Threat of lawsuit appears to concern officials more than the plight of animals marooned by the firestorm, hundreds already rescued
LAHAINA, Maui, Hawaii––Eighteen days of animal rescuers battling bureaucracy to retrieve surviving animals from inside the Lahaina burn zone, leveled by wildfire on August 8, 2023, ended abruptly when Maui County announced that, “As of 3:30 pm on Saturday, August 26, 2023, Maui County officials have permitted the Maui Humane Society to access the Lahaina burn zone in a coordinated search and rescue effort to find lost animals.”
Surprisingly few rescue stories emerged during the next two days, however, partly because volunteers had already trapped or otherwise caught more than 200 animals, mostly cats, around the perimeters of the burn zone.
Many may have died
Other animals remaining within the burn zone may have mostly died during eighteen days without food, water, and treatment from injuries.
Still others, especially traumatized feral cats, may be taking longer than just two days to trap.
Elaborated the Maui Humane Society, after the Maui County announcement, “Animal Search And Rescue, Animal Incident Management, and a Greater Good Charities trapping team will join MHS humane enforcement officers who will be escorted into the impacted areas.
“Teams will focus on trapping animals who have been reported by the public and first responders immediately, focusing on remaining cat colonies and stray pets.”
“Drawing cats out of the zone”
Added Neighborhood Cats, whose national programs director, Bryan Kortis, is a Maui resident, “Over the past two weeks, feeding stations set up on the perimeter have been drawing cats out of the zone and allowed for trapping injured and lost animals.
“Inside the burn zone,” where the remains of 115 human victims have been recovered, “there is unimaginable destruction,” Neighborhood Cats continued. “One moment was the everyday scene of cars parked along the street; then moments later everything transformed into a tragic, ghostly landscape. It is shocking to see.
“After the burn zone has been cleared of animals, the next phase of the recovery will begin,” said Neighborhood Cats.
“Preparing large-scale, intensive spay/neuter project”
In particular, “Neighborhood Cats is preparing for a large-scale, intensive spay/neuter project for free-roaming cats in the many neighborhoods adjoining the burn zone,” the Neighborhood Cats statement continued.
“This will help prevent the re-introduction of cats into the disaster area, where the ground is toxic and there will be heavy construction for years to come. The trapping will also help with locating and reuniting lost pets who fled the fire.
“While we wait for the local spay/neuter clinic to re-open,” Neighborhood Cats said, “we are recruiting trappers, purchasing equipment, and staging supplies. At the same time, we are responding to more immediate requests for assistance, such as veterinary care, equipment to trap cats and kittens in need right now, transporting food, and whatever else we can do.”
Kitty Charm Farm to foster survivors
Offered Kitty Charm Farm founder Sarah Haynes, “A number of the community cats who are living in the toxic burn zone and are not safe there, will be fostered with us. Specifically, starting with those microchipped to Save Maui Cats,” headed by Lahaina resident Mike Willinski.
“Once they have had a lot of time to decompress, been assessed, and been advertised as found,” Haynes continued, “we will at some point be rehoming the ferals. We are hoping to find home owners who are willing to contain cats on their property for a month, and then let them loose.
“It is a requirement,” Haynes said, “that they are contained for a month, even if it’s just multiple cages zip-tied together under some sort of shelter. It is also a requirement that they are given daily food and water––for life. They will be fixed and microchipped,” if this has not already been done.
“Our goal,” Haynes added, “is to provide a safe haven for animals from the fire so they can cool off and we can truly assess whether or not these are ferals, or just super freaked out post-traumatic stress disorder kitties. Any cat we find will be submitted to the Maui Humane Society lost-and found for public viewing.”
Enter Adam Karp
The story behind the story of rescuers finally gaining access to the Lahaina burn zone appears to have begun with a posting to the Action for the Animals of Maui page on Facebook late on August 24, 2023 by Adam Karp, a senior animal rights attorney from Bellingham, Washington.
“Good evening everyone,” Karp began, introducing himself to Maui animal rescuers. “I am Hawaii-licensed, and practice on all islands, but live in Washington.”
Karp, who was already in Hawaii in connection with a different case, asked for five specific categories of information that he would need to file a federal lawsuit seeking to open rescuer access to the burn zone.
Mike Merrill of Florida Urgent Rescue in Jacksonville, 4,636 miles away, had already compiled almost everything Karp wanted and responded within minutes.
“Barred access by unknown entity”
Within 24 hours Karp was in communication with Hawaii attorney general Anne E. Lopez by both telephone and email.
“I have been contacted by numerous people, including a Lahaina-based animal rescue, and others who have confirmed that their animals are still alive inside the zone, but are being barred access at the direction of an unknown entity,” Karp told Lopez, “be it the Hawaii Department of Defense, the Hawaii Emergency Management Administration, Maui Emergency Management Administration, Federal Emergency Management Administration, mayor, police, or perhaps the governor.
“I understand completely the monumental logistical concerns in a state of emergency,” Karp said, “but disaster relief is not just for humans, or banyans,” in reference to arborists being allowed into the Lahaina burn zone a week earlier to try to save a banyan tree spreading over almost two acres.
The banyan tree was planted in central Lahaina on April 24, 1873, to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of first American Protestant mission to Hawaii.
“I am hoping to talk to you or a solicitor/assistant attorney general who is lead on this issue for a few reasons,” Karp explained.
Who to sue?
The first of those reasons was “To clear a line of communication and avoid misinformation while finding a nonlegal solution that will permit all to grasp a fuller understanding of the statutory grounds invoked to prohibit access vis-a-vis the constitutional rights of Lahainans to recover their ‘property,’ including likely support animals protected by federal law.”
The second reason, “Barring resolution,” was to “know who to notify should I file a federal action in Hawaii District Court seeking a temporary restraining order,” to be argued on the next business day.
That stick of legal dynamite seemed to loosen the log jam.
30 chickens & 30 pigs
The most remarkable animal rescues from Lahaina during the week before the Maui Humane Society was allowed access to the burn zone involved a family who evacuated 30 chickens with an assist from Maui Bird Rescue, and the evacuation of 30 pigs by the Maui Pig Sanctuary and Ziggy’s Refuge Farm Sanctuary.
“It is believed they survived by going into a pond and ducking into the water as flames passed over them,” the Maui Pig Sanctuary posted.
Then “They went without food for many days when the owners couldn’t get them or get in to feed them,” Maui Pig Sanctuary founder Jillian Vickers said.
Pigs don’t cause fires
Feral pigs have been erroneously blamed by some online commentators for helping to create the conditions that caused the Lahaina firestorm and other Maui fires, but far from contributing to the dry conditions that fueled the firestorm, pigs tend to conserve rainfall and turn dry land into swamps with their rooting, digging, and burrowing.
This is a big part of why feral pigs are fiercely hated by farmers in the Mississippi and Missouri river basins, prone to flooding.
There, farmers have labored for 150 years to dry out lowlands sufficiently to till, while feral pigs tend to undo their efforts.
Along the way, pigs create habitat for many other species, including some burrowing birds native to Hawaii.
Meanwhile, it is also a misrepresentation to lump the feral pigs of Hawaii into the same category as species who only first arrived with European settlement.
Polynesian voyagers had already introduced pigs to practically every inhabited Pacific island long before any Europeans arrived, and over the thousand to 2,000 years that pigs occupied island habitat, they became quite well integrated into local wildlife ecologies.
Finally, if any introduced animal could be said to have overrun Maui, that would be the Axis deer, a browsing species; and it is no accident that a massive purge of Axis deer preceded the deadly Lahaina firestorm by just a few years.
The deer, as they do everywhere, had helped to keep down the highly flammable understory that ignited from power lines downed by high winds, and fueled the firestorm as it rushed toward Lahaina.
Hawaii had no major browsing species before the deer were introduced, which was good for understory-nesting birds in wetter times, but bad for fire prevention in the present era, dryer than Hawaii had ever before experienced within recorded history.