Shelter Spotlight - Hawaiian Humane Society
About the Hawaiian Humane Society
- Shelter Name: Hawaiian Humane Society
- Location: 2700 Waialae Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96826
- Established: 1883
- Size: 875 volunteers, 100+ staff members, and approximately 12,572 animals
- Mission Statement: The Hawaiian Humane Society is dedicated to promoting the human-animal bond and the humane treatment of all animals.
When most people think of Hawaiʻi, they imagine the perfect island getaway filled with rainbows, beaches, and breathtaking sunsets. However, for residents of this tropical paradise, a different word represents Hawaiʻi, and it's about as far away from “escape” as you can get.
“Kuleana” is a uniquely Hawaiian principle. Loosely translated, it means “responsibility.” Yet, according to Natalie Spencer, director of operations of the Hawaiian Humane Society, it encompasses more.
“The word ‘kuleana’ refers to a reciprocal relationship between the person who is responsible and the thing they are responsible for,” Spencer says. For the Hawaiian Humane Society, it’s more than providing support and services to Oʻahu's 1 million plus residents. It means ensuring the work benefits everyone involved — animals, owners, and volunteers, alike.
People for animals from the very start
The Hawaiian Humane logo bears the slogan, “People for animals. Animals for people.” Spencer says these words honor both the spirit of kuleana and the origins of the animal welfare organization, itself.
In the late 1800s, in many parts of the world, the humane treatment of animals was often not a priority. However, in 1883, 350 concerned Oʻahu residents joined together to advocate for working and companion animals’ welfare. Among the group was King Kalākaua, the last king of Hawaiʻi, who helped to found the Hawaiian Humane Society.
“The Hawaiian Humane Society is one of the nation’s oldest humane societies and the only one to have royalty as a founding member,” late president and CEO Pamela Burns wrote in a newsletter published by the organization. The king granted the early advocates permission to operate out of a residence on the grounds of ʻIolani Palace. Hawaiian Humane remained there until 1942 when the headquarters moved to the current campus in Mōʻiliʻili, a neighborhood in urban Honolulu.
In 1897, the Hawaiian Humane Society made headlines for yet another first when 26-year-old Honolulu heiress and socialite Helen Kinau Wilder was deputized as the first female humane officer of the organization. This was no honorary title. It came with a badge and the power to enforce laws against animal cruelty.
In the early days of Hawaiian Humane, most animal welfare efforts were focused on working animals rather than pets. But as the organization grew, its focus broadened to include education and enforcement. The officers raised public awareness about the proper care, feeding, and humane treatment of all animals, working and companion — a history that speaks volumes about how the people of Hawaiʻi value animals, both then and today.
Concern for animals starts early
According to Spencer, this shared history has shaped how their community views animals and values animal welfare.
“My story is probably similar to many,” Spencer says. “As a child, my family helped foster a deep empathy and love for animals. We often visited Hawaiian Humane, walking the same campus and grounds where I work today.”
“We would visit with the animals, and I would sometimes cry because I could not take any home after our visits,” Spencer recalls.
In 2009, that changed when Spencer, as an adult, adopted her first dog, Daisy, from Hawaiian Humane. “Adopting her was the impetus for exploring the industry more seriously as a career path,” Spencer says.
That exploration led Spencer to a lifetime vocation. “I was hired by Hawaiian Humane in 2011, and this is where my love for the work expanded even further,” she says.
Between 2011 and 2014, Spencer led various areas of the organization, including volunteer services, advocacy, community outreach, and foster care. “I was able to experience, firsthand, what mission-driven work feels like and see the impact we can make by being a community partner,” says Spencer.
She recently rejoined the organization as director of human resources in 2019, then stepped into the director of operations role in 2021.
Success comes from teamwork
Spending time in various roles and departments within Hawaiian Humane has helped Spencer appreciate one of the organization’s greatest strengths: “The team is the heartbeat of the organization,” she says. “That’s most evident when I see the day-to-day victories, when we experience how our work impacts the people we serve, both internally and externally.”
One unforgettable example Spencer cited was a backyard breeding rescue operation Hawaiian Humane Society led in 2011. According to Spencer, “It was the largest rescue the organization had ever conducted at the time. The community stepped up, and it was all hands on deck for every team member, volunteer, and supporter.”
The dedicated and passionate team at Hawaiian Humane helped provide ongoing care to more than 200 unsterilized dogs for more than a year while a court heard the case against the breeders.
“The day we finally gained ownership of all the dogs, including the litters that had been born during the lengthy trial, we cried, we laughed, we rejoiced in being able to get justice for these animals,” Spencer recalls. “But most of all, we were so happy we could finally, officially give them the lives they deserved in homes throughout the community.”
Socially Conscious Sheltering
Given Hawaiʻi’s enduring commitment to animal welfare, it’s no surprise that the principles of Socially Conscious Sheltering guide the Hawaiian Humane Society. This concept supports the best outcomes for the animals and people they serve.
“These principles not only inform the way we care for the animals we shelter but — equally important — they also inform how we work with our community,” says Spencer. “That means always leading with integrity and transparency.”
“We work closely with neighboring islands’ humane societies and partner organizations on Oʻahu to share knowledge and resources because we face many of the same issues,” she says. “We are committed to being curious and innovative as a team to ensure the best outcomes for animals.”
The Hawaiian Humane Society offers many services and programs to Oʻahu residents, including pet adoptions, lost and found pet services, animal surrender, spay and neuter services for owned pets and Free-Roaming cats, humane investigations, pet food bank, youth and community education programs, and end-of-life services (humane euthanasia and cremation).
The organization’s Pet Kōkua outreach and education program focuses specifically on measures designed to keep pets and their people together, such as providing aid for families in need that can help improve their animals’ quality of life. A foster care program provides temporary, safe housing for pets in need if a family is in crisis.
“Some of the most vital services and programs we offer are those that tackle the issue of pet overpopulation. That effort enables us to multiply our mission outside of our shelter doors so that — ideally — we can prevent animals from needing us to begin with,” Spencer says.
“Our public, low-cost, or free spay and neuter services prevent unwanted litters, with a special emphasis on the sterilization of Free-Roaming cats. Our foster care program provides hundreds of caring homes for medically vulnerable animals. And our transfer program enables us to partner with other rescue organizations in the shared goal of saving more lives.”
Looking toward the future
The Hawaiian Humane Society struggles with many of the same issues facing shelter organizations throughout the nation, such as reducing pet overpopulation and coping with the unique challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since Hawaiʻi’s economy is highly dependent on tourism, the landscape has been challenging.
“Continuing to grow and fundraise in an economy that is still recovering from the lack of tourism and job creation over the past two years could have a decades-long impact on our organization,” says Spencer. “We may not even be entirely aware of the full impact yet. This pandemic has greatly changed our community. And, in turn, we have seen animals affected when families lose housing and financial stability in an environment that is already difficult to thrive in.”
Despite these challenges, the team at Hawaiian Humane will soon be able to provide even more support to the West Oʻahu community at a second site, which is slated to open in early 2023.
That progress is primarily thanks to the commitment and support of the community, says Spencer. “Oʻahu is known as the gathering place,” she says. “This is truly how I view our organization as well. The people who support our mission, and who care as deeply for animals as we do, congregate here with us. Thankfully, this is as true now as it was 140 years ago when our organization was founded.”