This Cat Sanctuary in Hawaii Is a South Pacific Purr-adise
The Lanai Cat Sanctuary is home to over 600 previously homeless cats
When Kathy Carroll moved to Lanai, Hawaii 20 years ago from Chicago, she found an island without an animal shelter, rescue group, organized spay program for strays or even a veterinarian. The cat lover wasn’t going to stand for that. Taking matters into her own hands, she founded the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, a paradise for over 600 homeless cats. The sanctuary on the small rural island next to Maui, Hawaii’s second-biggest island, celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2019.
“We designed the sanctuary to replicate the area the cats came from to make it a more comfortable environment, like growing tall native grass to allow them to hide. We wanted to create a playground so appealing that guests will happily roll in the grass with the cats.”
Today, cats frolic under the Hawaiian sun, climb structures and trees, snooze in the shade, and delight in the treats visitors give them at the outdoor sanctuary. Think of it as a cat café, except ginormous (over three acres) and free (donations are welcomed). The cats are well-fed and cared for by a permanent staff of seven, and a veterinarian, Dr. Eric Ako, and two technicians fly in twice a month from Oahu.
“Cats need an environment that creates happiness and that includes tall places, open spaces, hiding nooks and shelter from the elements,” says executive director Keoni Vaughn. “We designed the sanctuary to replicate the area the cats came from to make it a more comfortable environment, like growing tall native grass to allow them to hide. We wanted to create a playground so appealing that guests will happily roll in the grass with the cats.”
The sanctuary is totally donor-supported from donations and the sale of t-shirts, adorable felt Christmas tree cat ornaments crafted by a supporter in Washington State, Jeri Tackett, and 10% from the sale of cat paintings, photographs and prints by Kathy’s husband, Mike (and an occasional grant). The items are sold in Mike’s art gallery, the Mike Carroll Gallery, in Lanai City (the grand name for Lanai’s only town), which also displays paintings of nature and wildlife in Lanai.
The sanctuary is the #2 attraction in Lanai on Trip Advisor (#1 in Lanai City), and its rave reviews are four times the number of the #1 thing to do, Hulopoe Beach. In fact, I heard about the sanctuary while on a Hawaii cruise with UnCruise, a small-ship line that offers the Lanai Cat Sancutary as a port excursion on its one-week voyages. “With over 13,000 visitors a year, we rely on guest experiences to spread the word,” Vaughn says.
Lanai Cat Sanctuary grew from a spay-and-neuter program that Carroll, an ex-nutrition communications consultant, started in 2004. The couple had fallen in love with sleepy Lanai, once home to the world’s biggest pineapple plantations, after a visit for their 20th wedding anniversary (“it’s like 1930s Hawaii,” Mike told me) and decided to move. But after noticing all the feral cats roaming around, she began humanely trapping them, and bringing in a veterinarian from Maui, a short ferry ride away, to sterilize them in borrowed horse stables. A friend also dropped off a malnourished, flea-bitten cat that was hit by a car, who Carroll lovingly nursed back to health, named Toulouse, and adopted.
Inspired by lion reserves in Africa, she began by leasing three-and-a-half acres of dry brushland with fresh running water in 2009 as a home for 25 cats. She brought a mobile vet clinic on-site for X-rays and sterilizations in 2013, since the site had no electricity. Things really took off when Vaughn, a former vice president of the Hawaii Humane Society, the state’s biggest shelter, joined in 2014. Vaughn, who began as a humane investigator, helped spearhead animal-rights laws in the area, like a state law that defined minimum care standards and guidelines for pet owners, called “necessary sustenance.”
The cat population at the sanctuary increased by 200 in 2018 alone. A “Senior Center,” a separate, quieter 1,500-square-foot area for older cats to live out their golden years away from rambunctious kittens, also opened last year, and houses over 35 cats.
Kathy does physical therapy daily with her disabled cat, who, after someone shot her, was brought to her over seven years ago. “The vets have vetted Millie as a happy, healthy cat who doesn’t give a flip that she’s disabled.”
Visitors can adopt a cat. Adoptions are free. “While 95% of our cats were born in the wild and are painfully shy, over time about 40% become friendly extroverts who are suitable for adoption,” says Vaughn.
Kathy, who retired in 2016, remains on the board of the organization. She and Mike share their home with six rescued cats, including Toulouse (now age 15) and Millie, whose back legs are paralyzed. Kathy does physical therapy daily with her disabled cat, who, after someone shot her, was brought to her over seven years ago. “The vets have vetted Millie as a happy, healthy cat who doesn’t give a flip that she’s disabled.”