Shelter animals fly to new homes

126 cats, 9 dogs welcomed aboard: Paws Across the Pacific takes Maui animals to Mainland

Maui Humane Society Foster Program Coordinator Miya Alas (foreground) and Animal Care Attendant Danya Czerwinski shuttle kittens to crates prior to their flight to Seattle on Wednesday. The duo were part of a well-oiled machine of staffers and volunteers who loaded 138 cats and dogs onto a cargo plane bound for shelters across the Pacific Northwest. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

In what organizers are calling the largest pet rescue flight in history, more than 600 shelter dogs and cats from Hawaii were loaded onto a chartered Hercules C-130 and flown to Seattle on Wednesday.

The Paws Across the Pacific flight, staged by Greater Good Charities, Wings of Rescue and the John R. Peterson Foundation, picked up animals with stops on Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. The animals, many of them already spoken for, were to be swiftly transferred to shelters in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.

The Maui Humane Society provided 76 cats and nine dogs, as well as about 50 cats flown over from the Lanai Cat Sanctuary on Kamaka Air. The loading process at the shelter Wednesday was like a military operation timed to the minute. To minimize time spent in their bins, dogs and cats were loaded as close to departure as possible. Cat bins were pre-sprayed with a synthetic pheromone that makes felines calm and feel safe. Dog bins were already outfitted with trays of food and frozen water. Each bin was marked with the animal’s final destination. Bios and pictures had already been sent ahead of time.

A caravan of eight vans shuttled the menagerie to a back gate at Kahului Airport, where there was a bit of a wait until the giant C-130 landed and taxied to the out-of-the-way tarmac.

Maui Humane Society Director of Development & Marketing Jenny Miller said her crew was instructed to take cover from the wash of the four turboprops as the cargo craft approached.

Animal care attendant Aimee Alejandre says goodbye to Riggs.

“We were very excited to see the huge plane land,” Miller said. “When they opened up the back it was like a garage door. Inside, we could see animals that had already been loaded.”

She said, at first, they weren’t sure who was supposed to load the animals onto the plane but soon learned that they were. Stacking the crates and strapping them down, using pieces of plywood to steady levels, they quickly had Maui County’s contribution stowed and ready to fly to the Big Island where a large contingent of dogs awaited.

“We got into a rhythm rather quickly, Miller said. “It was bittersweet. We definitely got attached to some of these animals. Tears were shed by some of the staff. They were tears of joy. Knowing that they were going to be going to good homes and that this was a temporary discomfort made it all worth it.”

Miller said that while shelters on the Mainland often have wait lists for adoptions, Hawaii’s shelters have been swamped with strays and abandoned or surrendered pets. The pandemic has exacerbated many of the problems that cause animals to end up in island shelters. Miller says many surrenders are from people who are moving away or must downsize into residences that do not allow pets.

With more stringent spay and neuter laws and a larger, less transient population, Mainland states are not so overrun with unwanted pets. And then there’s the panache of bragging your dog is from the 50th state.

Foster parent and Maui Humane Society volunteer, Jamie-Sue West, loads Girly into her crate Wednesday evening.

“People love adopting dogs from Hawaii because of the cool factor, especially in the Pacific Northwest where there are a lot of people who vacation here.” Miller said.

Many of Maui’s contributions were in foster care up until their flight. Foster parent Jamie-Sue West of Kihei hugged her charge, a sweet, slender brindled mix named Girly before loading her into a bin Wednesday.

“I’m going to be really sad,” West said. “She really clicked well with my pets, but she’s going to the Mainland to a good home.”

West said she has fostered 66 dogs and about 22 cats over the past three years.

Another success story heading off island was Riggs, a male Catahoula-mix that arrived rail thin and covered in sores but flourished at the shelter and in foster care. Filled out and sporting a gleaming black and gray coat Wednesday, it was hard to believe he was the same dog as the one in the photo taken when he arrived.

“He looks amazing,” said animal care attendant Aimee Alejandre. “He was so emaciated, and he had really bad hair loss and was covered in scabs. He was less people friendly too, but he’s softened in the shelter. I think he is going to make a great pet. He pays attention to his humans.”

Miller said after a difficult year due to the challenges and restrictions posed by COVID-19, as well as a drop in fundraising, Paws Across the Pacific gave the Maui Humane Society a little room to breathe.

“This program is going to allow us to take a breath of air,” Miller said. “We still have a ton of animals in foster care.”

 She said the loading brought staff and volunteers together for a group effort during a time when social distancing and other pandemic guidelines mean they may not be interacting as much as they used to.

“It was kind of an incredible feat,” Miller said. “I was so proud. Everybody was all hands on deck, and it was great for our morale. At the end of the day we work here because we love animals. It was a great way to bond.”

* Matthew Thayer can be reached at thayer@maui.net.


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