It is midway through a volunteer training session Saturday morning at the Kauai Humane Society, and Penny Cistaro asks if there are any questions.
For the past 10 minutes, the subject has been euthanasia.
“That is a very sensitive subject to people,” says Cistaro, KHS executive director.
It is not a subject Cistaro and her staff avoid. It’s a fact of life at KHS. Putting down cats and dogs is, unfortunately, part of the process at Kauai’s only shelter. It takes a toll on volunteers, who might walk a dog one week and return to find it gone the next. It’s tough on staff who care for them.
In fiscal year 2014, the shelter euthanized 588 dogs and 2,011 cats, a total of 2,599, but a decrease of 7 percent from FY 2013. Roughly 50 percent of the animals that end up at KHS are put down.
An animal’s age, physical condition, temperament, adoptability and kennel space are factors in the final decision of its fate.
Some would prefer KHS to be a no-kill shelter, like some on the Mainland. But that wouldn’t work here, Cistaro said. KHS is the only choice here, the only place where stray and abandoned and unwanted dogs and cats wind up.
In FY 2014, it took in 2,301 cats and 1,322 dogs. Monday, it had about 250 pets, with some kennels containing more than one animal. While KHS tries, it can’t find homes for them all.
“That’s hard for people to accept,” she said.
On the Mainland, if a shelter is full, there are more shelters, animal agencies and rescue groups not far away. On Kauai, “We’re it. So we do have to make euthanasia decisions,” Cistaro said. “It’s hard, and that’s what sucks.”
Much of Cistaro’s first year as executive director of KHS was spent figuring things out — studying, analyzing the budget and determining what worked and what didn’t. The end goal is to keep pets in homes and to find homes for those that need one.
The number of pets being surrendered has been declining. Euthanasias are declining. A field trip program is proving popular and effective. A transfer program that sends dogs to the Mainland, where they have a better chance of being adopted, continues to work.
“This community, as a whole, really supports the humane society and its mission,” Cistaro said during an interview with The Garden Island. “There is more public awareness of who we are and what we’re doing from the community.”
Cistaro’s two-year anniversary with KHS is coming up at the end of March. She oversees a $2.4 million budget, a staff of about 35 and about 375 volunteers who provide nearly 7,500 hours of service.
Thirty percent of the funding for KHS comes from the county. The rest is raised through grants, donations and fundraisers. An important annual fundraiser, the “Paws for Celebration,” is set for May 16 at the Kauai Sheraton Resort. Last year’s was a huge success, netting $86,000.
“I was very proud of that fundraiser last year and I think this year we’ll do the same,” Cistaro said.
Several programs are making a big difference in placing pets in homes.
In the last year and a half, the field trip program, in which visitors and locals take dogs out for a day, has resulted in 150 adoptions.
The transfer program, in which residents and visitors agree to chaperone a pet to the Mainland by signing for it at the airport as their checked luggage, sent 221 dogs in FY 2014 to shelters in Seattle, Oakland, Portland and now, San Diego.
While Airedales, hounds and whippets are common on Kauai, “you take that dog to the West Coast, their great size, great temperament, and they’re unusual looking,” Cistaro said. “They’re unique to the West Coast. They usually go within the first week they’re at the shelter, even though they sat at ours for weeks or months.”
Other programs have worked well, too. In fiscal year 2014, nearly 3,000 dogs and cats were spayed or neutered. The behavioral help line is receiving more calls since coming online last year. A new dog training program is under way. Dogs are being brought into nursing homes to provide companionship for residents. KHS is working on creating a list of rental properties that allow pets.
A key figure from July to December was the declining number of intakes. The number of dogs surrendered by owners totaled 224, down 36 percent from 349 the previous six months. Stray dogs from July to December that ended up at KHS totaled 618, down 15 percent from 725.
Cistaro attributes that to residents taking steps to identify their pets through licensing and microchips.
Adoptions from July to December totaled 240 dogs (down 13 percent) and 178 cats (down 9 percent). Pets returned to owner totaled 195 dogs (down 39 percent) and 61 cats (down 15 percent). Cistaro credits both declines to fewer animals being taken in at the shelter, which is a good thing.
“We are able to provide affordable resources for people,” Cistaro said. “The focus is on keeping animals in the home.”
Margaret McGint and her husband have provided a foster home to more than 100 kittens over the past 13 years. She has produced two picture books of all the cats she has housed until permanent homes could be found.
She has come to love the animals and it’s hard to let them go.
“I’m convinced every one is going to a great home,” she said Saturday.
Julie Werner, volunteer coordinator, said the Gomez Galley Pet Food Bank, named after her cat, has provided more than four tons of food for nearly 400 pets. It has distribution points in Kapaa and Hanalei and is looking for one in Kilauea.
Through the program, 230 families have kept their pets fed.
“It helps them make it through to the next paycheck,” Werner said.
Jonathan Fisher, manager of community services, said part of their efforts are encouraging compassion.
“We are looking at different ways to help and serve the community,” he said.
Cistaro said volunteers, who handle a multitude of tasks, are key to their success.
“I am humbled by the volunteers and what they can do for the organization,” she said.
The limited resources for animals on the island is a challenge.
“We are the only game in town,” she said. “That makes it very difficult. The people who want us to be a no-kill don’t understand the animals have nowhere else to go. And we don’t have the resources (to care for all of them).”
Animals stay in the adoption kennels as long as they’re happy, healthy and well-adjusted, she said, but kennel life is stressful.
“That’s why we’re constantly trying to help people keep the animals in a home,” she said.
This will be Cistaro’s 40th year working with animal shelters. After nearly two years leading KHS, she believes they are making progress. They are saving more lives.
Cistaro said the community is “incredibly receptive. Here, people respond when we ask for help. The community is very gracious, very helpful, very supportive.”
Cistaro said she and her staff will continue “to move forward and affect social change for animals.”
“This is my life’s work. This is my passion,” she said. “This is who I am and what I do.”
Making decisions with other staff on which animals to euthanize, she said, is the worst part of her job.
For example, KHS may have five dogs — one sick, one old, one untrained, and two well-adjusted, healthy dogs — but only room for one, maybe two if they are doubled up in a kennel. And more stray dogs will arrive in a usual week. And more the week after that.
“What do you do?” she said. “What do you do?”