The State of Aloha

Remember the big cat of Olinda? Ten years ago, the island was in the grip of hysteria about a mysterious large feline spotted in the hills and forests above Makawao. The “Olinda Cat” mystery had just about everyone talking.

It started in December 2002, with a single account of a cat sighting. From there, all kinds of witnesses came forward. A Makawao man heard strange noises outside his home one night. When he went outside to investigate, he saw a large, shadowy beast resembling a jaguar or mountain lion.

For most of 2003, the papers reported sightings on a regular basis. Evening walkers told newspapers they saw a large cat stalking the property line one night.

And there was plenty of circumstantial evidence. People reported ominous claw marks on trees. They saw large paw prints in the ground. Then there were the sounds of wailing and calls in the middle of the night. Dogs barked like crazy for no reason. One Olinda resident apparently carried a revolver with him whenever he walked his dog – just to be safe.

Pieced from eyewitness accounts, the animal was big – about 7 feet in length. It was dark (but no one ever claimed to see it during the day) and it had green eyes.

After the sensational accounts, some wanted to see the cryptocat for themselves. Hikers around Olinda became more prevalent. Then reports of a large cat came from different parts of the island. At first, the cat’s “habitat” started in a small area above Seabury Hall. But after the reports, gossip and excitement, folks started seeing it all over Makawao. It might have been up there near Piiholo Road or upper Maliko. Later on, as the mysterious cat became more famous, the Department of Land and Natural Resources got reports of it being found around Kihei, Kapalua and even Makena.

The physical evidence of the cat was scant. Supposed fur samples and feces were analyzed ad nauseam. Attempts to trace the DNA in the samples were futile and the results inconclusive. This only added to the mystery.

But the hysteria hit a new height when the state raised money to bring in an expert trapper from the Mainland. A wildcat trapper from Arizona flew in with ropes, snares and expertise. After demonstrating his snares at a news conference, training DLNR officers about catching big game, setting the snares in the gulches around Makawao, and even after importing special scents from the Honolulu Zoo to attract the animal, we came up empty-handed.

The state tried other methods too. Field agents wandered the woods with loudspeakers and recordings of jaguar sounds. They spread cat urine from African wildcats (compliments of the animals housed at the Honolulu Zoo) near areas where witnesses claimed to have seen it. Still, no cat.

Then, as quickly as the sightings started, everything stopped. The cat was gone. The dogs went back to barking at feral cats or nothing at all. Walkers ambled without incident. Strange noises in the middle of the night ceased. Olinda was a peaceful place again. The cat was gone.

So what happened? Rumors spread faster than wildfire. Some rich guy owned it and would let it out to wreak havoc, said some. The owner had to get rid of it discretely when the heat from the DLNR came down and the owner did just that. The cat never existed, said others. Some even blamed the DLNR for staging a hoax in an attempt to raise awareness of invasive species.

My favorite conspiracy theory is that the cat is still there in hiding and that the media in collusion with the government simply stopped reporting the sightings. Stories of the cat continued for a few more years and now most people have moved on.

So what exactly was that all about? Was there really a big cat? Maybe. Exotic animals do wind up in the islands from time to time. The wombat colony in Kalihi Valley was well documented from the 1930s through the 1960s. Snakes and piranhas occasionally show up in trees and streams. So why not a panther prowling Olinda?

What’s more intriguing to me was the hysteria that mounted around the whole thing. The big cat was the favorite topic among families, workplaces and bars. Even the state got in on the act.

In the end, we were left with no results, no big cat and a lot of questions. The big cat amounted to nothing more than a few suspect fur samples and a lot of speculation. Hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since the Upcountry madness took over the island. I guess we’re due for another good hoax (or maybe another giant wild animal roaming the wilderness).

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

The first time I went to Long Island, I wanted to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. In Long Beach, N.Y., access to the ocean is cut off by a great wooden boardwalk. To get to the water, you need to cross the boardwalk and just before hitting the beach an official inspects a beach pass allowing access. A government-issued pass for the beach!? This was a wholly alien concept for a teenager from Maui.

Turns out, there’s something even more troubling than government-controlled access. In places like Massachusetts and North Carolina, private owners can section off their portion of the beach, restrict access, and keep the entire embankment of sand and surf off-limits. If a country club or a hotel tried that back home, I thought, surely there’d be an open revolt. Lucky we live Hawaii, yeah?

It’s more than just luck. Hawaii has no private beaches and, with exceptions such as Hanauma Bay on Oahu, the government does not charge money to get onto the beach.

But it wasn’t always this way. In his memoir, former Gov. Ben Cayetano recalled the summers of his childhood when he and his friends would ride their bikes from their working-class and predominantly nonwhite neighborhood in Kalihi all the way to the sandy beaches of Kahala at the other end of Honolulu. There, the white landowners would come out from their houses and try to chase them out of the water and off the beach. When that didn’t work, they’d call the police, and even though the kids weren’t breaking any laws, the officers would do it for them.

When Cayetano shared this story with former Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice William Richardson, Richardson recalled his own experiences as a boy when he would watch hotel guests dancing in Waikiki while he was relegated to stand at the water’s edge. Richardson told Cayetano that back then the hotels treated the beach like their own private property.

The change to the open beaches we have today unwittingly began when Clint Ashford – a well-known attorney and one of the founders of the equally well-known law firm Ashford and Wriston – applied to the Land Court to register beachfront property on Molokai. The titles of the property were issued by the kingdom in 1866 and were originally in the Hawaiian language. His case turned on the words “ma ke kai,” which translates to “high water mark.” Ashford claimed that the ma ke kai must be determined only by expert surveyors and their calculations.

The state, however, argued that the high water mark could be proved through witnesses familiar with the land, custom, usage and practice. Based on that evidence, the ma ke kai went all the way up to the vegetation line – about 30 feet higher than what Ashford’s experts had determined.

In 1968, the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected Ashford’s arguments and held that the land from the water’s edge to the vegetation line was the “high water mark.” Richardson wrote the opinion.

A few years later, Richardson extended this concept even further. In 1974, the court declared that the lands from the shore to the “high water mark” as determined from Ashford’s case belonged to the state and were held in the public trust. Private beaches in the islands were pretty much pau.

For years now, blue signs all over the state alert everyone to public rights of way and access to the water and beaches. We can swim, fish and snorkel just about anyplace our legs can take us – even in posh places like Kahala or Kapalua.

Maybe that’s why last month’s story about a new gate in Napili cutting off access to a popular beach spot has struck a nerve. Disabled beachgoers, the elderly, and those with small children have lamented because this was one of the few easy places for vacationers and residents to get to the water. The owners, on the other hand, told the newspaper that their effort to restrict access is “totally legal.”

Similarly, a group of beachgoers and Native Hawaiians have sued the Four Seasons in Wailea for preventing normal access and enjoyment of the beach in front of its resort. The group has argued that by putting up rentals, exclusive chaise lounge chairs and other bits of furniture on the beach, the hotel has effectively created a private beach. (Since then, however, the Four Seasons has dismantled the rentals.)

Enjoying the sand and surf is part of living in Hawaii. It’s not for sale, and beachfront owners who are used to exclusivity and their own private paradise are sometimes dismayed at the law here in Hawaii. Yes, we can fish next to beachfront mansions in Wailea or bodysurf with luxury vacationers. A private beach is more than a strange and foreign thing for local folks. It’s unlawful.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”