State defends actions to protect nēnē in Waikōloa, but offers no solution for cats

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Endangered nēnē eat food left for feral cats at the parking lot of Queensʻ Marketplace in Waikōloa on the Big Island on April 19, 2023. (Hawaiʻi State Department of Land and Natural Resources)

A week after a heated protest was held over the state-ordered removal of cat feeding and watering stations at a Waikōloa shopping center to protect endangered nēnē, Hawaiʻi Gov. Josh Green weighed in about the controversial action during a livestream interview Monday with a Honolulu news outlet.

Green said while he has bigger concerns, like food insecurity for children — and that he doesnʻt like to get involved in “brushups” — he asked Dawn Chang, Chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, to go to the Big Island to “broker the peace” with cat groups and others who are concerned the felines now will starve to death.

Green also said he directed Chang to basically nullify the $2,500 citations that were given to two women who attempted to feed the cats during the protest.

About 50 people showed up at the Queens’ Marketplace parking lot on April 18, 2023, in protest against the new rule against feeding the community cats. (Tiffany DeMasters/Big Island Now)

And while he said the state priority is to protect the endangered Hawaiʻi state bird, he added: “We are going to try to find a humane way to get some food and water in a very controlled way, a very controlled way, so cats donʻt suffer.”

On Tuesday, Chang came to the Big Island and met with leaders of ABayKitties, the organization that has provided cat food at a trio of feeding stations at the Queens’ Marketplace for several years.


In a Department of Land and Natural Resources news release, it said Chang reiterated the state agency is required to protect nēnē (Hawaiian goose), an endangered species under state law, and a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Chang was not made available for direct comment.

The press release talked about the danger feral cats present to native wildlife and the vast support of the stateʻs actions, but it did not include any concrete plans about how to deal with the free-roaming cats who are still free-roaming.

Green said he has spoken with the “Humane Society” to find a solution for the cats. The Hawai‘i Island Humane Society declined to comment on the issue, saying Hawai‘i County Animal Control Services was in contact with the state agency, not them. Hawaiʻi Countyʻs animal control and police also declined to comment, directing questions back to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

While there have been no recent statewide surveys of the feral cat population, estimates put the number into the hundreds of thousands. On Hawai‘i Island, a 2021 survey estimated the nēnē population at only 1,074. Statewide, the same survey indicated a population of 3,881.

Chang said the Department of Land and Natural Resources will be ramping up education efforts so whole communities can be a part of protecting native species and figuring out long-term solutions to give cats appropriate, safe and loving indoor homes.


ABayKitties also was contacted for comment for this story but did not respond. Dawn Garlinghouse, director of the organization, previously said the “community” cats at Queens’ Marketplace are not feral: “They’re spayed, neutered and cared for. They come for medical attention, and those that we can adopt are re-homed.”

Chang explained when nēnē eat cat food, it can make them sick and can even kill them. Toxoplasmosis, a disease carried by cats, can also kill birds and critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Feral cats are among the most prolific predators of numerous near-extinct native forest birds, according to a news release.

Chang told ABayKitties that she appreciates their passion but pointed out that native Hawaiians, numerous conservation organizations and many local residents strongly support the protection of nēnē and other native animals, birds and mammals.

“Feeding wildlife like nēnē can ‘habituate’ them to being around people, which leads to more frequent car strikes, and even the abduction of young birds, as happened in Hilo last month,” the press release said.

Last week, Queensʻ Markeplace owner Alexander & Baldwin removed the feeding and watering stations after the state agency sent the company a letter saying it would be fined if it did not due so.


The mandate was based on protecting about a dozen nēnē that were found to also be eating the cat food.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources and Alexander & Baldwin received dozens of e-mails and phone calls showing widespread support for stopping the feeding of feral cats, according to the press release.

One email read: “When I read that you and DLNR had closed down the large feral cat feeding station at Queens’ Marketplace I applauded your positive action. We must save our native bird species. We must protect our people from toxoplasmosis. You did the right thing.”

Another read: “I am a cat lover and professional wildlife biologist, who has been following the DLNR’s actions regarding closure of the large cat feeding station with great interest. Your actions were pono, legal and necessary for our state to move forward with the right thing for our native wildlife.”

As for the two women cited during the April 11 protest, DLNR spokesperson Dan Dennison said the organization does not have the legal ability to take a citation back now that it is in the judicial process. Those citations will require court appearances next month.

The state Division of Forestry and Wildlife is preparing informational flyers to distribute to property owners and individuals to educate people about how to avoid harming nēnē. The department has been in regular contact with area legislators who want to find a permanent solution and is also arranging meetings with Hawai‘i County and with humane societies to work collaboratively.

The humane society did weigh in on the situation last week by posting a comment to their Facebook page saying the solution to the problem was not simply removing the feeding stations.

The post stated: “The topic of community or ‘free-roaming’ cats can be a multi-faceted concern that draws opinions from many interest groups, including cat caretakers, public health officials, wildlife agencies, environmental conservationists and more. There can be solutions that prioritize the protection of our native and endemic wildlife while also promoting the humane and effective reduction of the population of free-roaming/community cats.”

Chang has consistently said: “This is not just a Waikōloa issue. This is not just a Hawai‘i Island issue. This is not an issue of lovers of feral cats versus lovers of native wildlife, so this is a problem without easy or readily identifiable solutions.

“Our mission is to protect Hawai‘i’s unique and precious wildlife. We take that seriously and to heart. While we have compassion for all living creatures, our singular mission is to protect our native threatened and endangered species from all threats.”

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