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It only took 34 minutes for the little Aérospatiale 72 to fly from Oahu to Lanai — the smallest inhabited island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Formerly known as Pineapple Island, Lanai is best known for its lunar-like landscape and five-star resorts.
But I wasn’t there for either. I was there for the cats.
I’d heard about the Lanai Cat Sanctuary through animal welfare advocates and had always dreamed of visiting the feline retreat. Started in 2004 as a local effort to sterilize stray cats, the program has become a celebrated nonprofit with a 3.5-acre refuge for the island’s 600 cats.
It’s a wildlife sanctuary where the residents — all adoptable felines of various breeds — roam freely, receive regular veterinary care and, best of all, interact with nearly 13,000 tourists annually. Some, like me, come from other islands or elsewhere in the US. But the shelter has welcomed travelers from as far away as South Korea, Japan and Singapore.
“That’s not bad, considering only 3,000 [people] live on our island,” said Keoni Vaughn, the executive director of the Lanai Cat Sanctuary.
Vaughn, who pointed out that Lanai only has one gas station and exactly zero traffic lights, said it’s been “quite the challenge” turning the rustic property into a sprawling “cat park” with 10 staff members since he joined the team five years ago.
To further complicate things, there’s no veterinarian living on Lanai, so one has to be flown in twice a month. When the cats arrive at the sanctuary for the first time, Vaughn said, many are truly wild or feral. “With the luxury of space and time, approximately 40% of the cats become socialized,” he added.
“This is largely because of all the visitors we have coming on a daily basis that provide the cats with treats and attention all day. I like to refer to our sanctuary as the Fur Seasons, as these cats get the highest quality of care and attention. They are definitely not wanting to leave,” Vaughn said.
This was one of the reasons I was so drawn to the sanctuary. I felt I could have this memorable experience (after all, there are cats everywhere — in the trees, lounging on colorful Adirondack chairs, dozing in hideaways or observing from perches) and also give back to the animals of Lanai.
And the purpose of the sanctuary isn’t merely to protect the island’s stray cats. The sanctuary also keeps them from bird nesting grounds, where they’ve wreaked havoc on endangered native populations of Hawaiian petrels and wedge-tailed shearwaters, among others.
During my day trip to the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, part of my one-week stay on Oahu, I was struck by how friendly and well-loved the so-called Lanai “lions” are. I spent quite a lot of time with Lily, a 10-year-old black-and-white shorthair; and a shy fellow named Wesley. Both, I’ll admit, remind me of my own cats, but far more cuddly.
Though rain drizzled on and off during the afternoon of my visit, the sanctuary is usually a great place for a picnic — if you don’t mind sharing with cats. Baskets filled with toys are all over the sanctuary, though visitors are invited to bring new toys (and treats). It’s free to visit, though donations are strongly encouraged. The funds are used to pay for everything from the 85 pounds of food the sanctuary goes through every day to an expansion that will allow the sanctuary to care for up to 1,100 cats at a time.
“We would love to have internet service at some point,” Vaughn told The Points Guy. This would help the sanctuary establish an online shelter database, among other things. Because of the island’s remote location, however, Vaughn said the cost could total $65,000.
Of course, not everyone can fly to the Hawaiian Islands just to hang out with cats, so the Lanai Cat Sanctuary offers feline fanatics the chance to sponsor a cat of their choosing for $30 a month or $360 a year.
Travelers who fall in love with one particular cat during their visit to the “Fur Seasons resort” can bring home the ultimate souvenir: one of the Lanai lions. All of the cats are considered available for adoption.
Another rain shower began just as I was packing up for my return flight to Oahu, and a woman visiting the sanctuary with her young children offered to give me a ride back up the road to the airport. (I had walked the quarter of the mile there from the airport when the weather was better.) She told me that she’d regularly drive over to the sanctuary with her kids to socialize with the cats. The ritual began after their own kitten passed away. Rather than find another single cat to bring home, the family decided to open their hearts to all 600 cats living at the sanctuary.
Most of my trip to Hawaii was spent hiking through the lush rainforests or sunning by the resort pool. But my afternoon at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary was the one that continues to stick with me. That sense of doing some small good for another living creature is the kind of meaningful memory you can’t easily recreate. And, of course, cats can be good for us humans, too.
For Vaughn, one of the most memorable moments he’s had at the sanctuary was when the Make-A-Wish foundation asked if they would welcome a girl “whose one wish was to visit … ” and they’re “planning another wish come true next month,” he said.
Feature photo courtesy of Lanai Cat Sanctuary.
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