Humane society looks to the future

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Animal care technician Brendan Souza holds a dog while veterinarian Caitlin Cavanaugh gets skin samples to test it for Demodex, a type of mite, Wednesday at the Hawaii Island Humane Society in Keaau.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A litter of 12 puppies is staying at the Hawaii Island Humane Society in Keaau until they're old enough to be adopted.

The Hawaii Island Humane Society focuses on new goals after COVID-19 changed daily operations at the animal shelters.

In June, the humane society ended its contract with Hawaii County to provide animal control services, which were funded by the county.


By stopping animal control services and keeping the shelters closed to the public, the humane society has been able to use the extra time to focus on its main mission of further developing pet support and life-saving programs.

“Since August, we have pushed to offer pet support services to the community,” Lauren Nickerson, community programs director, said. “Pet support is meant to preserve families by keeping pets in the home.”

To support pet owners in communities across Hawaii, the humane society is developing ways to offer more free spay and neuter surgeries as well as other routine veterinary care.

The humane society is doing about 60 spay and neuter surgeries a week, which are funded by private donors.

The mobile Spay and Neuter Waggin’ travels to rural communities twice a week to offer pet surgeries to those living far from veterinarians and animal shelters. The Keaau shelter also is offering in-house surgeries every Tuesday. All surgeries and veterinary services are by appointment only, and walk-ins and emergencies cannot be accommodated.

“We’re actually booked for surgeries until the end of the year,” Nickerson said. “This has become a pillar of what we do, and the demand is there throughout the island.”

In 2021, Nickerson wants to expand the free, routine health veterinary services to all three humane society locations and the mobile Spay and Neuter Waggin’.

“Basic routine health care is so important for the health of an animal,” Nickerson said. “But it can also be the biggest barrier in keeping and adopting animals because it can be so expensive.”

On Wednesday, a pet owner brought his dog to the Keaau shelter to be treated for Demodex after being told the dog wasn’t healthy enough to be spayed.

“Before the pet support program, we would have just turned (the pet’s owner) away since she wasn’t healthy enough to be spayed,” Nickerson said. “Now we can engage with our community and support them when they need help, which ultimately helps keep animals in their homes.”

The humane society is working to build up its veterinary services, but is in need of funding to pay for things such as vaccines, diagnostics and extra staff.

“We can’t serve everyone right now, so we want to keep building on what we have,” Nickerson said. “The sky is the limit, if we have funding to support us.”

The humane society will always rehome animals if there is no way to help pet owners, but will offer everything they can to be sure that is the last option.

“Offering community intervention and support gives pet owners and their animals a huge chance to stay together,” Nickerson said. “If there is something we can’t help with, then we want people rehoming their pets to know they are in good hands.”

The Keaau shelter is undergoing renovations to turn the area that once housed the night-drop kennels into an official pet support area, which will eventually have its own entrance.

The night-drop kennels were uninstalled after the humane society stopped their contract with the county to provide animal control.

“I think some people were confused when we took away the night-drop kennels, but they are problematic across the country,” Nickerson said. “We don’t know anything about animals that are put in there, and there were days when we’d find injured or deceased animals.”

The Hawaii Rainbow Rangers have since taken over animal control duties in Hawaii County and keep a close relationship with the humane society.

When space opens up at the animal shelters, the staff can transfer in a new animal that was taken in by the Rainbow Rangers.

“We’ve transferred in about 25 dogs so far,” Nickerson said. “It’s great, because we are able to bring these animals into our care for enrichment and counseling to help them shine before eventual fostering or adoption.”

The humane society has been working to make its life-saving programs, like foster-to-adopt, more successful with better matches during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because we have less animals right now, we are making better matches with animals and pet owners,” Nickerson said. “Adoptions have been booming, and we are having far less returns than normal.”

Since the shelters are still closed, people interested in adopting will find navigating the humane society’s website much easier than before. The shelters can now upload videos, photos and biographies of all the animals available to adopt.

“Our foster-to-adopt program has been enormously successful,” Nickerson said. “People have been adopting their animals after one week of fostering, which is always so rewarding to see.”

Foster parents can spend three weeks with their animals before deciding to adopt or foster another animal. To help foster parents, the humane society has been covering medical support and has helped provide equipment and food as donations allow.

Nickerson and her team have never seen the Keaau animal shelter as unoccupied as it has been the past few weeks. Although their community outreach programs have been successful, the humane society is still in need of support.

“Our biggest challenge this year was losing our most substantial fundraiser, Tropical Paws, due to COVID-19,” Nickerson said. “We usually raise $400,000 to $500,000, so this was a devastation to us.”

With Giving Tuesday this week, the humane society is asking for help from the community.

“Anything people have to give will go directly to our animals and programs, which will help us succeed in our mission,” Nickerson said. “With support from the community, each animal that comes in gets a better chance.”

Anyone interested can donate online monetarily or can buy something off the humane society’s Amazon Wishlist.

Information about donations, adoption and fostering programs, and the many services the humane society provides can be found on


“We want our community to know we are still here,” Nickerson said. “Our doors may technically be closed, but we will be here to help our community and their animals.”

Email Kelsey Walling at

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