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CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

Welcome to Catopia, where more than 600 cats roam, eat, and snooze

Meet the cats of the Lanai Cat Sanctuary
Over 600 cats roam, eat, and snooze in the Hawaiian sanctuary. (Editing: Mark Gartsbeyn, Video: Christopher Muther)

LANAI, Hawaii

Some come to Hawaii to swim and frolic in the legendary turquoise surf. Others sprawl in the sun with skin slathered in lotion until they are as crispy, oily, and golden as a potato pancake.

Me? I came to Hawaii for the cats.

There is a magical place — call it heaven, Shangri-la, Xanadu, or Abraham’s bosom — where more than 600 cats roam on a 3-acre sanctuary. For crazy cat ladies and gentlemen such as myself, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary certainly sounds like heaven on earth.

Well, my fellow cat fanciers, I made the pilgrimage, and I’m happy to report that the Lanai Cat Sanctuary does not disappoint.

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When the gates of the sanctuary swung open on a recent luminous spring morning, a herd of a dozen cats approached me like a feline welcoming committee. A tear welled in my eye and I began humming Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” There were cats as far as the eye could see. Cats napped in baskets in trees. Cats crowded around visitors who were handing out treats. Cats sat in laps or peacefully snoozed in quiet corners.

Did I mention there were more than 600 cats? A group of cats is called a clowder. I have no idea what the technical term is for 600 cats, so I’ll just call it paradise.

I looked around and could see expressions of joy, amazement, and contentment on the faces of others who made the journey to this Catopia. So many cats. Please, give me a moment, I’m getting emotional.

“You’re not the first person I’ve seen get emotional here,” sanctuary manager Joe Adarna reassuringly told me.

The sanctuary is located on Lanai, an apostrophe-shaped 18-mile-wide island with a population of just over 3,000. It’s a 90-minute ferry ride from Maui. When I say that I came to Hawaii for the cats, I’m only half exaggerating. I was visiting to try a new nonstop flight from Boston to Honolulu. Please don’t tell my editors, but writing about the flight was just a poorly veiled excuse to get to the cat sanctuary.

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Before I gush any more (spoiler alert, most of this article will consist of me gushing about cats), perhaps you’re wondering how hundreds of well-cared-for, spayed and neutered cats, wound up living in a tropical nirvana.

Feral cats become socialized at the sanctuary on Lanai, an island that’s a 90-minute ferry ride from Maui.
Feral cats become socialized at the sanctuary on Lanai, an island that’s a 90-minute ferry ride from Maui. (Christopher Muther/Globe staff)

The sanctuary began when Chicagoan Kathy Caroll and her husband moved to this sleepy island to open an art gallery in 2001. Caroll was struck by the large population of stray cats. When she sought treatment for one particularly sick stray kitten, she realized there was no veterinarian on Lanai to care for it. She took a ferry to Maui, rented a car, and found a vet. That was one very lucky kitten. Caroll teamed with the veterinarian to begin a volunteer trap-neuter-release program to help control the population of feral cats on Lanai.

The program continued for two years. All was well until a wildlife biologist discovered a colony of endangered Hawaiian petrel birds in a remote area on the island’s north side. Petrels are ground-nesters, and therefore easy pickings for the hungry, feral cats that were snacking on the birds.

“So they were going to eradicate the cats in that area,” said Keoni Vaughn, executive director of the sanctuary. “Kathy met with them and, lo and behold, she convinced the conservationists to give her a 30-day stay so she could remove as many cats as she could from this particular area.”

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After getting the stay, Carroll convinced the Four Seasons, which has two hotels on the island, to loan her a horse corral where the cats could be relocated. The 25 cats captured from the area were moved to the corral.

“But you can’t just trap 25 cats and think it’s done,” Vaughn said. “Another 25 then showed up to the north side.”

The cat captures continued until approximately 100 cats were living at the Four Seasons corral. Carroll brokered a deal with a landowner for a remote plot near the island’s airport with no utilities except for running water, and raised $10,000 for fencing to begin the sanctuary. It’s modeled after wildcat sanctuaries where the big cats are allowed to prowl about in the open.

Five years later and that sprawling plot is referred to as the Fur Seasons. Vaughn said when he began working at the sanctuary in 2014 there were 350 cats and 800 visitors a year. The day I visited there were 622 cats in residence, and the sanctuary is on track to hit 13,000 visitors in 2019.

It’s a completely independent nonprofit organization. Its $600,000 annual budget comes from donations. There’s no charge to enter the sanctuary, but I challenge you to spend time here and not feel compelled to make a donation. Those donations are crucial given that the sanctuary goes through 85 pounds of cat food a day. That’s $45,000 of cat food a year. It all needs to come in by barge. There is no Costco on Lanai. There isn’t even a traffic light here.

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In addition to free housing and food, all cats are spayed or neutered, assigned a name, microchipped, and tested for FIV. The cat sanctuary also has a senior center where older cats are allowed to enjoy their twilight years away from the hustle and bustle.

The main enclosure, where most of the cats live, is 30,000 square feet, or roughly the size of a football field. The senior cats live in about 1,500 square feet. But as the stray cat population continues to grow on Lanai, so does the shelter.

Vaughn said another section of the sanctuary is being developed that can hold an additional 300 cats. By the end of 2019 he said the sanctuary will be able to house up to 1,100 cats. Also coming soon: Electricity.

“We do quite a bit with very little,” he said.

Even with all that the organization is doing to control the cat population on the island, the cats continue to multiply.

“A female cat over the age of 6 months that hasn’t been sterilized can have up to three litters a year with an average of three to four kittens,” Vaughn said. “Once that cat has her first litter, six months later all of her offspring can have litters as well. We bring in about 200 cats a year, and our goal is always to bring in more cats than we did the following year.”

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Cats enjoy the beautiful weather at the 3-acre sanctuary.
Cats enjoy the beautiful weather at the 3-acre sanctuary.(Christopher Muther/Globe staff)

Just in case you’re wondering, the sanctuary doesn’t smell like a giant litter box. There are several poopatoriums (Vaughn’s word, not mine) discretely located throughout the property. Instead of litter, the cats use mulched pine needles collected from landscapers. The place is absolutely pristine.

While I experienced the selfish thrill of being surrounded by all of these wonderful cats, what’s most important about the Lanai Cat Sanctuary is the care the cats receive. The cats make the visitors happy, and the visitors happily lavish attention and treats on the cats. These are some of the most spoiled and photographed cats I’ve ever seen.

“What’s amazing is that I’ve been in this industry for 20 years,” Vaughn said. “I’d always thought ‘Once a feral cat, always a feral cat.’ Once I started here at the sanctuary, it really opened up my eyes. These cats are trapped in the most remote areas of Lanai. They are truly wild. They’ve never seen a human. But through the luxury of space and time, we see a lot of turnaround. Cats can be socialized.”

I can attest to that socialization. After spending time in the grass playing with a group of cats I decided to rest a minute on an Adirondack chair. No sooner had I sat down than a cat jumped in my lap and made itself comfortable. At that moment I wasn’t certain who was more content, me or the adorable bundle of purring fur in my lap.

1 Kaupili Road, Lanai City, 808-215-9066. You can see cats available for adoption, sponsor a cat for $30 a month (you’ll receive an adoption certificate and photo updates on how your adopted cat is doing), or learn more about the sanctuary at lanaicatsanctuary.org.


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and see more of his cat pictures on Instagram @Chris_Muther.