Finding My ‘Mana’ Amongst the “Hawaiian Lions”
Guest Post by Casey Hersch
As I watched the island of Maui fade into the distance, I looked ahead at the beautiful ocean water, tropical breeze blowing in my face, and the gentle rocking of the ferry sending me into a dreamlike state. As the waves crashed around me, I shook my head and realized I wasn’t in a dream. I was about to experience one of my most memorable adventures.
As the quaint island of Lanai, population 3000, emerged, I recalled that this island used to be described by its magnificent pineapple plantations. But today, I was visiting Lanai to experience another type of magnificence: the “Hawaiian Lions” of the Lanai Cat Sanctuary.
Leaving tracks in the red dirt beneath my feet, I slowly approached a vibrant sign that said, “Welcome to Purradise.” Also known as the Fur Seasons, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary is a home for rescued cats—95 percent of which never saw a human until the staff brought them to safety.
So quiet I could hear the light rain drops hitting the tropical leaves that enveloped this Purradise, I approached the entrance. But there was more than one. To the left was an entrance for a senior center; to the right, an entrance to the kitten school yard. Torn as to which direction I should go, I went straight ahead.
“How could this be a home to over six hundred rescued cats?” I thought to myself. “I don’t hear a meow, a hiss, or even smell a scent of cat!”
Rest assured, without my knowing, there were hundreds of eyes peering at me from the trees above, the lush grasses surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary, and from numerous other tunnels, baskets, boxes, domes, and holes. I didn’t see them, but they sure saw me!
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Greeted by smiling staff, they generously handed me a bag of treats to share with the cats. As I approached the gate, I saw several cats coming to meet me. These cats were the “welcoming committee.” I gently opened the gate, trying to block the opening with my body.
Keoni Vaughn, the Executive Director of the sanctuary, chuckled and said, “Not to worry, our cats love it here. They don’t want to get out!”
I gently closed the gate behind me and paused for a moment waiting to be pounced on and clawed. But quite the opposite happened.
A gold cat approached me, a friendly gaze, as if to say, “Aloha.” Then another white-and-grey cat, so fluffy I could barely see her face, followed. She reminded me of my late Yochabel, a Maine Coon mix. As the wind blew, I caught a glimpse of her all-knowing eyes. She was an expert at connecting with people–she was merely waiting to see if I was interested. I felt welcomed and at ease. I reached out my hand and they embraced my touch, barely noticing I possessed a bag of treats. Imagine if all first meetings could be negotiated with this much respect.
I noticed Keoni, laughing and sharing with other guests. Some were obvious cat lovers, but others rested peacefully, de-stressing and taking in island views. Some guests were searching for a special connection with a fully vetted cat (vaccines, microchip, spay/neuter) to sponsor or adopt and take home.
Amongst the natural beauty of the sanctuary were several vibrant green and yellow lounge chairs. They caught my attention with their invitation: “Get comfortable! Take a seat and enjoy.”
I recalled a peer describing the cat sanctuary as one of the greatest spiritual experiences of her life. I could feel the reasons why.
As I stood at the entrance, I noticed groups of cats, similar to high school cliques. There was the Catfurteria group, obviously enjoying the luxury of not hunting, and another basking in the sun in their hammocks. Yet another group was in one of several Poopatoriums! Even this was a sight to behold. Cleaner than even my own cat litter box at home, it consisted of eco-friendly recycled pine.
These were the 40 percent of cats I could see and interact with. The remaining 60 percent had chosen to live independent from humans: the fence perimeter group, the lush grass group, and the high tree group.
“We are ok not seeing these cats again,” Keoni said. “They no longer need to fend for themselves. I think they are saying to us, thank you for our freedom, and our space to interact with humans or not.”
As I proceeded through the sanctuary, I noticed an arthritic cat. He slowly made his way down a ladder, connected to his pod within a medium size hut. This hut was made from recycled pallets which carried supplies by ferry to the shelter. My eyes filled with tears as I watched this senior cat limp around energetic young cats. To my surprise, they respectfully made room for him to pass. It had been a long time since I saw elders coexisting with younger generations. Unfortunately, most community models separate age groups, especially elders.
Perhaps we have something to learn from these Hawaiian Lions?
At the top of the hut, in the roof area, heads peeped out of tiny niches. Some guests tossed snacks up to the cats. Paws reached out to receive the treats like children at a parade chasing after the tossed candy.
My eyes landed on two words covering the back wall: “HOPE AND LOVE.”
“Hope and Love,” I thought. “This really says it all.”
The Lanai Cat Sanctuary was created by a proactive community member, Kathy Carroll, who believed that one person can make a difference by merely believing, “Why not me?”
The locals were devastated that their beloved native birds were threatened by cats. These cats, labeled wild and invasive, were also not protected.
In my interview with Keoni he said, “Our priority is animal welfare. We don’t oppose nature. We work with its natural tendencies, at a pace that flows with Lanai’s unique characteristics. Our sanctuary is just like the natural habitat these cats came from. Only, it is better. They receive medical care, are safe from the harsh conditions in the wild, and we respect what makes our people’s hearts sing. Our birds are safe, and our sanctuary vets have made it easier for locals to own pets for the first time since the mid-1990s.”
A mutually beneficial solution, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary saves cats and protects birds, demonstrating that it is possible, through love and hope, to find a way to coexist. Recently celebrating their 10th anniversary, the sanctuary welcomes guests from all over the world. Last year, 12,000 tourists enjoyed the cats: This is 4X the population of Lanai.
Where else do cats contribute to the economy in this magnitude!
As we made our way towards the back of the sanctuary, Keoni’s tone changed, as he paused for a moment to honor the sanctuary’s latest development: a cemetery.
“We have on average 12 deaths per month,” he said, “We need a place to honor our cats. Now we finally have it.”
Taking in the silence and feeling a sense of love and gratitude towards this man and all the people who make this possible, my heart was full. Scanning the sanctuary with a panoramic 360 degree view, I realized I had never been in a space where I could witness an entire lifespan of a species from birth to death. The Lanai Cat Sanctuary honored kittens, cats of all ages (in sickness and health), seniors, and their transition to afterlife. Right in front of me, I was seeing the full circle of life and the realized potential for all ages and their differences to exist in harmony.
Beyond cats, humans, birds, and island views, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary represents a model from which all of us wish to live our lives. Love, acceptance, safety, hope, joy, and respect are virtues we all seek. At the heart of it, we all want permission to exist in a way that is uniquely ours.
Keoni and I parted ways at 3pm, when the 5-hour window of visitation closes.
“Our cats need time to just be cats,” he said.
But I had one more question. “What have these cats taught you about yourself and life?”
He thought for a moment and then looked at me with a sincerity that only a man who speaks from his heart can do. “Patience…
“Cats do what they want, when they want. You cannot force them. So I spend time and invest in them.
“I do the same with my guests, my staff, the sanctuary, my donors, with EVERYTHING. Everything comes back 5-fold… No, I think it is 10-fold.”
There is no doubt: one of the intangible qualities that contributes to the magic of this sanctuary is Keoni himself.
Humbled, I was inspired to be a better person, to do more for others, and for all living things.
Admission to the sanctuary is always free but the experience is priceless.
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in chronic illness and ways to empower others to be an expert on their own bodies. Pet companionship, and in her case, her cat friends, have been at the heart of her own healing. She is passionate about integrative treatment models for humans and pets.
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