A Day at Lanai Cat Sanctuary, a Tropical Kitty Paradise

Found: a cat lover's dream destination.
By: Hannah Shaw

What could be better than a remote, tropical island with perfect weather, palm trees and gorgeous ocean views? How about a sun-kissed field where you can lay among hundreds of happy cats? If you’re an animal lover looking for paradise, you can have it all on the Hawaiian island of Lāna`i.

Nestled on a small, remote island with only 3,000 human residents, Lanai Cat Sanctuary provides care to more than 580 free-roaming cats and accepts daily visitors for tours of their unique, open-air facility.

I’d heard that it was heaven on earth, so when I received an invitation for a tour with their executive director Keoni Vaughn, I couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype. After all, the last cat island I visited was anything but paradise for the cats, so I was curious about how visiting this island would feel given that it’s well-managed by a nonprofit organization. My partner and I boarded a ferry that would take us 40 minutes off the west side of Maui to the port at Lāna`i, where we’d spend a full day learning about the organization.

Walking up to the sanctuary, we were delighted to be greeted by three scraggly old senior kitties in the entranceway. “Oh, that’s not the welcoming committee,” Vaughn chuckled, “that’s the welcoming committee,” and pointed to the door that would lead us to the sanctuary grounds. On the other side of the door, no less than two dozen tabby cats stared at us, eager for pets and treats. We were about to enter cat paradise.

Free-roaming cats

The sanctuary is situated on roughly 25,000 square feet of land, with no electricity or indoor facilities. While it’s certainly rustic, it’s also thoughtfully designed with the cats’ needs in mind.

A perimeter fence lines the plot, and all across the property are shelters made from repurposed pallets or deconstructed garage doors, wooden climbing structures and tree perches to allow a bird’s eye view, and even a “catfurteria” where the cats have free access to healthy food and fresh water.

The resident cats range from adorable adolescents to snuggly seniors, and even feral felines can find refuge. With a large property, tall Hawaiian grasses and tons of room to climb, there are so many places for the cats to hide that it doesn’t feel at all like you’re surrounded by hundreds of them. Cats are free to interact with guests or to escape into the tall trees and observe from above, and each of them has a unique personality. Vaughn kindly gave us a giant bucket of cat treats and we had a blast sharing the wealth and getting to know the individuals.

Cat sleeping in a tree

As we wandered through the sanctuary, I learned more about its mission. The organization was founded as a way to save cats’ lives while protecting the island’s native birds. Cats living near endangered Hawaiian birds were threatened with removal in 2004, and the sanctuary was created as a solution that would allow the cats to continue living in nature. Over the course of 13 years, it has grown to become a safe haven for hundreds of island cats, a beloved tourist destination and a successful collaborative effort between cat advocates and wildlife conservationists.

As a community cat advocate who regularly works with programs that help feral populations, this was a fascinating approach to me. Efforts to remove feral cats from the mainland are fruitless and devastating, and result in hundreds of thousands of cats being needlessly killed every year with no significant decline in outdoor populations.

There is no practical or economic way to implement true removal programs in most of the United States, which is why advocates like myself focus our efforts on sterilization through trap, neuter, return. But on tiny Lāna`i, a sanctuary program is uniquely feasible.

A seasoned shelter director and cruelty investigator, Vaughn has many years of experience working in animal welfare and is passionate about bringing new ideas to the table. He says while running a sanctuary isn’t easy, it’s a piece of the puzzle to help solve homelessness and overpopulation. It was easy to see the joy that he soaks in from this sunny, happy place.

Cat at sanctuary

While the sanctuary’s location on an undeveloped island makes it uniquely appealing, it also has its drawbacks. Cat food and supplies are imported weekly on a barge, then driven on a truck across the long dirt road that winds through the island’s rolling hills. With no electricity, operations must occur in daylight, and any refrigeration relies on a generator. But perhaps the biggest obstacle the sanctuary faced as it grew was that there are no veterinarians on Lāna`i.

Now, Lanai Cat Sanctuary is changing that. Through generous donations, they were able to purchase a state-of-the-art trailer and outfit it to be a mobile veterinary clinic complete with a surgical suite, recovery kennels and medical supplies. Several times a month, the organization flies in a veterinarian from Oahu who performs everything from check ups to neuter surgeries for the sanctuary’s cats. They also began generously providing veterinary resources for residents of the island who previously had nowhere to bring their pets. The organization has made life safer not only for its own cats but for all the cats on the island.

While they’re not your average animal shelter, the “Lāna`i lions,” as the residents are called, are all available for adoption to guests who fall in love. The vast majority of the sanctuary’s adoptions are to tourists, who have the option of arranging a flight home for their new feline friend. On our visit, I met two sweet tabby kittens who would be traveling the next day to their new home on the mainland—an effort that takes the sanctuary about 10 days to coordinate.

Visitors who aren’t able to bring their favorite cat home can choose to “adopt in place,” a program where visitors can sponsor a cat’s care and receive periodic updates and photos. As a no-kill facility, the cats are also welcome to spend their full lives on the sanctuary grounds. With perfect weather, exquisite care and constant affection from an adoring public, even their permanent residents have hit the jackpot.

There’s nothing not to love about the sanctuary. The weather is beautiful 365 days a year. The positive vibe of the staff and volunteers is contagious. Even as remote as it is, it’s possible to enjoy an entire day there, lounging with the cats.

Cats looking for food

Perhaps my favorite moment of the whole trip was a simple one: we packed a picnic and sat on a bench eating sandwiches, only to notice that we were surrounded on all sides by wide-eyed feline friends, pawing at us to beg for a bite.

The organization accepts guests every day of the year from 10am to 3pm, and is completely free of charge to visit. All they ask is that if you enjoy your stay, you consider leaving a donation that will allow them to continue their important work.

As a seasoned cat welfare professional and avid traveler, I can report that Lanai Cat Sanctuary delivers everything you could want—an equal mix of advocacy and “awws.”

Images via: Hannah Shaw and Andrew Marttila