Trends in Voluntourism: The Kokua Project – Saving Animals in Hawaii

Lanai Cat

While in Lana’i, as part of the Lana’i Visitor’s Bureau New Media Artist in Residence Program, I had the opportunity to meet a truly exceptional person, Kathy Carroll.

I was at a small gathering of Lana’i residents when a woman approached and said “I love your dogs!” This was definitely a first for me, but apparently my pups are world famous. As it turns out, I had just met Kathy Carroll, a Lana’i social activist, lover of the arts and ardent cat lover. Just how ardent I was about to learn.

Kathy Carroll

Kathy and her husband, the renowned Lana’i painter Mike Carroll, moved to the small island more than ten years ago from Chicago to live a simpler, happier life. By all appearances, this energetic couple have achieved that remarkable feat. They own and operate an art gallery in the center of town and are extremely active in the civic life of the island. But Kathy wasn’t content with just that. As a strong supporter of animals, she soon recognized a need on the island that was sorely lacking, an animal rescue center.

After tremendous research, persuasion of local residents and hard work, Kathy, along with an army of supporters and volunteers, created the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center (LARC). The centerpiece of their efforts is one of the most interesting and ingenious rescue facilities I have ever seen, the cat sanctuary.

I love animals and am a strong supporter of any effort to help improve their lives. We have adopted three dogs from rescue centers in the Mid-Atlantic, saving them from a fate I would prefer not to ponder. So when I heard about this remarkable facility and was even invited to visit, I jumped at the opportunity.

Lanai Cat Sanctuary

Demonstrating the kind, neighborly spirit found everywhere on Lana’i, we met Kathy at her gallery and she drove us the few miles to the sanctuary. Located off one of the few main roads, I was a little surprised at the spot where she chose to park the car. We were in a fenced off area in a giant, windblown field quite honestly in the middle of nowhere, if that can even be said of an island 18 miles long. I have visited countless rescue centers and usually a key feature is, you know, a center, or at least a building of some sort. That was before I understood the true genius of the cat sanctuary design.

The cat sanctuary is designed to provide maximum comfort and safety to its occupants, more than 250 of them, and was built in consultation with veterinarians from neighboring islands. The sanctuary is completely open-air, its boundaries marked with a special fencing to keep the cats in and everything else out.

Lanai Cat

We walked up to the gate and were instantly amazed by the scene before us, dozens of cats each meowing, anxiously awaiting our arrival. I walked through and my legs became ensnared in a furry Gordian knot, each feline rubbing against my legs and obviously enjoying the attention.

The next hour passed by in a flash, and the visit was one of the more memorable activities I enjoyed during my time on Lana’i. As a pet owner, whenever I am away from my fur-babies, I miss them terribly and usually seek out any animal I can find for that much needed animal interaction. My time at the sanctuary filled that need and while I selfishly loved it, the interaction also helped the cats as well.

Lana’i has a problem, a cat problem. Over the years, domesticated cats have been released to the wilds where they lived out their lives breeding and perpetuating the process over dozens of generations. Over time, literally thousands of wild, feral cats began to call the wide-open fields of Lana’i home. The sanctuary takes these animals in, gives them health care, spays/neuters them and over time acclimates them to human interaction and attention. The sanctuary is incredibly important for the cats, as it saves them from a dangerous life that, in many instances, leads to an early, tragic death.

Family fun at the sanctuary

Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to recognize the importance and uniqueness of this facility. The Four Seasons Resorts Lana’i recently announced a new voluntourism initiative which will include the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center Cat Sanctuary, the Kokua Project.

In the Hawaiian language, kokua refers to a sense of mutual support, and helping others. The Kokua Project enables guests the opportunity to experience the island and culture by volunteering. Guests can help care for local animals at the Lana‘i Animal Rescue Center, where the mission is to assist animals in need. Volunteer activities range from “Pet & Purr” cat socialization, painting kitty condos, upkeep of facility, gardening, weeding, and pruning.

Lanai cat

As a hotel guest, I would jump at the opportunity to give back to the local community and help these sweet animals in any way I can. Also, more selfishly, this is a dream voluntourism opportunity for me as it gives me my fix of animal interaction, assuaging some of my guilt from leaving behind my own fur-kids, and allowing me to enjoy my vacation that much more.

While voluntourism isn’t necessarily a unique idea, this particular concept is and it demonstrates true commitment by the Four Seasons Resorts to participate in and give back to the local community. I’ve written about ecotourism and sustainable tourism before, and just like in those examples, it’s easy for a hotel or resort not to do anything. Committing to voluntourism though is a hard decision to make. It is selfless and in no way adds to their bottom line, but does improve the lives of others in ways no one will ever know. So, the next time you’re on Lana’i, ask the front desk about the Kokua project and be sure to say hi to Kathy when you attend your first Pet and Purr session.

Cat Condo

Lanai Cats

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

12 Responses

  1. Natalie - Turkish Travel

    We have a wild cat problem here as well. The ex pats that live in the area have managed to set up a charity to deal with the stray dogs roaming the streets but to take on the cats would be too much for them. I am beginning to think there are a lot of ex-pats living abroad that do a lot of good, everyone just thinks of the typical stereotype though.

    Reply
  2. Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World

    One of the things I’d like to do in my lifetime is to setup a spay/neuter program for cats and dogs in Indonesia… it would be a big challenge considering the taboo and squeamishness people seem to have with having their pets neutered (even my own parents are hard to convince). Honestly, seeing unneutered male dogs/cats drive me bonkers!

    Anyway, thanks for volunteering and adopting… recently a local stray cat colony in our city needed to be relocated because the business park decided to kick them out. Glad to hear that other businesses can be supportive of rescue effort.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Jill – They actually had the same cultural issues to overcome there as well, and they’ll tell you that it’s a constant education process. After several years, they think they’ll turned the corner. Then again, there are only 3,000 people on Lanai. There are many projects around the world though trying to change perceptions, but it’s not easy.

      Reply
  3. Kara @ The Vacation Gals

    Your photos are great! So glad you enjoyed your stint at the cat sanctuary. Alas, I am the animal non-lover. No pets in my house. Allergic to cats. (Or maybe I just tell my kids that….)

    Reply
  4. Dalene

    Oh Matt – I don’t know how you could have standed it! I would have tried to take every one of those poor kitties home with me! I almost think I am too MUCH of an animal lover to volunteer at a place like that. For some reason, I don’t have the same problem volunteering with small children…haha!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      No, I completely understand. Cats are great, but I’m a dog person. No way I could’ve gone to a dog rescue LOL

      Reply
  5. Akila

    Awesome, awesome project! I love finding projects like this one, too.

    Reply
  6. Ken Kaminesky

    I have 2 cats and they are my best buddies! Thanks for highlighting Kathy’s wonderful cat rescue operation. This was a really cool post Matt, Kathy and her helpers deserve a boisterous round of applause from all animal lovers. Big thanks to you for showcasing Kathy’s good deeds towards our feline friends. This wasn’t your normal travel blogger’s post, and is another reason why I’m a fan of yours.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Wow Ken, thank you so much. That’s such a nice and heartfelt comment – I truly appreciate it. Kathy and her work are so amazing, I’m just trying to shed a little bit of light on them. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Melanie@TravelsWithTwo

    Matt, as a dog and cat owner, you sound just like me when I travel — always looking for substitute animals. 🙂

    I’m thrilled that the Four Seasons’ Kokua Project is doing such great work on Lana’i. On every Hawaiian island I’ve visited, I’ve seen countless stray cats, and love that this initiative is providing constructive ways for people to help and connect with otherwise woebegone kitties.

    Thanks for inspiring me to visit the center when I’m in Lana’i in May!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Absolutely, I wish more properties had programs like Kokua.

      Reply

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