“We just saved Clara’s life!”
It was a Sunday morning and Laura Forsythe, who’d just spoken those words, was understandably happy. You could hear the joy in her voice, and in the voices of her fellow volunteers. Clara was most likely ecstatic, too, but she wasn’t really in a position to say so. That’s because Clara’s a dog–a Shar Pei and Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix, to be precise.
Forsythe and her colleagues are part of the Wings of Aloha (WOA) program, which finds homes for animals that spend part of their lives living in a four-by-10-foot kennel at the Maui Humane Society. WOA is a donor-funded program that transfers primarily dogs to partners on the Mainland where they are guaranteed adoption.
“It’s like winning the doggie lottery to be accepted for the Wings of Aloha program,” said MHS Chief Executive Officer Jerleen Bryant.
WOA is necessary because Maui has an imbalance between the number of domesticated animals and families willing to adopt. MHS–one of several local organizations working to save the lives of unwanted pets–receives between 700 and 800 animals every month, according to Bryant. “Unfortunately, in our community we do still have more pets than we have [people] willing to adopt,” said Jamie Fitzpatrick, the MHS Director of Animal and Client Services.
Clara was a perfect fit for the program, but MHS had not been able to get a good photo of her, which is an important aspect of the cross-Pacific adoption program. When the group working that Sunday heard that Clara’s morning photo session turned out well, they knew they had saved Clara’s life. A photo–along with biographical, medical and temperament information–is the only way to introduce Mainland rescue partners to adoptable animals on Maui.
The sad and often unspoken truth of pet overpopulation is simple: if a pet does not find a home after reaching a shelter, it faces possible euthanasia, our society’s gentle way to say that we kill our domesticated animals.
“We are an open admission facility and we’re on a county contract to take in every animal brought into our doors,” Fitzpatrick said when asked the sensitive question about euthanasia rates on the island. She hopes the imbalance will one day be corrected by spay and neuter programs. “Until then, unfortunately, that does put us in a situation where we do have to face euthanasia on a regular basis,” she said.
Living on an island adds to the challenge of finding viable homes for animals. On the Mainland, animals are geographically redistributed–loaded into vans and driven hundreds of miles to a town where there is less overpopulation and more families looking to adopt. “It’s what shelters and rescues are doing to try and help decrease the euthanasia rate,” Bryant said. “We don’t have that luxury on Maui.”
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The Wings of Aloha program began two years ago, practically out of desperation to reduce the Humane Society’s euthanasia rate. Since then, more than 500 animals have found homes on the Mainland. Bryant said the WOA program flies an average of 25 dogs per month, primarily to the Pacific Northwest (as this story was going to press, KHON 2 News reported that two dogs–one part of the WOA program–were stolen from the Maui Humane Society).
In an effort to overcome the geographic challenges of redistribution, MHS reached out to shelter and rescue centers that Bryant had existing relationships with in Oregon and Washington. It wasn’t an easy sell. Tina Stewart, Executive Director and founder of Tender Care Animal Rescue in Vancouver, WA, said she was taken aback when she first heard about the program.
“The logistics of it all at first was a bit overwhelming,” Stewart said. “However, we were founded to help shelters reduce their euthanasia rate. So we worked it out.”
In addition to Clara, the dog who “won the doggie lottery” the day I visited the shelter, the team also saved Chloe, Trey and others. Chloe is a fawn-colored mixed breed that lived at MHS for 10 months without being adopted. She was a favorite of staff and volunteers but month after month, she would see her buddies go home with their new human families while she spent her days living on a cement floor, behind wire gates, between brick walls.
MHS Adoption Counselor Rachael Magee said Chloe, who was left at the shelter during the first year of the WOA program, was a super dog. They took her on every outing and to every MHS adoption event for months.
“Through no fault of our own, Chloe just wasn’t looked at,” Magee said. “I wouldn’t say she was un-adoptable. We just didn’t have somebody here that was interested.” Bryant said everyone at the Humane Society was rallying to help find Chloe a forever home, but they were not having any luck. So the WOA team worked through the details to get her on a transfer list.
There’s no formula for which dogs get transfer. Often, dogs that have been at the shelter the longest are the first considered. The staff and volunteers also look at the rescue partners and try to match dogs they feel will be quickly adopted. For example, people who live in rural areas on the Mainland are more likely to adopt herding dogs. “We help them narrow it down so that they have a manageable list to choose from so they can figure out which of our animals will compliment their current population,” Fitzpatrick said.
When a Mainland rescue partner chose Chloe, she was able to leave her kennel at MHS and spend her last days on the island living as a family pet in a foster home. Providing temporary foster homes for dogs that are scheduled to travel is another key aspect of the WOA program. When WOA pets move into a local foster home, it frees up a space at the shelter for an incoming dog. “We really save two lives with each transfer,” I heard several shelter staff members say.
Volunteering as a foster family is a no-expense, no-hassle way to support the WOA program. MHS absorbs the costs of all food, medical care and other necessities. “Certainly the space issue is important,” Bryant said. “[But] we just need a safe loving home for these animals to spend some time in before they fly out.” It also helps the transfer partner place an animal because they are provided information about the pet’s personality outside of the shelter environment, Bryant added.
“We make it as easy as we can for our foster homes because we really want everybody to have a good experience,” Bryant said. “Maybe they will continue to foster or maybe they will tell their friends.” Bryant said fostering is also a good option for people who love animals but may not be able to make a long-term commitment to a pet.
People can also support the program by allowing WOA to attach a dog to their airline itinerary. Dogs can fly independently, but it’s cheaper if they are linked to a person. Letting a dog travel on an existing airline ticket is a no-cost way to support the program; 100 percent of WOA donations go directly to the cost of airline transfers. “Travelers love it because they are truly helping to save animals,” Bryant said.
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Chloe was adopted within one month after leaving Maui. So was Trey, a pit mix who was brought to MHS after being found at Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area. Trey had a severely injured leg, which needed to be amputated. “We don’t know the story,” Magee said. “We just know that his leg injury was an old one; he’d been used to not using it and it was beyond being able to fix. It was better to amputate.”
The Humane Society’s Hope Fund–which allows the shelter to save lives by providing special medical care to animals who are ill or have been injured, abused or neglected–paid for Trey’s surgery. Magee didn’t want Trey to return to the shelter environment after his surgery, so she opened her home to him as a foster mom. Magee said she, her family and her pets adored Trey, but she knew she could not help other animals if she kept him permanently in her home.
“Each dog I foster holds a special place in my heart,” Magee said. “Trey was a very tough guy to say goodbye to. My only reason for not adopting him was that if we did, we could not help the next dog in need–and there are so many to help.”
After Trey recovered, he was put on a transfer list that was submitted to Stewart’s foster-based Tender Care Animal Rescue. WOA coordinators knew Stewart was comfortable taking pit mixes and that Tender Care could help Trey find a good home. Plus, he would go directly into a foster home on the Mainland.
“Trey–oh my goodness!” said Stewart, who fostered the dog in her home. “There are not enough awesome things I can say about his lovely self.” She said he was a well-mannered, lovable pit mix with a great personality. “I do not think he has an aggressive bone in his body,” she said, alluding to the negative reputation of the breed. “He was always so gentle with my children and cats. It was an honor to foster him for the week he was here before being adopted.”
One week is all it took for Trey to find his forever mom: Bev Smith, a 29-year-old graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “I am overjoyed to be Trey’s owner, as I know what a very special guy he is,” Smith wrote in an email to Magee. “Though I have only had him since Tuesday night, I already love Trey dearly; he is the kindest, most gentle and affectionate dog that I have ever met (and I’ve met many!). He melts your heart! I can promise you that he is and always will be loved and well cared for. My animals are family members (the word ‘pet’ doesn’t cut it!) and he has found his forever home here. I will do everything I can to make sure that he has the best possible life–full of love!”
WOA transfers nearly one dog per day to the Mainland. But at any given time, there are more than 50 dogs listed for adoption on the Maui Humane Society website.
During my shelter visits, I met a wide variety of dogs–Greyhounds, Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Beagles, German Shorthaired Pointers, terriers and Australian Shepherds. The Humane Society encourages animal lovers to consider a rescue dog when adding a pet to their family. For more information about pet adoptions and the programs offered by MHS visit Mauihumanesociety.org, call 808-877-3680 or visit the shelter at 1350 Mehameha Loop in Pu‘unene.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo of Trey and his new Mainland owner courtesy Maui Humane Society