Want to Save a Shelter Pet but Can’t Adopt? Just Take a Hawaiian Vacation

  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

It was February, and I was driving down a cliff-hugging, winding highway on the Big Island of Hawaii, behind the wheel of a rented SUV carrying my cargo—three dog crates nested inside each other, cushioned with towels and crate pads to keep from banging around—en route to meet a stranger on the side of the road.

The crates were on the final leg of a journey that started in Eastern Washington state and would end, at least temporarily, in Kona, where I was on vacation with my husband and our friends. My roadside rendezvous was with Ann Goody, Curator of Kona’s Three Ring Ranch Exotic Animal Sanctuary, a facility that, under her direction, manages a program called Paws Across Water Hawaii that helps relieve crowded island shelters of pets that stand better chances of being adopted on the U.S. mainland.

The program, like similar efforts such as Wings of Aloha and Wings of Rescue, helps escort deserving pets who would likely be euthanized to the U.S. mainland for better prospects of adoption at a partnering shelter. Goody’s program is unique in that anyone can help by volunteering to become an “Animal Flying Companion”—tourists or residents traveling from Hawaii with a destination on the west coast, willing to attach a pet to their flight reservation and, upon arrival at the airport, facilitate a handoff to a waiting shelter representative.

Goody was waiting at the appointed locale matching the description I was given—a short, slight, spritely woman, long white hair, white electric SUV. I was about to learn why she was so motivated to help these pets.

Trouble in Paradise

Considering Hawaii’s usually-blissful climate, it may sound surprising to hear that things can be pretty grim for homeless pets in the island state. But according to a recent report, the euthanasia rate on the Big Island alone is 16%—a “sadly pretty high” number said Goody, whose day job, in addition to running an exotic animal sanctuary, is a behaviorist for Hawaii Animal Control.

“Hawaii has one of the highest [euthanasia rates] in the country, but it is misleading since we are on islands with fewer people and more animals,” she explained.

Pet overpopulation, abandonment, and strays are a big problem in Hawaii, for lots of reasons—people relocating off-island who can’t or don’t want to bring their pets, limited resources to spay and neuter, pets who become lost during volcanic eruptions, difficulty trapping abandoned animals in rural areas, and of course, space: beautiful as it is, there’s only so much of it in Hawaii.

Bills in the state legislature have been introduced to address these problems, but most of the laws currently on the books address only the most basic of animal welfare issues—cruelty being the main area of focus. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Hawaii is worse than the national average, ranking #29 out of 50 states with effective animal protection laws.

The Incredible Journey

Not only is there clear and demonstrated need for Goody to help the pets she calls her “Aloha Dogs,” the fact that she is even around to do it is nothing short of a miracle.

Goody had a lifelong dream to work with animals, but was working as an R.N. and finishing her Ph.D in hospital administration. She met her future husband, Norm, and the couple held a wedding.

“So we got married, and we had a wedding reception party, and in the morning I was struck in the face by lightning,” she explains in a video (below) produced about her remarkable story.

Goody obviously survived, but not without profound impacts to her health and well being. The strike “turned my uterus into jello,” there were “multiple surgical procedures to put me back together,” and eventually, as she relays in the video, “I didn’t really want to be here anymore.”

In the morning I was struck in the face by lightning.

Norm, desperate to help, asked what he could do. Intending to say, “let’s go to Paris,” the word that came out, as a result of the expressive aphasia that had temporarily re-wired her ability to speak, was “zebra.”

When Norm eventually produced a real zebra, Goody’s advocacy for animals was ignited. The sanctuary was founded in 1998.

Small, medium, and large crates in various states of assembly, ready to be nestled together for transport to Hawaii.

Fighting for a Better Life For Pets

Back to those crates.

I had emailed Goody a few weeks before our trip inquiring about becoming an in-flight pet escort, but to my disappointment, Goody informed me there was an embargo banning pets from flying in airline cargo holds the month of my visit—February.

Even during embargo we sure can use crates!

“But even during embargo we sure can use crates!” she explained in her reply. “Many have gone that are never returned so we scramble. With March 1 coming where we can again send pets in the hold and the chance to start sending multiple pets April, we need to be ready.”

The crates needed to help pets most in need on the Big Island are large, airline-approved crates in sizes 300 and 400 (the larger pictured above), Goody explained. Courtesy photo

I began a quest for crates, and eventually scrounged up three that were sturdy enough for the trip.

Sweetening the deal was that I could take the crates apart and nest the smaller sizes in the larger ones—which worked perfectly for the small, medium, and large sizes I had—and check the whole stack as one item. Plus, because we made our reservation with my husband’s Alaska Airlines credit card, it would be free to check, a perk offered to cardholders.

It was a win-win—and an easy one.

3 crates in 1, getting checked in at the airport, destination: Kona, Hawaii.

Special Delivery

My crate hand off to Goody was quick—she had just finished rounds at the sanctuary and was getting ready for a big fundraiser and had to run. “These are perfect!” she said as my husband helped load them into her trunk.

On her phone, she showed us a video of a dog, bound for the U.S. mainland, who had just aced the suitability assessment all dogs need to pass before they can leave the island. Goody has to determine not only that the dogs are healthy for the trip, but that they have “the right stuff” that will help them be adopted quickly—an imperative for mainland shelters to keep accepting them.

Aloha Dogs are adopted very quickly once on the mainland.

Goody’s thorough screening process ensures most Aloha Pets are usually in shelters or foster homes for just a few days. Helping the pups is the added “island glow” that seems to be attractive to pet parents considering adoption. “Aloha Dogs are adopted very quickly once on the mainland,” she said, adding that’s not even the best part.

“Each time an Aloha Pet leaves the island, there’s one more spot at the shelter for another dog in need—so you actually help save two dogs,” she said.

“The Most Satisfying and Rewarding Thing I Do”

So far, 125 pets have been flown through the program since it began in 2022. Goody prefers to fly them on Alaska Airlines because the company’s transport fee is the lowest in the industry—$100—paid by the program unless the Flying Companion offers to cover it.

Animal Flying Companion Lynn Morgenroth and Goody with another Aloha Pet bound for the mainland. Courtesy photo

Volunteer Lynn Morgenroth, a resident of Hawaii, estimates she’s chaperoned about seven or eight pets. She emphasizes how simple it is to make a difference in their lives.

“It’s super easy, it makes you feel great, and the animals just look at you, like, ‘thank you.’ I love doing my small part to make a difference,” she said.

Somehow they just know they’re going to be safe.

Kirsten Kempe, another Animal Flying Companion, echoes these thoughts. When we spoke on the phone, she said she had just escorted her 10th Aloha Pet to the Berkeley Humane Society, a shelter that frequently coordinates with Goody.

Animal Flying Companion Kirsten Kempe checks in her in-flight foster, Chance, at the Kona Airport, bound for Berkeley and a future forever home. Courtesy Kirsten Kempe

“Flying these pets is the most satisfying and rewarding thing I do,” she said. Kempe plans to fly even more pets once she retires from her job as a compliance officer for a medical device company, because “it’s that rewarding.”

“I think most people think it’s some big thing, but it’s not! The dog meets you at the airport, Ann’s got all the paperwork ready—she’ll even pay the $100 fee. All you have to do is be willing to help keep the dog safe until they get to your destination,” she said.

“It’s their faces,” Kempe said. “Once they’re in their crate, somehow they just know they’re going to be safe.”

Wendy, renamed Malia, hugs Goody at the Kona airport. Malia was “immediately adopted,” Goody said. Courtesy photo

Flight Checker

I checked in with Goody about a month after my trip to see how things were going. Unsurprisingly, the challenges of running a trans-Pacific pet rehoming project were presenting some obstacles.

“Sadly we do not have funding for 2023,” Goody wrote in an email. “That means we are going to have a tough time keeping up this pace. Some fliers cover the $100 fee but others do not, so the cost has been coming out of the Three Ring Ranch budget which we can’t keep doing.”

The good news was that my crates had already been put to use. The largest one helped fly Wendy—later renamed Malia—to the Berkeley Humane Society, escorted by Morgenroth. “She was immediately adopted,” Goody said in her update.

If you think that’s cute, the smallest one I brought helped transport two guinea pigs who, yes, were waiting at animal control to be adopted.

My heart swelled. How could something so uplifting be as simple as taking a trip to Hawaii?

For more information about becoming an Animal Flying Companion, or to offer donations or supplies to help Aloha Dogs, email Ann Goody at ann@pawhi.org or message Kirsten Kempe through her Instagram, @kckempe.

To learn more about Three Ring Ranch Exotic Animal Sanctuary, visit threeringranch.org. For more about Animal Control Services of Hawaii and department Shelter Animal Reports, visit the Hawaii Animal Control Services website. 

Other Resources

Did you know? While you’re on vacation, you can take a Hawaii shelter dog out on a “field trip” to offer them enrichment and increase their visibility for adoption. Here’s how to on the Big Island, on Maui, and on Kauai. 

Further Reading

  • Largest Animal Rescue Flight in History Flies 600 Pets From Hawaii to the Mainland in Search of Forever Homes

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