Guest post by Casey Hersch
Imagine a place where you are surrounded by hundreds of cats of different colors, breeds, personalities, and ages. A place where they are free to roam in their natural habitat while receiving medical care, food, and an abundance of love. Now imagine all of this while you are vacationing in one of the most popular destinations in the world: Maui. Yep. This place is real. I found it while vacationing this year.
Lanai Cat Sanctuary: Saving cats while protecting birds
My love for cats, combined with the magic of Hawaii, made me feel like I hit the jackpot! I am not alone in my discovery. Thousands of people take the short ferry ride from Maui to the island of Lanai to visit the Hawaiian Lions. While visiting the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, it didn’t take me long to realize that the founders and staff there go above and beyond all its nickname implies: Purradise. The sanctuary represents the essence of what it means to nurture and value nature at the same time.
The Lanai Cat Sanctuary is home to over 600 rescued cats. The sanctuary works with the cats’ and the island’s natural tendencies. Offering a model for animal rescue, the emphasis is on customization for the needs of a specific community and its unique resources. Created by Kathy Carroll, her goal was to save cats while protecting native birds. They are succeeding.
The Lanai Cat Sanctuary contributes to the island’s economy, promotes collaboration between shelters and humane organizations, and shares medical resources with the community. Now it is possible for locals to have pets, because now there is a veterinarian who travels to the remote island.
Freedom, safety, and space to interact with humans
As I walked through the sanctuary, my senses were filled with beauty, peace, and harmony. Cats slept in hammocks and baskets in trees, played in the high grasses, and waited in their Catfurteria for the next meal. Several cats were playing games on a guest’s I-pad. Visitors slept in chairs, taking in the sun’s warmth, and occasionally tossed snacks in the direction of purrs and paws. Even though there are 632 cats on site, you won’t see all of them. Many have their special niches which allow them to observe guests from afar. These 60 percent choose not to socialize with humans. The sanctuary embraces this preference.
“Our cats are grateful for their freedom, safety, and space to interact with humans if they choose,” Executive Director Keoni Vaughn told me.
I enjoyed looking over, under, around and through, to see where I might spot a cat. It was like a game of hide and seek. Only the cats knew where I was all along–I had eyes watching me the entire time. The 40 percent of cats who are socialized take turns welcoming guests at the entrance. Eager to say hello, these cats strut their stuff, fluff their fur, and perform for a captive audience. These cats are adoptable, and some have flown from Lanai to places around the United States to their forever home. Those who cannot take a special feline home but still want to help can sponsor cats through donations, which is essential for the sanctuary’s existence.
Cats are allowed to be who they are
Beyond what I saw with my eyes – the environmental sustainability, the senior and kitten wings, the accommodations for the elderly and disabled, and the joy that exuded from the paid staff – it was what I felt that made the most impact.
Just as labels affect humans, cats can also be targeted with labels, many of which paint a negative picture. Labels such as feral and wild contribute to stereotypes and unfortunately, can be death sentences for some cats. Ultimately, when we label cats in this way, we do so without knowing their essence, or in Hawaiian terms, the Mana of who they are. When given the opportunity, many cats labeled wild are of the purest hearts and can love and receive love. Many of us have owned one of these cats, myself included, and know they can be a best friend.
“It saddens me to think that one of my best cat companions wouldn’t have been in my life had I not seen through the labels,” said Keoni. Every one of us wants a chance to thrive and it takes patience and understanding to know what is behind a label or a fearful face.
While walking through the sanctuary I was overwhelmed with the space these cats gave me. They sensed my Mana and observed before approaching whether I was a guest who wanted company on my lap, strokes around my legs, or whether I preferred to observe their beauty instead. Shouldn’t we return the same respect to them?
Honoring each cat’s unique essence
In honor of the cats who have passed away, a cemetery was recently built. As I walked the landscape, a huge cross caught my attention. I asked Keoni about it. He shared the story of “Old Guy,” whom the cross memorializes. Found near a gas station, Old Guy was at least ten years of age. Struggling with cancer, he had a “don’t touch me,” attitude and after his eye, two ears, and part of his nose was removed, he wasn’t very attractive. He was given quality care, despite his predicted short remaining life. To everyone’s surprise he became the friendliest cat. His grumpy attitude was replaced with purrs, and people came to the sanctuary just to see him. Had labels defined Old Guy, the world would have missed a treasured gift.
I asked Keoni about one of the greatest lessons he learned from Old Guy. He said he learned how a single cat can bring so many people together. Old Guy taught the sanctuary how to say goodbye, and how to resolve the struggles so many of us have with the fine line between quality versus quantity.
“When we face the end of life, it matters more that we think with our hearts to guide what is best for our cats,” said Keoni. “My staff knows our cats better than anyone else. They are with them every day and they know their Mana, their essence. Sometimes we get too emotional and we look to a veterinarian to tell us when it is time for death. But, it is the staff who shares the relationship with the cats. They know what they need… and when the time is right. I trust this.”
Wiping tears from my eyes, I reflected on the angst I felt when I went through my own struggles with my dear cat Yochabel’s end of life. While writing Yochabel’s Wisdom for The Conscious Cat, I wondered how to express to others my own ambivalence about life and death.
Listening to Keoni and hearing about Old Guy validated for me once again that the relationships we share with our cats are the guiding lights for us during the hardest times. I felt peace knowing that even cats who have lived most of their lives void of human contact teach us the same lessons about life and death. They teach us to listen, respect, and to remember that in this life, we are all connected. They show us how to feel with our hearts.
This is exactly what being in the Lanai Cat Sanctuary called me to do. By feeling with my heart, I went home with more than a vacation. I was more certain than ever that finding ways to build a community and really see others for who they are is the best we all can do.
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of http://www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in chronic illness and ways to empower others to be an expert on their own bodies. Pet companionship, and in her case, her cat friends, have been at the heart of her own healing. She is passionate about integrative treatment models for humans and pets.