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Illegal trapping, transporting of pet cats a widespread problem

Animal advocates say there are other options to remove nuisance cats

A poster on Makani Road in Makawao offers a $2,000 reward for the safe return of Hazel, an adult black male cat who has been missing since June. The Maui News/LILA FUJIMOTO photos

Moka Brown’s cat Merlin had been missing for two years when she got the call that the black-and-white tuxedo cat had been found.

“I was shocked,” Brown said. “I started bawling.”

Merlin, who disappeared when the family lived in Kihei, was found in a Maui Lani cat colony in Kahului by a volunteer caretaker who noticed the cat was too friendly to be a stray. The caretaker took Merlin to the Maui Humane Society to be scanned for a microchip, which was traced back to Brown.

“We’re pretty sure he was dumped,” Brown said. “One of the things that really upset me is he needed medication, his eyes were always weepy. When I got him back, he was actually blind in one eye. I’m working on him now to make sure he doesn’t lose his vision in the other eye.”

Animal advocates say displacing cats by trapping and taking them to other locations is a widespread problem on Maui that is not only cruel and counterproductive but illegal.

Emily Drose, community cat coordinator at the Maui Humane Society, takes in a cat to be spayed or neutered last month.

Under state law, abandoning an animal, including by trapping and relocating the animal, is a crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine, said Emily Drose, community cat coordinator for the Maui Humane Society.

Drose said the problem has received more attention recently through Facebook groups focused on cats and missing pets.

“It’s definitely something we were aware of. It’s not new,” she said. “But now, with the resources with the community we’re building and with microchipping, we’re able to track where these cats are coming from, where they belong.

“It’s a much bigger issue than any of us thought.”

Cats missing from Wailuku have been found in Lahaina, one from Lahaina was found in Nahiku and ones from Kahana have turned up in Kahakuloa and at Kealia Pond.

Kahului resident Moka Brown holds her tuxedo cat Merlin, who was found at a Maui Lani cat colony two years after he went missing from Kihei. Her daughter Sasha holds Maggie, who was found in a trap in a neighbor’s yard after she went missing.

“They don’t get there on their own,” she said. “It’s just random. It’s so widespread.

Dennis Burns of the nonprofit Valley Isle Animal Rescue said that “it’s been going on for a long time, but I do think there’s an increase.”

He estimates that at least 10 or 20 cats a month are trapped and dumped, often by neighbors who view the pets as nuisances.

“We’ve found cats that were missing in Makawao down in Kahului, cats from Lahaina in Wailea,” said Burns, who often responds with his scanner to check for microchips on cats. “Thank God some people dump them around colonies. A lot of these caretakers are on it.

“I hear people’s pain. When one cat’s taken, it hurts people. It’s just cruel.”

At the Maui Humane Society, the issue hit close to home last year when longtime veterinarian Dr. Miyo Kim had one cat go missing after she had briefly let her two cats out to play in a backyard gulch at her home in Wailuku, Drose said. One cat returned home, but the other didn’t.

After being taken in June, the cat was returned to Kim about five months later after a caretaker saw the cat at a Kahului colony, realized he didn’t belong there and had him scanned, Drose said.

“It happens every day,” said Nikki Russell, director of community outreach for the Maui Humane Society. She said the organization is planning a campaign against dumping and abandoning animals.

“Whether it’s an angry neighbor who traps their neighbor’s cat and takes it to another neighborhood or an owner leaving the island and moving into an apartment that doesn’t allow animals, it’s a lack of education about cat behavior,” Russell said. “Cats are territorial. If you were to dump your pet cat at a colony, nine times out of 10, those cats are going to keep your cat at a perimeter. They have an established bond at the colony, but they’re not going to let a newcomer in.”

“They’re like a gang,” Drose said.

She said the dumped cat could starve or try to make its way back home and return thin or injured.

“The saddest part is these animals are suffering,” Russell said. “The families, the kids are missing their pet.”

Drose, who is the first community cat coordinator in the state, said she can work by email or phone with residents who want to keep cats off their property.

The shelter sells a solar-powered ultrasonic device that has a range of 30 feet and emits a high-frequency sound, not heard by humans, that will scare cats away, Drose said. She said the device has been proven to be effective within 10 to 14 days.

Another device is a motion-activated water sprinkler with animal detection technology to repel animals.

“Cats are creatures of habit,” she said. “If you set out something unpleasant, they won’t have a reason to be a nuisance to you.”

Drose said there are products and methods people can use to make the ground less attractive to cats to keep them from digging, defecating and urinating.

“Nobody should have to have cats on their property if they don’t want cats on their property,” Russell said. “That is an OK opinion to have. It’s how it’s executed. The wrong way is to harm them. The wrong way is to trap them and move them. The right way is to change their behavior with the use of deterrents. Cats are habitual and it doesn’t happen overnight.”

By dumping cats in another location, “you’re never going to fix the problem” because other cats will move in, Drose said.

As part of the effort to control the island’s cat population, which is estimated at 40,000, she said the Maui Humane Society offers free spaying and neutering for community cats and low-cost spaying and neutering for pet cats. Last year was a record-breaking year, she said, with more than 4,000 cats spayed or neutered.

The organization supports the method of trapping, neutering or spaying, then returning cats to their locations.

“Spaying and neutering is the proven way you can reduce those nuisance behaviors,” Drose said. “It’s not my goal to get people to like cats. It’s to help the community get the population under control by doing it humanely.”

Brown, whose cat Merlin was returned after two years, said she put trackers on her other cats after he disappeared.

When her cat Maggie didn’t come home one day, Brown found her in a trap in her neighbor’s yard.

After taking her cat out of the trap and leaving a note, “I confronted the neighbor,” who was a part-time resident, Brown said.

She said she called police and the Maui Humane Society.

Even though she had a text message from the neighbor saying he had been planning to dump her cat, Brown said officials told her “they couldn’t do anything about it” because he hadn’t taken the cat to another location.

“They said unless I actually witnessed them dumping the cat, there was nothing I could do,” she said.

While not addressing Brown’s case specifically, Russell said proof — which can include witnesses and video — is needed to pursue punishment for abandonment crimes.

“We have to remember, too, that maybe our county laws haven’t caught up with everything,” she said.

Burns said some people won’t go to court against a neighbor.

Drose said she has tried to spread the message against animal abandonment through direct mailings, including one that targeted Kahului.

“I received a huge response,” she said. “People weren’t aware they had these resources.”

Those who have animals that they can’t care for or don’t want can call the Maui Humane Society at 877-3680.

Violations of the abandonment law can be reported by calling the organization’s enforcement at 877-3680, ext. 211. Anonymous reports can be made online at www.mauihumanesociety.org/report-an-incident/.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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