OVC Shelter Medicine Resident Gets Hands-on Experience in Lahaina, Hawaii

February 02, 2024

This past August, a devastating wildfire destroyed the town of Lahaina, on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. The disaster took more than 100 lives and displaced more than 8,000 residents from their homes. The devastation has also impacted local pets and wild animals including hundreds of outdoor cats who survived the fire.

This past summer, Dr. Wesley Cheung, a Shelter Medicine Resident with the Ontario Veterinary College’s Community Healthcare Partnership Program (CHPP), travelled to Lahaina, Hawaii to join a team of experts find unique solutions to sheltering outdoor cats while respecting their unique welfare needs.

Housing for displaced animals is often a large gap in emergency planning, with limited spaces available in local humane societies. Many cats, particularly those in Lahaina, have lived their entire lives outdoors and can’t be humanely housed in pop-up crates or traditional shelter enclosures. Many of these cats are also not used to close human contact and cannot be adopted into a traditional family home. With the burn zone still unstable and dangerous for humans and animals, a temporary solution was needed to keep the feral cats safe while meeting their needs to be outdoors.

The Maui Humane Society (MHS) has taken in around 200 domestic cats, putting their own facilities at maximum capacity. Additional solutions were needed to house and find outcomes for both the cats that were already in MHS’ care and the remaining cats in the burn zone. A system was also needed for owners to reclaim their lost pets. MHS started working with Denae Wagner and Kate Hurley from the UC Davis’ shelter medicine team on plans to temporarily house the cats affected by the fire, create a system for owners to reclaim their pets and develop the best shelter system for them while increasing the number of cats housed from the burn zone. 

The world of shelter medicine is small but mighty and word reached Dr. Emilia Gordon, an alum of UC Davis and an advisor in shelter medicine for Wesley at OVC. Cheung was asked if he’d like to join the team of experts in Hawaii to lend a hand.

Many hands make light work

“When we arrived in Lahaina, we met with a few affected parties including MHS shelter management and staff and volunteers from Neighbourhood Cats and FieldHaven Feline Centre staff,” explains Cheung. “Together, we surveyed the burn zone, visited the hardware stores to see what materials were still available on the island, and started construction of emergency housing units.” 

Many of the cats had been living under unsafe conditions within the burn zone, which was surrounded by a temporary wall that restricted access in and out. Volunteer cat feeders were providing food for the cats that lived beyond the wall in the burn zone.

While outdoor-owned cats might be controversial in some locales, Cheung notes there’s a spectrum of what works for cats and imposing one view is detrimental.

“Cats, particularly in Maui, can live amazing lives outside, wandering the beaches and receiving occasional pets and food from tourists, especially if they have been neutered and vaccinated” he says. “It’s important to take into consideration the welfare of these outdoor cats, and not to impose our ideologies of a ‘perfect indoor home’ on them.”

One of the first barriers the team faced was to help owners, who were displaced themselves, in reuniting with their cats. The team recommended creating a central easily-accessible database with photos of the cats to help owners identify them.

Next, the team needed to understand the individual needs of the cats already in the shelter’s care to make a plan for temporary housing.

“The team developed a scoring system from one to five for the cats affected by the fire,” explains Cheung. “One for cats who are friendly and suitable for adoption into traditional indoor homes, all the way to five for cats that prefer to avoid human contact and can be placed in an outdoor-adapted pathway program.”

Outdoor-adapted pathway program

For the latter, the group worked together with shelter staff and volunteers for a few weeks to set up large temporary group outdoor enclosures made from chain-link fencing, chicken wire, and garden sheds. 

These outdoor enclosures provided these cats with adequate housing, while allowing them to wander freely in a safe space but it was only a temporary solution. 

“MHS is in discussions with a cat sanctuary on another island, which agreed to transport out friendly, adoptable cats to MHS in exchange for taking in and caring for outdoor-adapted cats from MHS.”

The remaining unclaimed cats would be adopted out to homes that could care for the cats outside on their property, while the shelter provides new owners with a prefabricated outdoor cat house, some food, and support for the first few weeks. After a few weeks, owners can allow cats to roam away from their property to resume their normal lives: Spending their days exploring the island and their nights back home with food and shelter. 

For Cheung, the role has been a real-time emergency opportunity to apply shelter medicine learning that can be used in other locations facing natural disasters, which are becoming all too common as climate change impacts weather.

“This has been one of the most incredible learning opportunities and impactful experiences of my life,” Cheung says. “A large part of my role with CHPP is learning about consulting, which includes looking at available resources, affected parties, and expectations, then mapping out a plan that works for everyone. This experience has taught me a lot about disaster response, while working alongside two of the most renowned shelter medicine veterinarians in the world.”

About the shelter medicine residency with CHPP

Dr. Wesley Cheung joined OVC as the first participant is the newly established residency program for shelter medicine created for the Community Healthcare Partnership Program (CHPP). The three-year residency works alongside Dr. Emilia Gordon and Dr. Alexandre Ellis, Canada’s two board-certified shelter medicine veterinarians to improve access to veterinary care for vulnerable animals and provide infectious disease management to shelters.


Additionally, CHPP provides veterinary care to people experiencing housing vulnerability and in Indigenous communities. Staff work with students spanning all four years of the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program to provide practical hands-on learning with exposure to a broad spectrum of people and animals needing care. 


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