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Finding sanctuary

Can sanctuaries be a tool in our cat toolbox? An expert shares five top tips.

From the outside looking in, managing the Lanai Cat Sanctuary sure looks easy. Erect a fence, construct some shelter, landscape, open the doors and call it kitty paradise. Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t ask me: “How do you set one up? I want to do this in my community.” The truth is that animal sheltering is complex, costly and requires expertise in a wide spectrum of disciplines including shelter and herd health management and medicine, nonprofit leadership, fundraising and animal welfare. It’s not as easy as it looks.

So here’s my list of the top 5 things to know about starting a cat sanctuary.

  • Sniff out the numbers. The average cost of having a pet cat is about $1,000 a year.  At Lanai Cat Sanctuary, we have 575 cats at the moment and care costs are slightly less than that annual average for owned cats--but they are similar. Each cat has a name, a microchip, a health record and sees a veterinarian, and all of the cats need love, quality food, water and shelter. And they need a team of daily caregivers who are continually trained in animal health and care. A successful sanctuary needs to budget for experienced leadership to run the organization. That means someone with nonprofit leadership expertise who’s great with the public, staff and can also fundraise. Someone who can ensure responsible use of donations that helps the greatest number of animals, and who has the strategic planning skills to move the mission forward.
  • Get frisky about fundraising. Plan for current costs, ongoing expenses, future ambitions and a reserve. Lanai Cat Sanctuary is unusual in the sense that very little help comes from our resident population, which is composed of some 3,000 islanders who live in one of the most remote places in the nation. Government has little to no interest in funding sanctuaries. Instead, the lion’s share of funding comes from visitors, so our fundraising model focuses on marketing to tourists and leveraging social media (one of our videos went viral, receiving more than 36 million views!). And we cultivate the donors who emerge from those sources. A successful funding plan will need to be tailored to your own realities.
  • Build a happy home. Cats need an environment that creates happiness, and that includes tall places, wide open spaces and hiding places. And of course, shelter from the elements. Indoor sanctuaries are possible, but require much more rigorous maintenance and disease prevention measures, as well as heating and cooling in most climates.  It’s also important to create a place that people will enjoy, for us that means a playground that’s so appealing that guests will happily drop to their knees and roll in the grass with cats. By making it a fun place and an attraction for families to visit, you will not only increase your volunteerism and donations, but it is an excellent opportunity to educate the public about overpopulation and homelessness. Creating an environment that caters to both cats and people contributes to quality of life for the animals and longevity of the organization.
  • Medical matters. This cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Lanai has no veterinarian or animal clinic. This challenge is compounded by the fact that there’s no electricity at the sanctuary. So this requires a mobile clinic with an x-ray and anesthesia machines, as well as surgery tables onsite and a veterinary team to fly in twice a month to sterilize, treat and ensure the health of each and every animal. That includes the newly arrived, the young and the geriatric. Every sanctuary design needs to allow for protected areas to keep those with communicable diseases from each other. It also requires a welcome area where arrivals can be thoroughly vetted before joining the larger family of cats. And it can’t be too small that it creates stress and overcrowding, which can lead to medical issues. Nor can it be too large that you can’t find the one who needs his or her daily medication.
  • Go slow & know when to stop. Every sanctuary has a limit. Find that sweet spot so you know the capacity limits before you get to it. There is no formula that I’m aware of that defines how many cats per square foot should live in an open air enclosure. Instead rely on your staff and veterinarian as well as the cats to give you a sense of your capacity. Once your sanctuary starts getting full, you may notice more cat “arguments” or notice more instances of Upper Respiratory Infections. These can be indicators of stress due to overcrowding. As time goes on, you’ll get a growing sense of your population dynamics and your capacity, so you can match the flow of outgoing cats with new arrivals.

You not only want to manage admissions, you want to prioritize welcoming cats from certain areas where the need is the greatest. For Lanai Cat Sanctuary, our targeted areas are where the native and endangered birds live. Community impact and collaboration should be the goal of any sanctuary and if you keep what’s beyond your fence line in mind, you can contribute to a strategic solution. In communities where there are shelters that handle high volume adoptions, that’s where you want highly adoptable cats to go. A sanctuary should work to save the lives of those that they may not be able to help.

Know when to stop allowing cats in. Don’t have more than you can properly care for. Having worked for Hawaii’s largest animal protection organization as the director of operations and head of rescues before joining Lanai Cat Sanctuary, I saw the harm inflicted by people who took in too many animals, who had their hearts in the right place but couldn’t make their actions match their intentions. Before you even open your doors, have an exit plan for the adoptable ones. A sanctuary is no substitute for a home.

Lanai Cat Sanctuary didn’t start out situated on a 3-acre parcel. It started in 2006, in a horse corral near the mountains. Led by the sanctuary’s founder Kathy Carrol, it was just a small committed group of cat and bird lovers trying to do the right thing on an island that didn’t have an animal shelter, rescue group or veterinarian. Starting small and growing slow will enable you to learn valuable lessons along the way, and help prevent you from getting in over your head.

I believe that sanctuaries are born from the all-too-common issue of too many cats and not enough homes, and too many ferals who don’t want to be in a home. A sanctuary is only a solution if all of the previously mentioned five criteria can be successfully met. It’s also just one solution that must be integrated with others to solve the issue of overpopulation.

One of the most important tips I give to ambitious cat lovers who want to start a sanctuary is to keep the faith. You’ll be surrounded by experts who think you’re nuts, discount your potential, and label the work an unrealistic anomaly. These are often folks who already have their minds made up about how to resolve homelessness, and they aren’t always ready to hear new ideas. But remember: New ideas and startup ventures have a place at the table. So don’t be afraid to buck conventional wisdom.

Who would have ever thought that a rescue operation that started in a horse corral in the tropics would someday be a permanent home for more than 575 cats, protect endangered birds and attract enough support and expertise to be a high-quality operation? Every year, 8,000 curious people from all over the world find their way to our little patch of paradise in the Pacific. Faith, love and hope can carry a mission farther than one can imagine.

About the Author

Since 2014, Keoni Vaughn serves as executive director of Lanai Cat Sanctuary. He oversees a staff of six who provided daily care for more than 575 cats. Prior to joining the Sanctuary, he served as the vice president and director of operations of Hawaiian Humane Society where he oversaw a staff of 50 ran the admissions, shelter adoptions and partnerships, lost and found and animal care services at Hawaii’s largest shelter, where more than 30,000 animals would arrive in need every year. Before that, he served as head of the organization’s investigations and rescues division where he busted puppy mills, fought for stronger animal protection laws and worked with prosecutors and police to bring abusers to justice.

Keoni has rallied a following to Lanai Cat Sanctuary’s social media platforms through innovative content and engagement, as well as working with travel media including Bored Panda, L.A. Times, Expedia, Huffington Post, Buzz Feed and Country Living to create videos that have gone viral with multi-million viewership. He has positioned the sanctuary as the number one attraction in Lanai as voted by the users of Trip Advisor.

Keoni serves on the Board of Directors for CrimeStoppers Honolulu and is a member of the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation. Born and raised in Waimanalo on Oahu, he lives with his two rescued street cats and his wife Jacque and son Hunter in Honolulu.