An effort to start an animal shelter on Molokai - what would have been the island's only open-admission shelter - has been postponed indefinitely, thwarted by pricey lots, zoning complications and the absence of county funding, organizers said.
"It will always be a dream of mine, but I was spending so much of the finances it was becoming not financially feasible to continue traveling back and forth," said Debi Buechel, executive director of Shields Animal Shelter Foundation, which began its efforts in 2012 to bring a shelter to the Friendly Isle.
The Shields Animal Foundation was made possible by a generous donation from Kathleen Shields, Buechel's friend and a frequent visitor to Molokai. When Shields died in 2009, she left an endowment and a request in her will that Buechel use the money to start an open-admission animal shelter on Molokai.
Buechel said Thursday that after spending two years and "well over $200,000" in travel and other expenses to Molokai from her home in Chicago, she and two other staff members have given up the dream, at least for now.
"We were just getting bad news after bad news," Buechel said. "Nothing was working for us. We had to make the decision that we would not be able to bring an animal shelter to Molokai."
Finding an affordable property to build the shelter on was the first hurdle, Buechel said. The group hired three different Realtors on-island, but even the least expensive property was listed at $600,000, and that did not include plumbing or electricity. They also solicited land donations but to no avail.
On top of that, Buechel and her staff - all Chicago residents - were not familiar with the extensive zoning permits and processes that Hawaii requires for any major development.
"Even if we did find a place, it would be another five years before we could even put up a building," Buechel said.
Additionally, Buechel inquired about the possibility of obtaining county funding to keep the shelter up and running, but she was told it would be "unlikely" because most available funds in Maui County already go to the Maui Humane Society, currently the county's only open-admission shelter.
The Molokai Humane Society has tried to fill some of the void left by the absence of a permanent shelter on the island, but it also struggles with securing enough funding to operate a clinic.
"We're a clinic. We're not a shelter," Molokai Humane Society Executive Director Hoala Davis said. The nonprofit operates out of two 40-foot-long shipping containers, powered by solar and electric generators. It provides low-cost pet care, including spay-and-neuter services, often at a fraction of the cost, to make animal care affordable for Molokai residents.
The society was able to hire one licensed veterinarian in 2012 to perform medical procedures at the center.
Last year, the Maui County Council appropriated $77,000 to the Molokai Humane Society, which makes up nearly half of its annual operating budget. The rest comes from private donations, fundraisers, and grants from PetSmart and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Davis said having a permanent shelter on the island would have been "an amazing resource," but she said she also recognizes the significant investment it takes to start and sustain a shelter on an island with a population of a little more than 7,000 people.
The society began a pilot program earlier this year in which volunteers foster feral animals for about a month until the pets are domesticated enough to be adopted, Davis said. So far, 12 animals have been adopted by Molokai residents, Davis said.
The Molokai Humane Society works closely with the island's sole animal control officer, who operates as part of the Maui Police Department. The officer is usually the first contact when there are animal-related incidents or reports of strays, Davis said. The officer will usually retrieve the animal and house it at the police station until the owner comes to claim it.
There are 10 animal cages at the station, police officials said.
Davis said the Police Department works with the Molokai Humane Society to handle unclaimed or feral animals. If the animal is diseased or severely injured, it may be euthanized.
"There needs to be a place that someone can take animals that they find or are unable to keep," said Inga Gibson, Hawaii director of the Humane Society. "Pet abandonment is a tremendous issue not only on Molokai but statewide.
"It's not only illegal but also very cruel to abandon an animal that depends on a person. Whether it's a large shelter or a small shelter, there needs to be a place in every community, including Molokai, where people who cannot keep their animals or find lost or injured animals can take those animals so they're not left to suffer," Gibson said.
Local branches of the Humane Society operate open-admission shelters on Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island.
Buechel said she still hopes to bring an animal shelter to Molokai someday.
"We're not giving up," Buechel said. "If things change and the economy changes, maybe in a few years things will be better on Molokai and I'll have an opportunity to find a piece of property, but right now I just can't put out more of the foundation's money when there are so many other places that do need help."
For now, she said, the foundation will focus on setting up and supporting existing shelters around Chicago.
Molokai residents may report a stray animal by calling the Molokai Police Department at 553-5355. They may also call the Molokai Humane Society at 558-0000.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.