When Shea Prueger first moved to Hawaii’s Big Island, she was charmed by people’s love for animals. During lava eruptions, residents got together to rescue local wildlife. In 2018, a vegan group got a 2,000-acre dairy farm shut down and found homes for the 1800 rescued cows. She herself adopted two cats, including a little black kitten named Pepper.
Then, late last year, Pepper went missing, and Prueger’s search for him led her into a disturbing underground world, revealing that her home island was far from an idyllic animal haven.
While looking for the year-and-a-half-old cat, Prueger’s partner found an animal trap containing a can of fresh tuna in a neighbor’s yard. After speaking to others in their neighborhood, they learned this neighbor had been “trapping and dumping” cats — a practice also done with dogs, goats and chickens on the Big Island, as well as other Hawaiian islands like Maui, where people trap animals and then leave them at garbage transfer stations and other abandoned places. The neighbor, like many who trap and dump, disliked cats and wanted to get strays (and outdoor pets) off his property.
Prueger began searching through various dumping stations throughout the Big Island, but to no avail. While investigating one site where Pepper could have been left, she learned that people there were using cats as bait for dog fights — another practice that’s been reported. “It’s been a shock to see the other side of Hawaii,” she says.
Treatment of animals is a problem throughout the state, but especially in poorer areas of the Big Island and Oahu, according to Kamil Dawson, foster coordinator at the animal rescue organization Action 4 Animals Hawaii, who visits animal dumping sites to reunite lost pets with their humans. At these sites, Dawson has encountered sick animals whose humans can’t afford to take them to the vet and animals who were abandoned when people had to leave their homes.
Paradoxical as it may sound, some Hawaiians consider dumping sites the best places to give animals a chance due to high euthanasia rates at the state’s overcrowded shelters, says Dawson. Hawaii has the lowest save rate — success rate of saving animals brought to shelters — in the country, with only 61 percent of cats and dogs saved in 2020.
To make matters worse, in June 2021, the Big Island police took over animal control from the group Hawaiʻi Rainbow Rangers, leading to a moratorium on animal intake — which essentially meant that animal control won’t take in animals unless they’re sick, injured or in a dangerous situation, says Dawson.
“This last season, people are saying this is the worst kitten crisis — and just animal crisis — we’ve ever seen,” says Prueger. “They gave animal control to the police, who never answer the phone. There isn’t really anyone I can call. The humane society isn’t really taking in any animals unless they’re super injured. That would be someone who could take a cat like Pepper.”
Earlier this year, the Hawaii legislature considered a bill to deal with the feline overpopulation problem by poisoning the state’s free-roaming cats. When she learned about this bill, Prueger says she thought, “How do you distinguish a free-roaming cat from Pepper?” Fortunately, it was rejected thanks to the efforts of organizations like Action 4 Animals, as well as larger groups like Alley Cat Allies.
The mistreatment of cats in Hawaii is part of a larger epidemic of animal mistreatment in the state. Despite the meticulously preserved parks and oceans and residents’ passion for composting and ethically-sourced food, Hawaii is also home to cockfighting rings where birds are kept in chains, farms that funnel roosters into fighting rings abroad, unethical large-scale dog breeding and an underground dog meat market.
Addressing poverty in the state would be a good start, says Dawson, so that people would be better able to care for animals and less compelled to profit off of them. “Part of it is really teaching people compassion,” she says. “That’s a hard thing when you see animals as a nuisance, to really take responsibility for the fact that they’ve been domesticated by humans,” she adds, “we have a responsibility to them.”
Sylvia Dolena, cofounder of Aloha Animal Advocates, which works to end euthenasia on the Big Island, says the key is getting low-cost spaying and neutering available to the public. Before animal control was transferred to the police, the government gave out neuter and spay vouchers that people could take to their vets so that their animals wouldn’t continue to multiply. Dolena would like to see this program brought back. She’d also like to see large animal rights organizations bring educational campaigns to Hawaii.
“The animal control department blames the public for all of these issues, and yes, the general public has to take responsibility for following the law, keeping their animals on their property and getting them spayed or neutered,” says Dolena. “But when they don’t, what do we put in place to keep the animal population under control, to keep the animals safe and to keep people safe? We can’t say ‘oh, it’s the police, they don’t enforce the laws’ or ‘it’s the public, they don’t get their animals spayed or neutered.’ It has to be a partnership to solve the problem, and I know we can do it, but both sides have to come together and agree.”
For now, Prueger continues to search for Pepper, but in the meantime, she’s trying to make a difference in the lives of animals by rescuing other stray cats and kittens on her home island. “I feel like he was my animal soul mate… I think about it every day,” she says. “If there’s anything I can do, I want to do it. That’s the only way I can live with myself.”
Suzannah Weiss is a writer, sex educator and sex/love coach whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and more. You can find her on Twitter (@suzannahweiss), on Instagram (@weisssuzannah) or at www.suzannahweiss.com.