Emma: Aloha Dr. Katie! Thank you for taking the time away from your world to talk with me about your incredible story to save lives. When did you graduate from vet school and what was your first job?
Dr. Katie: I graduated in 2010 and my first job was at Dakin Humane Society in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was their Adoption Center Veterinarian and did not perform many spay/neuter surgeries at that time because we also had a very efficient spay/neuter clinic at Dakin. I also did relief work with the local municipal shelter and volunteered with a local cat rescue. Dakin went through a major restructuring in 2016, and I found myself doing more spay/neuter surgeries for the Adoption Center’s animals. In 2017, I finished my Master’s Degree in Public Health, my final project for which I surveyed local cat trappers about zoonotic disease exposure and their thoughts about alternative sterilization methods to traditional spay/neuter for community cats. During this project, I became very interested in toxoplasmosis and the situation on Hawai’i regarding free-roaming cats and the conservation of native wildlife. My undergraduate degree is in Wildlife Biology and Ecology, and through vet school, I focused on wildlife and aquatic animal medicine, so I have a lot of interest in both marine mammals and cats specifically. Toxoplasmosis, unfortunately, is one of the reasons why these two species are such a point of contention within the community.
Emma: What made you decide to make the move all the way from Mass to Kaua’i?
Dr. Katie: My family and I were considering a move that would allow us to live in a more sustainable way by growing more of our own food. This was at the same time I was finishing up my Master’s and reading a lot about Hawai’i. Kaua’i was on our shortlist of possible places, so we started looking into the different NGOs who were working in Hawai’i and found Animal Balance. A few short months later I was on my first campaign with AB - a MASH in September of 2017 in the parking lot of the Kaua’i Humane Society. Before we even embarked on the trip for that campaign, we decided to put our house in Massachusetts up for sale and let the universe guide us. During that first campaign, I saw a need for a HVHQSN to help manage the free-roaming cat population, and a position was potentially becoming available for exactly that. It felt like a calling for sure. We sold the house as soon as we returned from campaign, packed up our belongings, pets, and children, and made the move to Kaua’i. However, as we were moving, the person in charge of putting together the position for me resigned, and the position I was anticipating was no longer going to happen. I realized that this would all have to be accomplished differently. Alas, the Spay Pod was born!
Emma: You are incredible, your whole family is! When we talked about setting up the Spay Pod, did you know what that would involve?
Dr. Katie: I had no idea. One thing I was not anticipating was having to start from scratch to implement this program. It seemed to take forever, but looking back, I think the fact that it was up and running in one year is actually pretty good! We started pretty slowly, mostly just serving the local TNR groups. For additional clients, we were relying on the community acceptance, which happened slowly until the word got out. Local people who supported us spread the word throughout their circles. Word of mouth and just the Pod being visible as a new addition to the island got the word around fairly quickly. It is super important to note that the nature of the Spay Pod relies very heavily on volunteers to run it on a surgery day, so we are totally reliant on the community in so many ways.
Emma: Did the community accept you; how did that happen? Dr. Katie: At the start, we spayed and neutered the cats that were trapped by the local TNR group, Kaua’i Community Cat Project, and other local NGOs and rescues; then as word got out via their networks, we started helping anyone with a cat. I think everyone realized that we were here to help, not judge, and to manage what was already happening. We built up trust and offered help whatever the situation was; one pet cat or going out and trapping 25 cats on someone’s land. We do it all. Having an outsider on one’s property is an important show of trust and I recognize that. We are lucky to have built the network that we have in such a short time.
Emma: Do you have any advice for those who are setting up spay/neuter clinics?
Dr. Katie: Yes, there is no ‘one size fits all’, so keep an open mind. Recognizing that the way you may be accustomed to doing things as ‘the best way’ may not be that way in all situations. Try to approach situations by remembering that we all have different experiences and each has something important to contribute. We couldn’t do what we do without the support of the community, so we always try to be respectful and present in the community, as well. Give back whenever and wherever you can.
Emma: Can you tell us about the Spay Pod?
Dr. Katie: Of course! It is a half shipping container that has been outfitted as a semi-permanent spay/neuter clinic serving all cats on Kaua’i. When you live on an island, you have to work with what you have, plus we had a very limited budget. The Pod can be moved, but not easily. Even though this is a small island, some people will not travel to the Pod, so it is important that it can be moved if needed to target a specific community. Being more mobile would definitely help us to be able to serve more animals. We are so grateful that our compassionate and dedicated volunteers make the journey (sometimes hours long due to traffic!) to the Spay Pod from all sides of the island.
Emma: In what other ways has the community helped you?
Dr. Katie: There are so many ways the community helps us! The first site for the Pod was a church grounds in Kapa’a, where we have held AB MASH clinics before (and since). Our time there was limited, however. A client had mentioned to a local farm manager that we needed to move the Pod to a new location. The manager is a former conservation biologist and had a unique perspective on the free-roaming cat situation on Kaua’i. He was supportive of our work and generously let us occupy a space at the farm.
Emma: Can you give 3 points of advice to anyone who wants to set up a “Spay Pod” - type clinic?
Dr. Katie: Yes, 1) It is important that you be driven by the cause. You have to really love what you’re working to do because it is a lot of work. You need to recognize that. 2) There is so much that comes along with running this type of clinic, that even as the vet, spay/neuter is just a small fraction of the work that’s actually being done. 3) Be open to learning new things, try new things, especially in a totally different culture and environment. You have no precedent for what you are about to embark on and every day will present a new and unique challenge.
Emma: has the Spay Pod been adopted by the community of Kaua’i now?
Dr. Katie: Yes. With the Spay Pod, I think the community now feels like they can finally do something about the issue - they have a solution other than killing the cats. The only other choice with free-roaming cats here who are not particularly friendly, is to take them to Kaua’i Humane Society where they will euthanize them for a $90 fee. People are bringing us their neighborhood cats, and instead of euthanizing them, some are keeping them as working cats on their land.
Emma: As a result, do you think there has been social change since the Spay Pod started?
Dr. Katie: Because the policy changed at KHS, many people do not want to pay the $90 euthanasia fee, and so are either not doing anything about the cats, or are bringing them to the Spay Pod to be sterilized. The Spay Pod has performed over 2,000 surgeries in a year and 4 months operating just one day per week, so, yes, change is happening for sure.
Emma: Amazing, 2000 surgeries! Wow, you and your Pod team are incredible. Katie, it was your dream to move to Kaua’i, has it panned out for you as you’d hoped?
Dr. Katie: Apart from having to start from scratch, or maybe even because of this, it has turned out better than expected 😊 I was ready for this kind of change and lifestyle. Because I do have a background in aquatic animals, I have also been fortunate enough to work with endangered Hawaiian monk seals as well - which has put me in an interesting position to advocate for both of these animals. These two groups often times have very polarized perspectives. By being in this position, I can support TNR efforts to reduce the cat population and also care for monk seals, one of the leading killers of which is toxoplasmosis. It is my hope that TNR will prove to be one of the options for coexistence. I am hopeful that social change will happen. I’m also hopeful that I will be able to help both the marine mammal groups and feral cat groups see eye-to-eye, as there are often misunderstandings on both sides of this very sensitive issue.
Emma: How has it been adjusting to island life for your family?
Dr. Katie: Well, instead of snow days we have flood days, and the kids and dogs are constantly covered in red dirt now. We really couldn’t be happier!
Emma: LOL! Do you have any future plans?
Dr. Katie: Yes, my partner and I have developed an NGO called AnimalohA to expand spay/neuter services on-island to include dogs and provide low-cost wellness care to cats and dogs in the community. We also hope to advance conservation by promoting sustainable plant-based alternatives to animal use.
Emma: Congratulations! That is fantastic and I love the name. Do you have any last words to share with everyone?
Dr. Katie: Thank you! Yes, at the end of the day it is about community and respect, especially as an NGO. We have had a lot of help from lots of very caring individuals, and we are beyond grateful for this opportunity.