LIHUE — When Betty Unanian and her husband Ed arrived on Kauai 30 years ago, they had plans to walk on the beach, swim, picnic and garden.
But those plans changed. Not entirely by choice.
“We didn’t do any of that,” she said.
Instead, Betty got an idea of what island life was going to be like when they took a stroll within a week of settling into their Haena home and found an adult female dog with several puppies.
“She was under a bush and she was scared,” Betty recalled. “She saw us coming and she was shaking. We got her so she accepted us and we took care of her.”
They found homes for the pups, too. That, it turns out, was the start of Betty’s life of caring for the island’s homeless dogs and cats.
It wasn’t long before they found a cat and wanted to have it fixed.
“We had heard the Kauai Humane Society might help us, but it was clear in Hanapepe, and we’re clear out in Haena,” she said.
Eventually, Betty made it to KHS, came to know more about it, believed in it, and joined it.
She’s been a volunteer with the organization for three decades and has been a board member for nearly as long.
She laughed as she recounted how she came to be on the board. There wasn’t much of a process for it back then, and Betty was having dinner at Coco Palms with some KHS members and one said, “I want to nominate Betty to be on the board. She likes animals.”
Betty was close to stunned.
“Hardly anybody in there knew me,” she said.
But they clearly liked her. She was quickly voted to the board and has been on it since.
The 90-year-old chuckles at how easy it was, and how things have changed.
“Now, we have a whole process you have to go through, and we’re very careful,” she said.
But some things remain the same: Her love of animals, big and small, and her enjoyment in working with KHS board members.
“They’re like family to me,” she said. “They’re lively, they’re fun, they’re committed to animals, they work hard.”
That commitment will be on display tonight at the Paws for Celebration at the Kauai Marriott Resort & Beach Club.
During the gala, Unanian will be given the Humane-Atarian Award.
“Raise a glass with us and honor her exemplary volunteer contributions that have helped so many island animals,” a KHS fundraiser flier said.
Betty isn’t really wild about this and isn’t looking forward to being called to the stage to accept her award before hundreds of people. She’s not looking for attention and really wasn’t anxious to be interviewed by TGI, either. But, for the pets at KHS, she relented.
“I haven’t done any more than the rest of them,” she said.
When asked why she has volunteered with KHS since 1987, Betty doesn’t hesitate. The answer is obvious.
“Because I’m pro-animal,” she said.
Growing up in California, Unanian always had a dog or a cat. She displays some pictures from her youth. In one, she cradles a cat. In another, a white cat rests in her lap while a white and tan dog sits at her feet.
In another picture, when she is a bit older, a fluffy white dog sleeps under her legs. Flash forward a few more years to another picture and she is hugging a large cat.
She loves giving homes to, and finding homes for, stray animals. Sadly, her two cats, ages 23 and 16, and a dog, 11, all recently passed away.
“I’ll be getting another one one of these days,” she said.
Betty drove from that same Haena home she and Ed bought 30 years ago to KHS Wednesday to review the sterilization clinic going on, and was delighted by what she saw. She loved the focus on pets. She likes the enthusiasm and caring atmosphere, the clear, bright environment.
She speaks of dropping in unannounced and finding volunteers comforting a cat, a dog, or both.
“If I was asked to run the place, I couldn’t think of a way to improve it,” she said.
Being on the board 27 years, she said, has given her insight into the pros and cons of different directors, different board members. She believes there has been a steady progression of improvements that has led to where things are today.
Euthanizations are down, the financial picture is better, the staff is happy and the community’s support has grown, particularly since the arrival of director Scott Pisani earlier this year.
“There were a lot of setbacks, of course,” she said, referring to “a lot of brouhaha” at KHS a few years ago.
But you learn, you grow and you move on, she said. And they did.
“I’d say we’ve recovered from that,” she said.
At 90, she’s still sharp. Still drives. Still does most of the housework. Still gardens. Still seems to have the energy of those half her age. Only recently did she hire someone to mow her lawn.
“That’s the first time I’ve paid anybody to do house or yard work,” she said proudly.
Where does this fountain of youth come from?
Well, could be that she’s a vegan. Could be her positive outlook on life. Could be her generous disposition.
No matter, she’s not taking much credit for it.
“I guess, good genes,” she said, smiling.