Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Hawaii Island Humane Society was euthanizing 14,000 animals a year. In fact, that was a projected number and performance measure of the Hawaii County animal control contract with the Hawaii Island Humane Society. The number was removed from the most recent annual extension of the contract. In 2015, HIHS processed 15,128 animals and euthanized 10,486. In 2016, the society processed 14,586 animals and euthanized 9,452. The numbers include feral animals and mongooses.

Reforms could be on the way for the Hawaii Island Humane Society, where high euthanasia rates have frustrated Big Island residents.

Thousands of dogs and cats are put down each year, which has raised the hackles of animal rights advocates for years. More recently the situation has spawned a belligerent face-off involving a rescue organization, an accusation of defamation, lawyer’s bills and court dates.

Even as public debate continues around who is to blame for the conditions at three shelters crowded with unwanted animals, their deaths by injection go on unabated.

The society has entrenched itself behind a couple of simple messages: As the only open shelter on the island, it has to take all animals, adoptable or otherwise. It is doing its best to spay and neuter, but can only do so much unless the public takes responsibility for unwanted animals.

The Kona shelter of the Hawaii Island Humane Society was the site of protests over euthanasia in 2015.

Bret Yager/Civil Beat

Those messages aren’t good enough anymore, say at least two Hawaii County Council members, who are poised to introduce legislation that could force changes in how the society operates. At least one is prepared to alter the county code so the animal control contract can be split up, and for spay-neuter dollars to be funneled to nonprofits which many say are doing a better, faster and cheaper job of sterilizing animals.

“Part one, we need to get the code amended,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy. “I’m not afraid to do it, but we need to get through the budget first.”

The county funnels about $200,000 annually through the Humane Society for spaying and neutering. But critics say the system of vouchers is cumbersome, underused and confusing, while small nonprofits by comparison are holding mass sterilization clinics and getting the word out effectively. To receive funding from the county, the nonprofits have to submit a lot of information about costs and benefits, said Lee Loy.

“These nonprofits are taking a small amount of our money and really stretching it,” Lee Loy told Civil Beat. “The Human Society’s numbers are very cryptic. They are really hard to understand and track. It has come to a head for me.”

“The contract isn’t doing it,” she said. “We are failing. If the goal of the Humane Society is to reduce the pet population, why are the euthanasia rates so high after they’ve been doing this for so long? It’s like you pay the kid to cut the grass and you go look around and the grass is still long.”

Council members are talking about taking the $2.1 million annual contract out of the oversight of the police department and putting it under the county finance department or the mayor’s office, where the council would have greater say in how the shelters are run.

The trouble is, the issue has become such a hot potato that no one wants to take it over, council members say.

The contract, which has been in effect for several years under a series of extensions, expires next year, so it’s time to figure out what needs to change and write that into the new request for proposals, said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara.

And because it won’t be possible for the Big Island to adopt its way out of pet overpopulation, a more effective and user-friendly sterilization program is needed, she said.

“If HIHS can’t make spay-neuter more approachable, then we should be giving that money to nonprofits like Rainbow Friends Animal Sanctuary,” she said. “You ask people how HIHS does spay-neuter and you get 10 different answers because it’s confusing.”

The society euthanizes a large percentage of the dogs and cats it takes in. A reduction in that rate needs to be written into the contract, Lee Loy said.

“Everyone just gave them money and let them go,” she said. “The public is fed up. We need to do better.”

Humane Society Director Donna Whitaker said in an email that the society submits monthly reports on its operations to the county and would continue to work closely with any department it is placed under.

The society’s organizational capacity and islandwide outreach position it to best serve as the primary source for spay-neuter surgeries and for the distribution of free and discount coupons for sterilization with private veterinarians, Whitaker said.

“Staff veterinarians performed a record number of 4,511 spay neuter surgeries around the island in our last fiscal year,” she wrote.

Kona resident Tasi Autele founded Big Island Dog Rescue in 2015 to ship dogs off-island to mainland shelters that couldn’t keep up with the demand for adoptable animals. The organization funneled dogs out of the Humane Society and onto airplanes. But relations soured and the partnership was terminated.

In 2015, protesters lined the street in front of the Kona shelter to call attention to a new Humane Society policy requiring extensive reporting on shipping and adoption practices once the animals were sent off. The policy was meant to hinder the dog rescue operation, they argued.

Then Autele sued the society, saying it had worked to poison his operation and his business contacts. The parties named in the suit launched countersuits alleging defamation. The cases are now making their way through the court.

A tension that had simmered for decades between the Humane Society and rescue groups had gone to a new level.

“We are paying $2.1 million a year to an agency that euthanizes 10,000 animals a year,” Autele said. “The contract incentivizes the killing of animals.”

Taking spay-neuter responsibility away from the Humane Society would improve a program that is now a mess, he said, and shifting oversight of the entire animal control contract into the finance department or mayor’s office could also be the beginning of deeper changes to heavy-handed policies that snuff out life needlessly.

“It’s good to see a new council and mayor not taking the same standard excuses,” Autele said.

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