LAHAINA, Hawaii — The Maui Humane Society has been leading the charge to rescue animals from the Lahaina burn zone. So far, the Maui Humane Society has rescued 350 animals and been able to reunite 104 of them with their owners. Another 200 are in their care, while the other animals did not make it.
After the Aug. 8 fire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina, Maui County officials made the area off-limits because of concerns about toxic ash, chemicals, and other hazards. However, on Aug. 26, the Maui Humane Society search-and-rescue team was finally escorted into the area by the National Guard.
“Unfortunately, we were too late for some cats,” said Lisa Labrecque, a veterinarian and the CEO of Maui Humane Society, about having to wait almost three weeks to enter the burn zone. “Not only were they suffering from injuries, they were also dehydrated. There was no freshwater. They were starving. I think that we could have saved a lot more had we gotten in earlier. So that part’s sad, it’s heartbreaking, but we’re… gonna do everything we can going forward to continue to bring out live animals and treat them.”
In the search and rescue effort, the Maui Humane Society is being assisted by over a dozen volunteer-based organizations, including Veterinarians Without Borders. Some cat trappers flew in from the continental U.S. and previously worked in other disasters, like Hurricane Katrina.
To date, the Maui Humane Society and partner organizations have rescued 219 cats, 88 dogs, and 43 other animals — extra large tortoises, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, a pig, and a chinchilla.
“Most of our effort is for cats,” said Labrecque, who explained that many of the dogs didn’t survive the fire. “Cats are pretty resilient. They escaped down into the storm drains and they survived that way. So now, there’s hundreds and hundreds of cats that we’re trying to rescue.”
Search and rescue crews target cats reported to the Maui Humane Society through their website, phone calls, email, or a Facebook group started by the organization. As soon as a cat sighting is reported, the team in the burn zone is informed. Crew members put out food and may set up a trap if the cat isn’t easily corralled.
Crews are prioritizing rescuing injured cats. On any given day, the Maui Humane Society’s clinic is treating about 15 cats for burns, dehydration, smoke inhalation and other injuries sustained during the fire, according to Labrecque.
“However, any cats within the burn zone that don’t have a source of food and water we are also bringing in, but because many of them are either feral or they are traumatized from their fires, they are not easy to catch,” said Labrecque.
Once at the Maui Humane Society’s facility in Puunene, the cats with unknown temperaments are encouraged to decompress for 10 days in Cat Ohana Family Room 1 — a large indoor space with areas to sleep and an outdoor “catio.” The Maui Humane Society is working with a veterinary behaviorist from the University of California Davis to evaluate the cats, determining whether they are feral or just terrified.
“They’re bringing in more and more cats to the point where we’re just about full here,” said Labrecque. The Maui Humane Society is currently housing about 170 cats. Under the Lahaina Stray Hold Policy, rescued animals are only available for adoption after 30 days, which is much longer than usual, and original owners can reclaim their pets for up to 90 days. “We want to do everything within our power to reunite the ones that have owners with their families.”
As of Wednesday, 57 cats have been matched with their owners — about a quarter of the rescued cats. Labrecque said there are many factors complicating the reunification of cats with their owners. About two-thirds of the cats rescued from the burn zone have microchips, linking them with a human. However, many of these cats are “community cats” brought in by caretakers as part of a “trap, neuter and return” program. One caretaker may be linked to dozens of cats. Some caretakers also bring in other people’s cats on their behalf to be spayed or neutered, but can no longer remember if a cat is owned or a stray. The stray cats are given “tipped ears” to let people know they have been trapped, neutered, and returned to the wild. Adding to the confusion, some cats with tipped ears are not strays but are owned cats who were spayed or neutered through the Maui Humane Society’s community cat program. Eventually, some of the community cats will be released back into areas where caretakers can once again feed them.
“We are not giving up hope,” said Labrecque about reuniting rescued animals with their humans. She encouraged pet owners looking for their missing animals to not give up hope, too, as every day, more cats are coming in, and occasionally a dog is rescued. “It’s not too late.”
She said there had been many hopeful stories. A chihuahua named Lucky was lost for almost a month, finally trapped in Lahaina and just reunited with his family. An orange cat named Finn was rescued in Lahaina, and a microchip linked him to an owner, who was thrilled to get a call from the Maui Humane Society saying he had been found.
Other stories are tinged with sadness but still positive. The Maui Humane Society learned, unfortunately, that a rescued dog’s owner had perished in the fire, but the dog was adopted by the owner’s relatives who live on the mainland. The Maui Humane Society was able to fly the pet across the ocean at no cost to the dog’s extended family members.
The Maui Humane Society encourages Lahaina residents seeking their missing pets to file a lost pet report or call 808-877-3680 ext. 9. Owners who are looking for their cats are also encouraged to come to the Maui Humane Society and look through a binder with all the rescued cats’ photos. They can walk through the Cat Ohana Family Room 2, where friendly cats are being housed, and look into Cat Ohana Family Room 1 to search for their missing pet. Many of the cats in the two rooms have minor injuries: singed whiskers and scuffed noses.
When a cat comes to the Maui Humane Society’s clinic, veterinarians sometimes have to make a decision on whether to euthanize based on the severity of their injuries. Cats with burns need daily bandage changes and treatment, which can be stressful for feral cats who don’t like to be handled. Labrecque said there were also many cats the clinic tried to save, but eventually, they succumbed to their injuries. Serious injuries range from sepsis to respiratory distress. While talking to Spectrum News Hawaii on Sept. 6, Labrecque said 13 cats had been euthanized.
“I’m happy to say that we have been able to save many more lives than we’ve had to let go,” said Labrecque.
The Maui Humane Society has limited room to house rescued animals and is asking Maui residents to volunteer to foster animals.
“We definitely (have) run out of room for cats. And the kennels are pretty filled with dogs too. We’re trying to keep any animals that were impacted by the fires on site — just for ease of reunification with their owners, but we are at a point where we will need to start sending Lahaina cats and dogs into foster homes to make room for the new ones coming in,” said Labrecque
Labrecque said they are also urging property managers and landlords to allow pets in homes, which will help displaced people keep their pets. She said hotels offering temporary housing are allowing pets, but it’s unclear how long that will last. Maui Humane Society is also providing free health certificates and airline-approved kennels to owners planning to relocate with their pets.
“Otherwise they’re going to have to surrender them and we want to do everything we can to keep the animals with the people that love them,” said Labrecque.
Other ways to help the Maui Humane Society include volunteering and donating.
“This isn’t going to be over in a couple of weeks or a couple of months. This is going to be a long drawn out sustained effort,” said Labrecque.