Kathy Carroll still remembers the day in 2004 when a friend showed up on her doorstep in Lanai City, Hawaii, cuddling a “pathetic little kitten” that was malnourished and flea-bitten and had been hit by a car.
With no vet on the island, Carroll’s only option was to take Toulouse—as he was soon named—by ferry to Maui and, over the next two months, nurse him back to health, Carroll says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
These days Toulouse is “fat and happy,” but Carroll says it was his painful plight that focused her attention on the feral cats on the island—and became the “catalyst,” she says with a wink—for her Lanai Cat Sanctuary.
When she returned to Lanai after taking Toulouse to the vet, Carroll decided to make the thousands of stray cats that roamed the island — where the human population is an estimated 3,200 — her pet project.
She started a trap, neuter, return program where she and a small team of volunteers would safely gather the stray kittens and bring them to a nearby horse stable where she would bring over a vet team from Maui and have them fixed to prevent future breeding.
But in 2006, conservationists found an endangered group of Hawaiian Petrel birds on Lanai—which feral cats are known to prey on. Carroll convinced the nearby Four Seasons Resort to lend her one of their horse carrells and, with a small team of volunteers, she transferred 25 cats safely out of the bird nesting area.
“We pulled together a temporary shelter in a horse corral in two days with $200, and that was our first shelter,” the former nutritionist says. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, but my philosophy is when you see something like that, doing something is better than doing nothing, right?”
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Now, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary is located on 3.5 acres of open land and is home to 622 adoptable cats. Carroll says she modeled the property after the Lion Preserves in Africa so the stray cats are able to roam free within the sanctuary.
“We thought wait, okay, those are big lions, these are little lions,” says Carroll, 65.
The sanctuary has an “open door” policy, meaning that any cat found on the island will be taken in, given a name, a microchip, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered.
“When they come to us, a lot of them are really fragile, on death’s door,” says Executive Director Keoni Vaughn, 46. “In the wild, a feral cat will last 3-5 years without any human intervention. We are doubling and tripling their lives because they’re getting exceptional medical care and treatment.”
While there’s still no vet on the island of Lanai, Vaughn says they bring in two technicians and a vet twice a month to tend to the cats currently residing at the donation-based, cage-free sanctuary.
The park is run with the help of seven permanent staff members—and hosts an estimated 12,000 tourists each year, who come to play with the cats and give them treats.
“I call it the Purr Seasons, because they get more attention and veterinary care than most household cats,” says Vaughn.
The sanctuary also waives adoption fees for anyone who falls in love with a fur-baby, as long as they can pay for the sanctuary to transport them home, since most of the adoptive families live on the mainland. For families who can’t commit to adopting a cat, visitors have the option to sponsor a cat, where they’ll receive monthly photos and updates of their “Lanai Lion.”
For Carroll, who’s retired but still serves on the board, the sanctuary has become her own slice of paradise. “Lanai’s cats will always have a home here,” she says. “I could die tomorrow and feel like I did something to make the world just a little bit better.”
To read more about the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.