other people have spent five hours. There’s others who are staying on the island and they come every day for a week.”
Each of the cats is microchipped and has a name, from A (Arnie) to Z (Zippy). All are available for adoption.
About 50 cats a year get adopted, mostly by those who live on the mainland. Despite the adoptions, ongoing trapping of feral felines means the sanctuary’s population continues to grow. To meet the demand, another large enclosure will be completed this year.
In Lanai City, Carroll raises money for the shelter at Mike Carroll Gallery, which is run by her husband. It showcases works by local artists.
In her Kitty Corner, Kat, as the locals know her, sells catnip toys, notecards and T-shirts. The sale of one $20 T-shirt provides enough money to vaccinate four cats, she said.
Vaughn said it takes $500,000 a year to run the sanctuary. “We rely heavily on tourism,” he said. “We just ask that if you have fun you can leave a generous donation.”
That day tripper from Japan?
“He left a healthy donation,” Vaughn said.
Animal ops on other islands
Need a fix with a four-legged friend during a trip to Hawaii? These animal shelters welcome tourists:
Hawaii Island Humane Society lends dogs for “field trips” Mondays through Saturdays. All the necessities, including leashes, toys and waste bags, are provided. The society has three locations.
Kauai Humane Society provides opportunities to check out a dog every day except Wednesday.
Maui Humane Society’s Beach Buddies program pairs pooches with visitors Wednesdays and Fridays.
Leilani Farm Sanctuary, on Maui, has rescued bunnies, chickens, cows, donkeys, goats and guinea pigs. One-hour tours cost $30 but are tax-deductible. Volunteer opportunities are available Monday and Wednesday mornings.