Cat island: Sanctuary on Lanai is home to hundreds of felines

LANAI — On the island of Lanai, cats can tell time. Every day, within a tail’s twitch of 10 a.m., 30 or so felines line up by the gate to the Lanai Cat Sanctuary and wait for humans from around the globe to arrive.

Today, I am one of those people.

The Lanai Cat Sanctuary was created in 2009 to help curb the feral cat problem on Lanai. The sanctuary is now home to 622 cats. (Emily Gleason/Courtesy Photo)

Inside, cats are everywhere in various states of “cat-ness.” A sophisticated orange tabby perches on the arm of an Adirondack chair — eyes closed in deep meditation. A fluffy calico with impressively long whiskers eyes me with suspicious interest. A slim, black kitten rubs rhythmically against my legs. I take a seat in a lawn chair beside a greyish-brown tabby who purrs loudly and redirects my handful of treats to her face with a practiced hook of her claw. Soon my lap is full of cats. I briefly regret my choice of black pants, and then the fact that my flight leaves in an hour. I feel like I could stay here all day.

Other humans are beginning to join the party. A small blonde boy clutching a bag of cat treats says, to no one in particular, “I am the cat whisperer.” Two cats glance at each other and roll their eyes. At least, I’m fairly certain they did.

What strikes me most is the sheer variety of personalities from cat to cat. Like humans, some are overly needy and attention seeking. Others are almost entirely food motivated with the physique to match — this group hangs out at the cleverly named “Catfurteria” eagerly awaiting their next meal. Others prefer to lounge the day away, totally indifferent in a choice patch of sunshine. Still others hide, avoiding all contact and only coming out at night — probably to party.

“We do wonder what goes on here when we leave for the day,” manager Joe Adarna joked as he gave me a tour.

Founded in 2009 with just 25 cats, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary was started by concerned resident Kathy Carroll. Lacking any humane society or other organized animal control, the tiny Hawaiian island of Lanai, which is about 140 square miles with a population of just over 3,000 people, was totally overrun by feral cats. Distant descendants of seafaring stowaways, the cats were multiplying at a furious rate and killing off native birds like the uau (Hawaiian petrel), the uau kani (wedge-tailed shearwater), the aeo (Hawaiian stilt) and the alae keokeo (Hawaiian coot). Executive director of the sanctuary Keoni Vaughn said that cats often get a bad rap in Hawaii because there are so many of them, but there is room for a positive alternative.

Today, the sanctuary is home to 622 cats and counting. They take in about 200 cats per year and upon arrival, each cat undergoes a welcoming period where they are named, spayed or neutered, microchipped, and vaccinated before being released into the general population. With no vet on the island, a veterinarian flies in from Oahu twice per month to provide medical services.

The open-air sanctuary, which is about half the size of a football field, includes a seniors wing for older citizens and a special area for cats with FIV. They are currently expanding the facility right meow to be able to house 1,100 cats.

In the past few years, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary has gained coverage in major press outlets, including CNN and People Magazine. Curious cat lovers from around the world travel to the sanctuary every year, with 11,500 visitors in 2018 alone. With so many cat crazy fans, they field some strange ideas, including a recent request to host a “cathelorette” party, and wedding ceremonies, of which they’ve hosted three to date. To keep up with the trend, Vaughn recently became licensed to perform marriages.

Taking care of hundreds of felines on a remote island is expensive. The sanctuary’s budget for cat food is $40,000 per year, with the cats eating about 85 pounds of food every day. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, they are supported entirely by the generous donations of visitors and cat people near and far. Those who wish to help can make a donation on the sanctuary website.

All cats are available for adoption. To adopt, aspiring cat parents must visit the sanctuary and bond with a specific kitty, plus cover the cat’s travel costs to their new home. Cats from the sanctuary have found homes as far away as New York City and Canada. Those who are not able to visit in person can “adopt in place” and sponsor a cat of their choice for $30 monthly or $360 annually and receive photos and updates of the cat.

I considered it, but then I remembered that my own cat — yes, I only have one —would kill me. Mona, if you’re reading this — stop, I repeat, stop clawing the daylights out of my mattress. It’s not a scratching post.

To keep up with the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, follow them on Instagram @lanaicatsanctuary and like them on Facebook. If you’re partial to late night Amazon impulse shopping, check out their Wishlist. Visit the sanctuary at 1 Kaupili Road, Lanai City, HI, 96763. They are open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. year round.

That’s all for meow.

Emily Gleason is a member of Business Network International (BNI) Kona Connections Chapter in Kailua-Kona and helps business owners reach their dream clients at She contributes a monthly business feature to West Hawaii Today.

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