Building your own cat sanctuary
By Keoni Vaughn

When building a sanctuary, start small. Stay within your means.
Keoni Vaughn, Executive Director

From the outside looking in, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary sure looks easy. Erect a fence, construct some shelter, landscape, open the doors and call it kitty paradise. Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t ask me: “How do you set one up? I want to do this in my community.” The truth is that animal sheltering is complex, costly and requires expertise in a wide spectrum of disciplines including shelter and herd health management and medicine, nonprofit leadership, fundraising, and animal welfare. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Here are five essential things you should know before starting a cat sanctuary.

Sniff out the numbers. The average cost of having a pet cat is about $1,000 a year. At Lanai Cat Sanctuary, we have more than 600 cats at the moment and care costs are slightly less but similar. Each cat has a name, a microchip, a health record and sees a veterinarian. All of the cats need love, quality food, water and shelter. And they need a team of daily caregivers who are continually trained in animal health and care. Budget for experienced leadership to run an animal welfare organization and that means someone with nonprofit leadership expertise whose great with the public and staff and can fundraise, ensure responsible use of donations that help the greatest number of animals, and has the strategic planning skills to move the mission forward.

Get frisky about fundraising. Plan for current costs, ongoing expenses, future ambitions and a reserve. Lanai Cat Sanctuary is peculiar in the sense that very little help comes from the resident population, which is composed of some 3,000 islanders who live in one of the most remote places in the nation. Government has little to no interest in funding sanctuaries. The lion’s share of funding comes from visitors. Our fundraising model focuses on an alternate approach: tourism marketing, social media and viral videos (one has received 36 million views). And we cultivate the donors who emerge from those sources.

Build a happy home. Cats need an environment that creates happiness and that includes tall places, wide open spaces and hiding places. And of course, shelter from the elements. Indoor sanctuaries are possible but require much more rigorous maintenance and disease prevention measures, as well as heating and cooling in most climates. It’s also important to create a place that people will wildly love, a playground that’s so appealing that guests will happily drop to their knees and roll in the grass with cats. By making it fun place and an attraction for families to visit, you will not only increase your volunteerism and donations, but it is an excellent opportunity to educate the public about overpopulation and homelessness. Catering an environment to both cats and people contributes to quality of life for the animals.

Medical matters. This cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Lanai has no veterinarian or animal clinic. This challenge is compounded by the fact that there’s no electricity at the sanctuary. So this requires a mobile clinic with an x-ray and anesthesia machines, as well as surgery tables onsite and a veterinary team to fly in twice a month to sterilize, treat and ensure the health of each and every animal. That includes the newly arrived, young and the geriatric. Every sanctuary design needs to allow for protected areas to keep those with communicable diseases from each other. It also requires a welcome area where arrivals can be thoroughly vetted before joining the larger family of cats. And it can’t be too small that it creates stress and overcrowding, which can lead to medical issues. Nor can it be too large that you can’t find the one who needs his daily medication.

Go slow & know when to stop. Every sanctuary has a limit. Find that sweet spot so you know the capacity limits before you get to it. There is no formula that I’m aware of that defines how many cats per square foot should live in an open air enclosure. Instead rely on your staff and veterinarian as well as the cats to give you a sense of your capacity. Once your sanctuary starts getting full, you may notice more cat “arguments” or notice more instances of Upper Respiratory Infections. These can be indicators of stress due to overcrowding. As time goes on, you’ll get a growing sense of your population dynamics and your capacity, so you can match the flow of outgoing cats with new arrivals.

You not only want to manage admissions, you want to prioritize welcoming cats from certain areas where the need is the greatest. For Lanai Cat Sanctuary, our targeted areas are where the native and endangered birds live. Community impact and collaboration is the goal of a sanctuary and if you keep what’s beyond your fence line in mind, you contribute to a strategic solution. In communities where there are open admission shelters that handle high volume adoptions, that’s where you want highly adoptable cats to go. Save the lives of those that they may not be able to help.

Know when to stop allowing cats in. Don’t have more than you can properly care for. Having worked for Hawaii’s largest animal protection organization as the director of operations and head of rescues before joining Lanai Cat Sanctuary, I saw the harm inflicted by hoarders whose minds were compromised but their hearts were often in the right place. Helping can cross the line to hurting very quickly. Before you even open your doors, have an exit plan for the adoptable ones. A sanctuary is no substitute for a home.

Lanai Cat Sanctuary didn’t start out situated on a 3-acre parcel. It started in 2004 in a horse corral in the mountains. Led by the sanctuary’s founder Kathy Carroll, it was just a small committed group of cat and bird lovers trying to do the right thing on an island absent of an animal shelter, rescue group and veterinarian. Starting small and growing slow enables you to learn valuable lessons along the way.

I believe that sanctuaries are born from the all-too-common issue of too many cats and not enough homes, and too many ferals who don’t want to be in a home. A sanctuary is only a solution if all of these five criteria can be successfully met. It’s also just one solution that must be integrated with others to solve this issue of overpopulation.

One of the most important tips I give to ambitious cat lovers who want to start a sanctuary is to keep the faith. You’ll be surrounded by experts who think your nuts, discount the potential, and label the work an unrealistic anomaly. These are often folks who already have a mindset on how to resolve homelessness. New ideas and new startup ventures have a place at the table. So don’t be afraid to buck conventional wisdom.

Who would have ever thought that a rescue operation that started in a horse corral in the tropics would someday be a permanent home for more than 600 cats, protect endangered birds and attract enough support and expertise to be a high-quality operation? And that it would command the curious from all over the world to the likes of 8,000 people every year who find their way to our little patch of paradise in the Pacific. Faith, love and hope can carry a mission farther than one can imagine.

We started with 25 cat. We built our sanctuary up to 600.


Keoni Vaughn is executive director of Lanai Cat Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal welfare and conservation organization that protects cats and endangered birds.

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