Inside the Lāna‘i Cat Sanctuary: Hawaii's Feline Rescue Program

Visitors hang out with Lāna‘i Lions
Visitors hang out with Lāna‘i Lions | © Lanai Cat Sanctuary
Kalena McElroy

Drive up an unassuming dirt road on the quiet and often-overlooked island of Lāna‘i and you’ll discover a unique paradise for felines and their furless friends.

The Lāna‘i Cat Sanctuary opened in 2009 thanks to the passion of island resident Kathy Carroll. Carroll noticed the crisis of feral cats and since Lāna‘i had no animal shelters or veterinarians, the street cat population rapidly increased. So, she sought out an opportunity for positive change: a cat sanctuary. By housing stray cats, Carroll also helps to protect the native and endangered Hawaiian bird populations that nest directly on the ground, such as the ‘ua‘u, Hawaiian Petrel.

Rescued cats

For the cat entrepreneur, an idea came into action with the building of an open-air cageless shelter. Inspired by the African big cat reserves, they coined the term ‘Lāna‘i Lions’, which is how the cats are now referred to. The refuge is a safe haven for strays, replete with tall trees to climb, nooks to snooze in, toys to play with, and a variety of outdoor kennels designed to keep them entertained. There is also a high-tech mobile veterinary clinic staffed with knowledgeable professionals who provide medical care for hundreds of rescues as well as the pets of Lāna‘i residents, since there is still no permanent veterinarian on the island.

A cat receiving visitors

Executive Director Keoni Vaughn explains what it’s like to visit the Lāna‘i Cat Sanctuary, which operates almost completely off the grid, so don’t expect to post any cute cat selfies until you get back to the hotel.

“People visiting us can expect to be greeted by our friendly caregivers who will give you a quick tour of our open-air parklike sanctuary,” Vaughn says. “They will learn about our organization and what we are doing to save cats and protect our native birds on the island.”

According to Vaughn, guests spend anywhere from an hour to all day at the sanctuary. Upon entering the main area, a “welcoming committee” of about 20 of the friendliest Lāna‘i Lions greet guests, and later, “you can relax and hang out with the cats in shaded areas.”

Sometimes there’s kittens

Although it’s free to stop by, the shelter runs solely through visitor donations and the adopt-in-place program, where those who can’t adopt a cat are able to cover the costs of their lifelong care at the facility from anywhere in the world. Nearly 10,000 people paid a visit to the shelter last year, some venturing to the isolated island from very far away just to play and spend time with the felines. To put the number of visitors in perspective, there are only a little over 3,000 permanent residents on the Pineapple Isle!

Hanging out on the lawn with Lāna‘i Lions

As the sanctuary approaches its 10-year anniversary, Vaughn describes what’s in store for the future. “Our goal is to continue saving cats and protecting our native and endangered birds by relocating them to our sanctuary,” he says. “We would love to have some solar powered electricity someday and maybe even internet. At this point, we are doing the best we can with the limited resources that we have.”

With nearly 600 cats, a planned expansion of the sanctuary expects the residency to increase to 1,000. The Lāna‘i Cat Sanctuary is open seven days a week including holidays from 10am to 3pm. and has become an extremely popular place to visit, and a major draw for tourists to the island.

A restful cat plays to the camera

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