by Maria Jose, DVM
I am a Big Island veterinarian who took part in the Maui animal rescue. Although I was not there on a daily basis, I feel that I witnessed enough to make a viable assessment of the situation there.
As a part of the rescue effort, I had the opportunity to perform a ground search of the Leialaii Hawaiian Homeland subdivision as well as burn zones along Ainakea Road on August 12 and 13, 2023.
Our mission at that time was the identification and recovery of deceased animals, as well as to search for any injured and alive animals.
Deceased animals were identified as best as possible via microchip, physical description and location found, and then removed.
First allowed in, then denied access
The live animals that we recovered those days for the most part had non-life-threatening burns and were transferred to the Maui Humane Society for care.
Unfortunately on both days, although we were initially authorized access to burn zone areas to rescue animals, we were ultimately denied access to burn zones as the day went on – making our search and rescue efforts both confusing and inefficient.
On August 17, I returned to Maui to find that our access was even further restricted. Our animal rescue personnel and the Maui Humane Society seemed extremely apprehensive about making any waves with the Maui Police Department and Federal Emergency Management Administration regarding the issue for fear of losing further access to the sites.
I was sent to the Lahaina Gateway Mall to perform the service of mostly examining non-injured pets belonging to community members and to be on standby for any burn victims in need of immediate care. Several burned animals came in that morning whom I triaged and then transferred to the Maui Humane Society.
Animals in deteriorating condition
Although I am limited to just what I observed at Gateway that day, it appeared to me that these animals were in much worse condition than the animals that I had seen just a few days prior.
The animals coming in were in critical condition, not because of their original injuries and burns, but rather due to dehydation and the length of time they had been left in the burn zones.
In other words, animals who could have been saved no longer could be.
In addition to my rescue experience in the burn zones, I also had the opportunity to speak with many residents who had lost their homes and animals in the fire.
Their message was consistently the same. Although they were absolutely devastated by the loss of their homes, the anxiety and distress associated with their missing animals was all that they could think of. Everyone I spoke to had been denied access to not only their home, but also their entire street. One woman I met had lost her home and 13 indoor cats – two of whom had been sighted alive after the fire.
When she was denied access to look for her cats, her neighbor (whose home was undamaged) allowed her to hide from the authorities in her garage so that she could stay and call for her cats. She was just one of many desperate to find her animals whom I spoke with while there.
Survivors pushed aside to follow poorly understood protocols
I understand that this is a complex situation with no perfect answers. However, the path that has been taken thus far has pushed the survivors of this catastrophe aside in the effort to follow protocols that are not even understood by those agencies enforcing them.
I feel that we have already missed the golden window of opportunity to save most of the critically injured animals. And now we are standing by as the initially non-critical casualties also succumb to the elements or escape to remote areas, where they will ultimately be lost forever.
I believe the following should be taken into consideration:
1) Allow owners of sighted surviving pets some limited and supervised access to their home sites to call for and assist (from a safe distance) in the recovery of their pets. The reason I recommend that owners be involved is for two reasons:
a) The best chance at recovery is if the owner is present and the animal can hear his or her voice.
b) This will allow owner sa chance to feel that they were at least given an opportunity to save their pets.
2) I do NOT believe that the burn areas that I visited are too dangerous for able bodied residents to access as long as they have proper clothing, respirators and footwear. Most streets were clear of large debris with the exception of vehicles and downed or dead power poles and lines.
If owners were allowed to call for their pets from the street or sidewalk fronting their property, or their driveway, I do not believe that they will be in a dangerous situation.
“We have already missed too many opportunities to rescue & recover live animals”
3) I do not believe that we will be inflicting any more emotional damage to the homeowners by allowing them to view their lost homes. Most of the owners that I spoke to had already either seen their homes immediately after the fire or were given eyewitness descriptions of their properties by neighbors. I believe that that by not allowing them to see the site and partake in an attempt to locate their pets we are creating even more mental trauma for these people.
4) We have already missed too many opportunities to rescue and recover live animals because of the desire to locate the deceased humans. Seeing that the human recovery will be a painstakingly slow process, we cannot search only areas deemed clear by FEMA. This will take too long and will all but eliminate any possibility of live animal recovery. We need immediate access to all residential areas that can accommodate supervised pet rescue.
“Trust in the people of Lahaina”
I understand that this will be asking for government agencies there to bend and adapt to this particular situation. However, this is a situation that none of us (including those agencies) has ever had to face before.
At the end of the day we MUST chose to place trust in the people of Lahaina and the dedicated rescue animal rescue teams that they will do the right thing when being allowed to access these areas.
These people and their animals have already endured unbelievable suffering. We need to help them now because our inaction will only add the their loss.
Maria Jose, DVM, was born and raised on the Big Island. She graduated from St. Joseph School, attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo, then graduated from Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Maria spends her free time with her son, Ka’io and partner, Johnny. She has a passion for simple living, promoting a vegan lifestyle and preserving our environment. Maria shares her home with rescue dogs Henny Penny and Aunty, kitties Xena and Princess Lili, and many guppies.