THE BLOG

The Hawaii Island Humane Society's Big Leap Into the Future

01/16/2014 05:52 pm ET | Updated Mar 18, 2014

Over the past two decades, there have been several entry points for me when it comes to the Hawaii Island Humane Society (HIHS) in Kailua-Kona. None of them appeared in any logical order, but all that matters is that they lead to this story about vision, courage, and persistence, taking place right now in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii. When this dream finally manifests in the next few years, it will change forever the way animal shelters are perceived and used. Simply put, it will be a model for shelters all over the world to re-envision how humans and animals--all at risk on some level--can interact on their way to "forever homes," either together or apart. Sound a little grandiose? Maybe, but like all important reform movements, it starts small with a few determined, sensitive, and highly motivated people. Let me be your guide.

It really began with my very first trip to the Hawaiian Islands in 1992. In spite of the other more popular islands, I found myself on the Big Island. Naturally many aspects of the mighty isle impressed me, but what I remember most of all, as if it was yesterday, is the startling moment I looked up from a local beach and saw hundreds of feral cats scattered among the palm trees, scavenging for food. Who did they belong to? How did they get there? Who took care of them? I had so many questions.

Twenty years ago I knew no one with any answers; today it hardly matters, as the feral hundreds have grown into hundreds of thousands. We may not know precisely how it all got started on the Big Island, but we do know that one cat and her kittens can produce 420,000 offspring in a mere seven years. That's a lot of feral cats and kittens left to fend for themselves on Hawaii.

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The impact on the cats and their environment has been shattering. Life for certain indigenous island creatures--including some birds--is being threatened as a result of roaming, starving cats. With enormous exertion, beleaguered cat activists and volunteers hunt, trap, fix, and release as many cats as possible in a struggle to bring some balance back and cut down on the inevitable breeding and in-fighting. But, frankly, just watching hundreds of cats and kittens cautiously climb down a hillside to be fed by a "cat lady" they've learned to recognize and trust each evening, can crack anyone wide open and start them questioning what it means to be human in a world of disadvantaged animals...

Isolated from the mainland and behind in information and support, an island impacted by the introduction of anything alien--animals, plants, etc.--can suffer catastrophic consequences. In the 1700s, missionaries and sailors came to Hawaii and wiped out hundreds of thousands of native Hawaiians who had no immunity to the measles or common colds they brought. The potential tragedy of introducing any ingredient, no matter how small, to an island mix, calls for excessive scrutiny and guardianship on the part of islanders. Once an element is introduced, everything will be disturbed. The strict health processing and occasional quarantining of any animal entering the state makes great sense, for example, when you understand that there is no rabies on the Hawaiian Islands. Sneaking one cat or dog with the disease onto the islands could wipe out the entire animal population.

Unlike on the mainland, where someone can rescue a dog in a different state by getting in a car and driving there to adopt it, on an island, no such thing can happen. Dogs and cats would have to be flown to interested adopters, and no one has money for that. Animals can be moved to different shelters on the island, but that's about it. Hawaii is definitely behind and not just with humane animal treatment. Cruelty and neglect of children didn't make it to felony status until 2007 in Hawaii, whereas most states implemented these laws by the late 70s. In Hawaii you can actually chain a dog up and not take the dog off that chain until the day he dies.

Relentless lobbying on the part of the Humane Society has managed to force through legislation that states the collar on the chained-up dog cannot be a choke chain and must be attached to the chain with a swivel hook. In the past, when a concerned neighbor called the HIHS to check up on a vulnerable animal, all the HIHS could do was insure that the animal had food, water, and shelter. After a lot of lobbying, the Humane Society finally got TWO crucial words added to this criteria: "adequate" and "fresh." So now the HIHS can require that the pet has "fresh food and fresh water," as well as "adequate shelter"--meaning there is space for the animal to stand up, turn around, and get out of his own filth. A little means so much when you are fighting cultural and informational deficits and differences.

Back in 2006, when I was still the Editorial Director of The Advocate and Out magazines, I used a press trip to the islands to interview a "power gay couple" in Kailua-Kona: Eric Von Platen Luder and Scott Dodd. I was aware of Eric's prominence at the time, as his family established the renowned Kona restaurant, Huggo's, which Eric has run for 30 years, in addition to opening Huggo's On The Rocks next door. Because his family goes back several generations in Hawaii and he himself is a mixture of cultures including Chinese and Hawaiian, Eric's often been likened to the George Clooney character in The Descendants. At the time of our interview, Eric brought his partner (they recently married), Scott.

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While our conversation flowed in several directions as I attempted to lift away layer after layer of their productive lives, I discovered that Scott was the president of the board of directors of the Hawaii Island Humane Society. At that news, our interview took an energetic turn. With enormous affection and respect, they chatted dynamically about the different ways they've used their many talents and resources to create events for the struggling Kona shelter: opening their home and restaurants to benefits, convincing others to do the same, all the while becoming part of a small but influential group of strong-minded volunteers willing to do almost anything to improve the difficult conditions surrounding the plight of island shelter animals.

Over the years, Scott and I emailed often, and when my wife and I finally bought a second home (coincidentally one gate over from Scott and Eric's home), more puzzle pieces began to fall into place. The summer we bought our Kona home, Scott and Eric opened an amazing bed and breakfast up the coast in Waikoloa called Lava Lava Beach Club. They immediately began using their dreamy new resort and its gourmet restaurant for fundraisers and raffle prizes for the HIHS.

Add to this: our Kona realtor, Lori Owens. After selling us our home, Lori quickly became a friend, helping us on numerous occasions as we tried to figure out the task (and heaven) of part-time island living. One day, while driving with me to Hilo on the other side of the Big Island, Lori began chatting about the challenges of volunteering at the HIHS, something she did on occasion. Even though the place was small, hot, and often crowded, she found the volunteers and staff--with their competence and good intentions--made up for the shortcomings of the space. I pumped her for more details, wondering if volunteering were something I'd ever have the nerve to do. On the mainland, just walking into a shelter--any shelter--made me feel like I had two choices: take them all home immediately; or turn and run like hell. I did a lot of running.

Yet suddenly and surprisingly in this new setting, on this new adventure, I felt something in me shift. It seemed like no matter where I turned or whom I talked to, I collided with this little shelter--a small building and some trailers, built in the 60s on barely an acre of land, located next to the Kona Police Station and the dump. And yet, something special was happening there; what's more, I was about to learn that something even more extraordinary was coming.

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The hands-on, nuts-and-bolts of it all began easily enough for me: It happened the moment I caught a glimpse of 5-week-old "Maxine" on the first day I volunteered. I had spent the morning at the shelter going through the requisite orientation with a remarkable teacher named Bebe Ackerman, the Humane Educator and Community Coordinator for HIHS. My head was still spinning with so many fascinating things I'd learned about animal and human behavior, things that an animal lover like myself assumes she already knows, but discovers she's actually clueless about. Unfortunately, common sense is not necessarily something you can depend on in this work, so going over everything in the pamphlets Bebe gave me, I pushed open the door to a small, cramped area that housed the kitten cages.

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Maxine was a mainly black kitten with off-center white markings on her nose, stomach, and paws. The shelter was full of very young and adorable white or tabby kitties, most of them dancing around at the front of their cages or screaming for attention the minute someone, anyone, walked past. But not Maxine. She huddled, frightened and shaking, in the back of her cage, out of sight to most--but not me; I saw her immediately because I'm a "total wack-job" over black and white cats and dogs; and Maxine, in particular, reminded me of my 16-year-old cat, "Piano," whose death I still haven't gotten over.

Because HIHS is not a No Kill Shelter (NKS), I had already collided with a truckload of misconceptions about the difference between the two kinds of shelters--kill and no kill--and what to expect. Bebe's words were still ringing through my thoughts as I scrutinized the kittens around me: Yes, a NKS will not euthanize any pet they have taken in; however, they also refuse to take in animals if their facility is full, or if the animal is ill, or they don't feel they'll be successful in getting the animal adopted.

This was a huge piece of missing information for me. So a NKS turns animals away. On the other hand, the HIHS takes any animal that is brought in. Medical attention--including spaying, neutering, and microchipping--feeding, sheltering, human interaction, exercise, and a fair chance at adoption is given to every single animal.

Bebe took great care to clear up a wide variety of misinformation that plagues both kinds of shelters: "If an animal is sick and brought to a No Kill Shelter," she explained, "unless the NKS has the resources at that time, the animal will most likely be sent to a Humane Society. The NKS won't take it. They have the luxury of taking in what they are sure will end up in a home. We do not."

The idea of making a shelter into "the villain" for having to euthanize animals is a strange concept when you stop and think about it. In truth it is our failure, not the failure of an animal shelter: It is those stray cats we feed but do not fix; those puppies and kittens we buy from a pet shop instead of adopting from a shelter; those dogs or cats we abandon upon moving; those dogs we get rid of now that we have "real children;" the dog we never bothered to train who now is a big problem; or those pets we can not afford anymore because we lost our jobs. While HIHS will never judge the heart-breaking choices made by the public, they must also work hard everyday knowing that they did not create the issue of overpopulation, abandonment, cruelty and relinquishment. Having to put an animal down is devastating for them as well. They do it to save other animals. Maybe it is time to stop blaming and start helping?

"When animals come to us," Bebe clarified that first day, "they all go through the same process: First we scan to see if there is a microchip. If there is and it is registered with us, then we can get ahold of the owner right away. If the pet needs it, he or she will be vaccinated, dewormed, and deticked. If the animal has either a microchip or a license, we will take care of what they don't have. If a dog has only a license, we will microchip him. If he has a microchip and no license, we will license him."

Naturally, the more difficult part comes if there is absolutely no identification on the animal. Looking around at the older cats, I checked my notes for what I'd been told during my orientation: "The animal will get dewormed and deticked; but then he or she will wait in a kennel in isolation for four days." I had underlined "four days" for a reason. This is where a lot of confusion can take place for people on the outside. According to Bebe: "They hear 'four days' and think, 'Oh, my God, they are going to euthanize the pet in four days if no one adopts him.' No!" she insisted. "The four days refers to the time we want to give to the owner to realize his dog or cat is missing and come looking. Legally, the animal doesn't belong to the Humane Society anyway yet. In Hawaii, pets are considered property. At this point the pet is in limbo. We are keeping him in safe condition for his owner."

Bebe stressed this point several times because if people think a shelter will put down a stray animal within a short period of time, they might decide it's better to let the stray wander the streets than to bring it to the shelter. That's a big mistake. It is far more likely that the animal will die on the streets; and more to the point, at a Humane Shelter the information is incorrect to begin with. I have seen the charts of dogs and cats at the HIHS who've been there for months and months. Their lives are not in danger because they haven't been adopted yet. There are other criteria at play and it depends on each animal and how he or she is thriving. Some animals do well at the shelter; others simply can't take it.

"There is a time limit that we have on pets in quarantine," Bebe explained, "but the time limit refers to how long the owner has to come forward and find his pet: four days if there is no identification; and 10 days if there is identification. After that, if no one comes forward, the pet belongs to the Humane Society, and we can now draw blood to test his health. If the animal passes our criteria for health, he or she can go right up for adoption. If the animal needs medical attention, we can give it, thanks to our Second Chance Program."

"Obviously we can't keep a sick pet in the shelter and compromise the health of all the other animals," Bebe continued. "But if we can give them medical treatment and get them out of the shelter to foster homes, we can save their lives. We have lots of foster families. We pay for the medication they need, the food, everything. And this all comes from donations to our Second Chance Program."

Little Maxine had been at HIHS a week. I read her chart carefully before opening the door to the cage she shared with a hyper animated tabby kitten that catapulted himself into my arms like Mighty Mouse the minute the entry moved. I stroked him while leaving the cage open, leaning my head down so I could see Maxine better. She was clearly pretending I wasn't there. Her head was dropped down on her folded minuscule body. In my assessment, with all the foreign sounds around her, she certainly wasn't "thriving." So I began to speak softly in her direction. My penchant for talking to animals as if they understand every word I am saying (I do this with my own as well), took over. Other volunteers drifted in and out of the cat area over the next half hour, wondering whom I was chatting with, and left whispering to each other.

Finally, Maxine gave up and looked at me. Little tabby had conked out in my arms, so I slipped him onto the soft towel someone donated to the cage. In one calm swoop I dropped off tabby, and lifted out Maxine. Her little blue eyes got as big as her entire head. What just happened? I nattered on casually at her as we moved into another part of the shelter's cat zone. I put Maxine down on my lap, petting her but no longer restraining her, and talked at length about the merits of love. ("You'll like it, Maxine. It grows on you. Oh, you agree? You're purring.") At one point, she literally looked up at me like, Wow, this is starting to hit my sweet spot, lady!

I did the same thing with her the following day. By the third day, something changed. When I walked through the door, I saw that Maxine was at the front of her cage. Someone was hovering around the kitten cages checking out who was available for adoption, and Maxine wasn't hiding. She was reaching her little black and white paw out through the cage. I held my breath, but the lady picked another kitty. When she walked away, Maxine saw me and meowed to the high heavens. I grabbed her up, kissing her tiny head into mush while she purred like a shrill engine.

When I returned the following day, Maxine was at the front of her cage again, but her chart was missing. I ran to the front desk. "I forgot what that means!" I hollered at Roxy, a smart, hard-working, staffer. "What are you talking about?" she asked patiently. "What does it mean when their charts are gone?" I repeated. "Maxine's chart is..."

"Oh," Roxy smiled, with genuine pleasure. "Maxine got adopted yesterday. She's scheduled for surgery [spaying] at the end of the week, and then her new owner can pick her up."

"She got adopted? She got adopted!" I bellowed at her, ecstatic.

"Yes, and you did that! You did that for her," Roxy said generously, meeting my joy with her own. "You made a connection to people for her."

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Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I understood falling in love with an animal and wanting her for myself, my pet, mine, like a child, an extension of me. But volunteering and doing something to help an animal have a better life--for herself, without me? This was a new joy and experience in giving and receiving. What's more, I'd never felt better in my life.

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I was so excited, I posted a picture of myself with Maxine on my Facebook page; and Scott (Dodd, no longer president, but still on the HIHS board of directors), misunderstood and called to see if I had adopted a kitty. When I explained that I was now volunteering at the HIHS, Scott stopped me. "Oh, wait a minute, Judy; then I need to show you something important," he said. And part two of this incredible journey began:

The following day, Scott drove me out to see 12 exquisite acres of land located in the cool uplands of Keauhou mauka (mountains). He parked his car and asked me to get out. We stood in front of several hefty trees and scattered buildings, winding trails, and grassy valleys as far as we could see.

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"This used to be the former Fuku Bonsai site," Scott began. "Now, thanks to a generous donor who insists on being anonymous, it is the future home of the HIHS." When I turned to him speechless, he explained, "Only it will be called the Animal Community Center, because our vision is so much bigger than anyone's old ideas of an animal shelter."

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Originally the donor loaned the HIHS $800,000 to buy land, and wanted to see what new solutions to the island's distinct animal problems the HIHS might come up with. When Scott and the other visionaries behind the new Animal Community Center showed Mr. Anonymous their plans and designs, he was so moved, he turned his loan into an outright gift.

For me, trying to compare the surroundings of the small, hot Kona shelter with the possibilities in front of me on the new property was impossible. While it's true that what the staff manages to do now is a miracle ("Dr. Kris"--Kristina Hendricks, DVM--actually performs safe and successful surgeries several days a week in what is nothing more than a tin trailer), the miracle taking form on the horizon is even more impressive.

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The Keauhou property calls to mind the kind of site on which amusement parks are built.

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Already there are sizable buildings that can be retrofitted to become the welcome center, the dog pavilion, or the cat barn (complete with a living tree growing in the middle for the cats to climb and play in).

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There will be exercise parks and spacious dog runs. "Our new design gives us the option of showing potential adopters only a few dogs at a time;" Scott explained, "because our research has taught us that people get overwhelmed when they see too many dogs or cats at once. They literally get dazed, can't make a choice, and give up. So we will rotate the dogs, keeping some of them out of the adoption area completely, then bring them back in and move other dogs out."

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Taking me on a tour, Scott showed me endless meandering pathways, future event areas, and a central adoption region where benches, trees, and flowers will surround the Humane Society pets and interested adopters, helping to make their meetings more productive. There are structures that will become education buildings, treatment centers, a state of the art veterinary center, a children's education center, an equine park and stable, and an administration building--everything that doesn't exist today. And because it will cover 12 acres, the local community can come and bring their own pets as well. The goal is to make the Animal Community a genuine community center.

"But most important of all," Scott exhaled, "this gives us the chance to re-imagine everything we've ever known about animal shelters. Envision a place where young children or at-risk youth, or our kupuna (elderly), can come and intermingle with animals in their own special indoor or outdoor spaces--designated for that purpose."

So my experience with Maxine can be everyone's? It's not just the dogs, cats, horses (chickens or goats) that need our companionship, we need theirs too. And by formally acknowledging this obvious truth, not only with words but with a well-designed Animal Center and philosophy to support it, the old vision of shelters will be tilted just enough to change the entire picture forever. The time is right because it's happening: a warm, loving place is being developed just when people understand how to use it, providing a safe space for the Animal Community Center to originate and flourish.

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With the land firmly theirs, the only thing standing between the closing of the current Kona HIHS and the opening of the future Animal Community Center is more funds. Money must be raised to move the staff and animals out of the Kona heat; and fundraising, of course, is a skill of some dexterity. The passion and perseverance you must possess to be successful is as impressive as Dr. Kris performing surgery in a trailer. Unsurprisingly, everyone involved with raising the missing money for the Animal Community Center is motivated by the same fire: their love of animals.

"Yes, we have more money to raise and planning to do," Donna Whitaker, Executive Director of HIHS, told me matter of factly. With more than 15 years of veterinarian services on the island, and a degree in business administration from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Donna can remember getting her first job at 13 just so she'd have the money to get her cat spayed. Clearly she got onto the animal overpopulation problem early!

"I've seen the effects of over breeding and overpopulation," she told me, unhappily, "and my strong desire to increase pet sterilization opportunities on the Big Island as well as increase educational outreach has led to success in grant writing and obtaining alternate funding sources."

Charged with overseeing the three shelters on the Big Island (Kona, Keaau, and Waimea), Donna acknowledged--like everyone involved--that the project is going to change everything for shelters everywhere: "The best part will be the space, of course," she said. "We will be able to house, and therefore save, so many more animals! And our veterinarian will have a proper surgery center for surgery. The education center will be so important to educate, elevate our standards of care, communicate the importance of our volunteers and fosters--to save more lives. All these things have continually improved, and my hope is that when we move into the Animal Community Center, the biggest transition we have is getting used to having a much larger, much more efficient and beautiful center--which will attract a lot more visitors, volunteers, and adopters."

Barbara Kildow, a volunteer on the Capital Campaign Committee, already has a favorite fantasy she indulges when it comes the future Animal Community Center: "I look forward to the day when I will ring a friend and say, 'I'll meet you for coffee at the Animal Community Center, and while we're there, let's volunteer to take a couple of the ready-to-be-adopted dogs for just what I need: a long, relaxing walk!' Of course, then I dream that a HIHS staff member says, 'I'm sorry, but there are no dogs available to walk because they have all been adopted!'"

In her fundraising efforts, Barbara concentrates on the island's resort communities, primarily up the coast from Kona in the Kohala area, educating individuals there about the new Animal Community Center's goals. "Of course, in addition to talking about the animals, I also focus on the community aspect of the future center. People of all ages like to gather, and the most perfect location for that will be the peaceful 12 acres that our HIHS will call home."

For fundraising consultant, Beth Lum, she is particularly pleased that she got to have early input on ensuring that there will be space at the new center for both "our children and our seniors to be able to come and enjoy spending time with animals, even if they aren't able to adopt one into their own home. "For seniors who might experience isolation," Beth said, "caring for an animal is a wonderful opportunity for them to enjoy the love of an animal while they visit the center."

In recent years, HIHS has managed to get the Four Seasons at Hualalai to donate space and food for a rousing and prosperous annual fundraising event called Tropical Paws. Susy Ruddle, the current President of HIHS Board of Directors, calls the evening "a microcosm of the generous spirit of giving throughout the year." Artists, resorts, and local businesses donate their products and art for the event's silent auction. In addition to all the fun and fabulous people, HIHS brings out many of their irresistible dogs, cats, kittens, and puppies--all available for adoption. So, if you are planning a trip to the Big Island, check out this great event.

Everyone agrees on the goals, and everyone agrees the Animal Community Center is going to happen. It's just about timing. According to Donna, they've raised approximately $1.2 million, including the $800,000 for the property. According to Scott, they have a goal of $7 million, but can actually start moving in with about $2 million. Donating to The Animal Community Center is a way to begin the process of changing animal shelters everywhere. The HIHS will be the model, the prototype, the standard for all others. Something must exist and function for others to look over and say, "Well, of course! We must do that too."

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"The HIHS ACC is inching closer and closer to becoming a reality," Donna confided. "We are grateful for the donation of $50,000 from the LGA Family Foundation, which they have earmarked for a new education center; also the Dolores Furtade Martin Foundation, as well as the Windermere Foundation for pledging their support to build an education building called the Windermere House for Humane Education. Other big supporters include the Hawaii Community Foundation and Alii Veterinary Hospital."

Nothing this important happens without teamwork; and teamwork is easy when everyone is motivated by personal experience. As Beth told me, "My son learned to be compassionate and caring when he was five and we adopted our first dog. Today he's 26, and has adopted two dogs from shelters in Texas to teach his two children that same lesson of compassion and caring. I want to give all children the opportunity to experience having an animal to love as part of their family, because I have seen first hand the impact that a pet makes in the lives of children."

"Here's the heart of it," Bebe said, with her two teaching helpers--her rescues, Bagels and Dayzee--sleeping contentedly beside her. "I go everywhere with the dogs teaching at-risk kids--and we consider all kids 'at risk.' We visit Kealakehe Elementary and Konawaena Middle Schools weekly. I keep adding schools to our program. The curriculum includes a classroom visit from me, and a field trip shelter tour. The younger kids learn dog safety and kindness. Under our New Leash On Life Program, we visit the Kohala Youth Ranch where kids get to work with horses. But who is really teaching whom in these encounters?

"You see, often I meet kids who are in trouble," She went on, thoughtfully. "And some of these kids may be adopted. Somehow they believe they aren't loved, or aren't loved as much as a sister or brother who wasn't adopted. So here's what happens: After the kid works several times training a shelter dog, taking the dog on walks, washing the dog, spending lots of time with the dog, we can step in and say, 'Do you care if we give the dog to someone else today?' And suddenly that boy or girl will say, 'Yeah, I care. That's my dog.' You see, they've bonded with the animal. And that's when we can say, 'Well, hey, that's how your mom and dad feel about you. They love you. You don't have to give birth to people to love them.' And they get it because an animal made them feel it."