Complaints of overheated and underfed animals getting sick at the state-run Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa have prompted the Legislature to take a closer look at how pets are housed and treated at the facility.
Lawmakers passed House Resolution 35 after receiving several complaints from owners and animal rights activists who say that pets are not receiving adequate care.
“We still felt that it was quite desirable to have some sort of report,” said Rep. Clift Tsuji, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, who introduced the measure.
Hawaii prides itself on being rabies-free, so the state has strict rules in place to keep rabies out of the state. Even after testing negative for rabies and documenting that your pet is up-to-date on rabies shots, you have to wait four months from the test date to bring an animal into the state.
If you need to bring your pet sooner, they must be quarantined for 120 days, either at the state facility in Halawa which charges $1,080 for the quarantine or at a private animal hospital, which can cost thousands of dollars.
The Halawa option is now chosen by less than 10 percent of pet owners, but every option for bringing pets to the islands is expensive, especially when you add the cost of flying them here in airline-approved kennels.
Still, recent complaints of poor treatment prompted Tsuji and his legislative colleagues to step in. According the resolution, the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the facility, will need to report back to the Legislature 20 days before the start of next year’s session about the conditions.
Many pet owners have said animals receive inadequate care at the quarantine facility. Among the complaints: pets overheated and underweight. Cathy Goeggel, president of the non-profit Animal Rights Hawaii, complained that pets have been sprayed in the face with hoses.
In 2003, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that about 17 pets were dying there every year.
Raquel Wong, acting program manager for the rabies quarantine branch at the Department of Agriculture, said the caretakers at the facility are passionate about their jobs and care about the animals.
“Our caretakers do not mistreat animals. They are passionate about what they do, and they develop relationships with these dogs and cats.” — Raquel Wong, Department of Agriculture
But Charles Boggus says it was a lack of attentive care that caused his 3-year-old bulldog, Lola, to become overheated at the facility last year. When Boggus went to visit his dog Aug. 2, Lola was panting and unresponsive in her kennel.
Prior to Lola’s arrival in July 2014, Boggus said he asked the animal handlers to rinse her with water to prevent her from overheating. But a month later, Lola was having difficulty breathing. Her temperature was 107.1 degrees, so Boggus decided to take her to Waipahu Waikele Animal Hospital.
“She was leaning up against the kennel gate, her paws were bleeding … she was gasping for her breath,” said Shelly Boggus, Charles’ wife. “It’s quite apparent that (staff members) were neglectful of her needs that day.”
Lola spent the remainder of her quarantine period in the animal hospital and ran up about $5,000 in veterinary bills, her owners say. Five months later, she died after developing a cancerous tumor on her front leg — the owners acknowledge her death may have been unrelated to her time at the quarantine station.
After Lola’s overheating episode, the Bogguses started several online petitions asking the state to investigate the quarantine program. Since last August, the petitions have gained more than 3,500 signatures; many from owners complaining about the treatment their pets received in the facility.
“My dogs are being underfed and when addressed, the staff said that they would stop feeding them if we didn’t like how they ran things,” Crystal Whisenant commented on one petition.
“It is one of those state facilities that are run at the convenience of the staff instead of the people and animals that they’re supposed to serve,” said Goeggel.
She said her cat died while in quarantine at the Halawa facility before the state allowed direct airport release. She blames a a lack of attentive care.
Another pet owner, Mimi Forsyth, said her cat, Marco Polo, had to spend the majority of his quarantine period in an animal hospital after getting sick in quarantine. Her other two cats lost half their body weight in quarantine, she said.
“That place is really stressful,” said Forsyth. “It gets so freaking hot in there.”
Within two weeks of traveling to Hawaii all pets, including those going into quarantine, must receive a health certificate from an accredited veterinarian. So many owners wonder why so many pets have problems in quarantine.
“I feel like just with all these (complaints), they should have a third party … going through (the quarantine station) on occasion with more surprise visits,” said Alex Dehne, surgical team leader and director of anesthesiology at the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center of Hawaii.
Wong said pets are not mistreated at the quarantine facility.
“It is one of those state facilities that are run at the convenience of the staff instead of the people and animals that they’re supposed to serve.” — Cathy Goeggel, Animal Rights Hawaii
In the case of the dog bleeding in the video, Wong said it did not look distressed. She said that it’s common for dogs to rub their nail beds down, which can cause bleeding, if they’re used to living on grass or soft surfaces.
Wong declined to comment on Lola’s case.
“Our caretakers do not mistreat animals,” Wong said. “They are passionate about what they do, and they develop relationships with these dogs and cats.”
In the last five years, 24 pets died at the quarantine facility, while one pet died on a plane to Hawaii, according to the Department of Agriculture. Sixteen of the deaths were due to “pre-existing conditions,” said Janelle Saneishi of the Department of Agriculture.
The Department of Agriculture doesn’t keep track of the number of complaints about the quarantine station. When Civil Beat asked to see all the complaints about the facility over the last three years, Saneishi said it would cost $22,500.
She said the quarantine station would have to search through each file of every pet that went to the facility in the last three years – about 4,500 files – and that would take 1,125 hours.
Beyond the quality of care at the quarantine station, some critics question the effectiveness of Hawaii’s 103-year-old quarantine policy. The Territory of Hawaii enacted the law in 1912 after there was a rabies outbreak in California, Wong said.
Since then, it has been amended to allow owners to opt of out quarantine for their pets by going through a lengthy pre-arrival process.
There are only two ways new residents can avoid placing their pets in the state quarantine facility. One is to prove pets have two rabies vaccinations, pay for a blood test and wait 120 days before traveling to Hawaii, which allows them to be released from the airport or within five days of arrival. They also have to be microchipped.
Kelly Heiman, of the West Maui Animal Clinic & Central Maui Animal Clinic, said the pre-arrival process can run pet owners up to $1,500 after paying for the blood test, airliner-approved kennel and health certificates necessary to enter Hawaii without quarantine.
The other is to pay thousands of dollars to quarantine their pets at state-approved animal hospitals for 120 days.
For instance, the Waipahu Waikele Pet Hospital – where the Bogguses kept Lola for the remainder of her quarantine – told Civil Beat that holding a medium-sized dog for the full 120-day quarantine would cost more than $3,000.
Heiman said it would cost $4,200 for quarantine at her clinic on Maui.
Wong acknowledges she has never heard of an animal contracting rabies after receiving a series of vaccinations. Neither has Heiman of the West Maui Animal Clinic & Central Maui Animal Clinic.
Wong said the 120-day wait period ensures that pets will not develop rabies, which can take up to 10 weeks to show symptoms, before coming to the islands.
Yet Dehne said that most rabies cases in dogs and cats surface within 10 days of exposure to an animal that has rabies.
He said that quarantine also puts animals at risk of bacterial infections and viruses, especially at the state facility since there are so many animals living in close quarters.
All kennels are outside so there is no way to regulate the temperature or keep animals from spreading airborne illnesses.
Some people say that dogs and cats could be sufficiently protected against rabies with a less vigorous vaccination procedure.
The kennels are built on concrete, which creates its own set of risks, Dehne said. Being on a hard surface could inflame pets’ arthritis, or even cause some dogs to develop “flat feet,” he said.
Other pet owners say being on concrete rubs their dogs’ paws raw. When Charles Boggus took Lola to Waipahu Waikele Animal Hospital, he said she was bleeding from the nail beds on her hind paws.
Dogs are confined to kennels that are about 6 feet wide, and 14 to 25 feet long. Cat kennels are about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long, according to the Department of Agriculture.
After entering the quarantine station, pets cannot leave their designated kennels, which means they can’t go on walks for almost four months.
And pet owners complain about limited visiting hours.
Owners are only allowed to visit their dogs and cats during a three- or four-hour period, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends. All of the visiting hours are in the afternoon, so pet owners who work on weekdays can only see their pets on weekends.
“How are we supposed to be there to take care of our animals if we can’t see them every day?” said Shelly Boggus. “How can we see if something’s wrong?”
We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share.
But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.
Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.