HILO, Hawaii — Hawaii County pays the Hawaii Island Humane Society about $2 million annually to process up to 14,000 animals at its three animal shelters. Last year, about two out of every three animals that entered its shelters were killed with an injected dose of sodium pentobarbital.

HIHS took in 11,546 animals in 2018 and killed 7,349 of them, including feral animals, animals euthanized at their owners’ request, and  5,184 that were declared “untreatable or unmanageable,” according to Hawaii Island Humane Society Board President Adam Atwood.

Nearly 1,000 animals were reunited with their owners, and 3,046 were adopted.

“The way the shelter animals are cared for pretty much has been ‘save a few and kill the rest,’” says Ana Kahoopii of Aloha Animal Advocates, a local animal welfare group, which contends that the Hawaii County shelters’ kill rate is among the the highest in the country.

In 2017, Aloha Animal Advocates presented the county with a document called “County of Hawaii Detailed Strategic Plan: Animal Law Enforcement and Animal Control Services,” which it had developed in coordination with various national animal advocacy groups. It offered a four-year blueprint for increasing animals’ chances of surviving a shelter visit to 90 percent — a rate, said Kahoopii, that has already been achieved by at least 800 animal shelters across the country.

The Kona shelter is one of three operated by the Hawaii Island Humane Society. Bret Yager/Civil Beat/2017

With Mayor Harry Kim’s encouragement, the group says, it also developed a new animal control contract that would have implemented key parts of that plan.

Sylvia Dolena, who worked on the proposed contract, says she thought it was a “done deal” and that the mayor had sent it to the police department, which administers the current contract, and the Finance Division’s purchasing department for vetting and implementation.

But then the 2018 lava crisis hit, putting lower-priority items on hold. The county’s contract with the Humane Society expired in July 2018; since then, the county has issued a series of three-month extensions on the old contract. Dolena says her group has been told repeatedly that action on its proposed contract had been deferred.

Petition Drive Launched

Now, apparently, the county’s not going to act on it at all. According to Deputy Director Steven Hunt of the county Finance Department, “The scope of work in the new (animal control) contract would only meet the minimal requirements of the Hawaii Revised Statutes.” And the HRS, he notes, “primarily addresses dogs.”

Atwood said HIHS had been “working with the County of Hawaii under the same contract for the last five years.”

Dolena believes the shelters have been operating on essentially the same contract for 25 years. She calls that contract a “friggin’ mess” that mixes three functions: animal law enforcement, shelter operations and animal population management. Her group’s rewrite, she says, would have separated those functions so “it was clear what needed to happen and what the performance measures were for each function.”

Feeding time at the Keaau Transfer Station. Volunteers have had these cats sterilized and returned. Courtesy of Sylvia Dolena

The group has launched a ballot initiative petition drive to get at least part of the reforms it wants: a new section in the Hawaii County Code, setting standards for county animal shelters.

The proposed ordinances would require shelters to “maintain a live release rate of at least 90% during each calendar year.” It would mandate that dogs be held for 11 full business days after they were impounded, and all other animals be held for five days, before euthanasia could be considered.

The shelters currently have shorter mandatory holding periods for dogs, and none at all for cats or any other animal.

It would also set strict rules for nutrition. exercise, diet, hydration and medical services for impounded animals; precisely define conditions under which an animal could be euthanized; and codify required procedures for attempting to find and notify owners of lost animals.

Atwood contends that HIHS staff already maintain professional standards.

“Management decisions regarding the conditions under which an animal may be euthanized and the criteria for nutrition, hydration, exercise, sanitary living conditions and medical services should be left to those with the requisite expertise and training,” he says.

One potentially controversial proposal in the petition would be a requirement that “community cats”—  feral cats — be spayed or neutered and then returned to where they’d been captured, instead of being euthanized.

“Feral cats pose significant threats to our already endangered wildlife — predating on native forest birds like the alala and amakihi, and spreading diseases that have caused the death of Hawaiian monk seals, spinner dolphins, and other threatened species,” says Franny Kinslow Brewer, communications director for the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.

Brewer has a unique perspective: She’s also a former HIHS employee, and served briefly as its acting director.

She’s leery of the proposed regulation’s 90% no-kill figure.

“I’m really uncomfortable with setting an arbitrary number,” she says, unless conditions on the island change significantly.

Life Costs Extra

All sides seem to agree that one key to cutting the shelters’ kill rate is to spay or neuter more animals — though they may disagree on tactics.

The county pays HIHS to run a program that issues coupons to citizens to get their pets spayed or neutered, although Atwood acknowledges that private veterinarians may charge fees not covered by the coupons. HIHS also spays and neuters pets for free at its clinics. With grant money and donations, it recently bought a mobile spay/neuter clinic to “take our spay/neuter efforts on the road.”

Dolena thinks some people decide not to redeem their coupons because of those extra veterinary fees.

“The Humane Society hasn’t been good about tracking that money,” she says. “If the coupon is not redeemed, that money should go into a pot for some other form of spay and neuter program.” She faults the Humane Society’s accounting for not keeping its county and private funding separate.

She also criticizes the spay/neuter efforts for being unfocused. Her group’s four-year plan included targeted efforts in areas with high concentrations of stray animals, such as solid waste transfer stations.

A 12-year trap/neuter/return effort by community volunteers at the Keaau transfer station, she says, actually got the stray cat colony there down to zero growth in 2017 — until the lava crisis hit, and evacuees dumped animals they couldn’t take to new homes.

“There’s not one research study across the world that shows that a TNR trap-neuter-return program works, if your goal is to eliminate the feral cat problem,” Brewer says. But she agrees with the reformers on at least one point:  HIHS reliance on the county contract can be problematic.

The county pays for animal control, not saving animals; HIHS must find private funding for life-saving activities such as animal chipping, animal adoptions and its foster program, which places animals with temporary volunteer caretakers until they can find a “forever home.”

“When you’re in it, you can feel the tension between animal control and animal welfare,” Brewer says.

As a gold standard for animal shelters, she holds up the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which, she says, cut loose from its animal control contract entirely to concentrate on animal welfare.

“Animal control in San Fran is a city function,” Brewer says. “A guy in San Francisco went to his board, and said, ‘We need to let go of the animal control contract. The animal control contract is like heroin, and the city’s our drug dealer.’”

Meanwhile, HIHS may be working on reform from within. It’s hired a consulting firm, Humane Logic, to review its policies and practices. Longtime HIHS Executive Director Donna Whitaker resigned late last year. After a months-long search, HIHS has hired Charles Brown to lead the organization.

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