Hawaiʻi County’s new animal control director used to care for frogs, elephants, gorillas
October 5, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
* Updated October 5, 5:20 AM
Veterinarian technician Matthew Runnells has worked at prestigious zoos, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park in Florida, providing care to dart frogs, African elephants and a 345-pound gorilla who needed a pacemaker.
But Runnells decided to change course, and on Sept. 1 he began serving as the first administrator of Hawai‘i County’s new Animal Control and Protection Agency, which has an annual $3.4 million budget and 45 full-time funded positions.
Before taking the job, Runnells and his wife, Mindy, honeymooned on the Big Island a few years ago and purchased property knowing they wanted to make it their home.
“It was a great environment and a great place,” Matthew Runnells said. “It’s difficult to leave a job like that you really love, but I feel like there is a need here in this community for animal control and protection…I feel like it’s worth the effort.”
Mindy Runnells, who also worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom as an animal care professional, landed an administrator position at the Pana’ewa Recreational Complex that encompasses the county’s zoo and equestrian center in Hilo.
Previously, Matthew Runnells worked at Brevard Zoo in Florida and Birmingham Zoo in Alabama. He said he also owned a company for 19 years that allowed him to work with veterinarians, animal control agencies, conservancies and animal care facilities.
A favorite memory of his occurred at the Birmingham Zoo, where he was the hospital manager when a Western Lowland gorilla named Babec had heart disease. He was part of the team that put in a pacemaker to make the gorilla the first successful animal recipient of the device. It extended Babec’s life by a few years.
He said working at Disney’s Animal Kingdom helped prepare him for this new position within county government.
“It was a very intense position — a lot of attention to detail and politics as well so I’m not a stranger to difficult political environments,” he said, adding he knows there will be “a learning curve.”
Hawai‘i County Managing Director Lee Lord, who recently announced his retirement, said he believes Matthew Runnells is a great fit for the new agency.
“It’s his leadership skills about where he wants to take our agency,” he said.
Lord said Runnells came to the table with ideas, such as bringing in more staff and veterinarians.
“He also has the leadership qualities and behaviors that one would need to get the team to come along with him,” Lord said.
Mindy Runnells agrees her husband is prepared for the job.
“Disney is very similar to government,” she said. “It’s a huge corporation but has all the politics and runs like a government. Even though it’s a very different avenue that we’re both in right now, it’s very familiar.”
Since settling into his new role, Matthew Runnells has spent the past three weeks interviewing people.
He said more staff will be needed to tackle the island’s animal control issues, including aggressive dogs.
“With the limited amount of people that we have, we are roughly covering a landmass the size of Connecticut with six or seven animal control officers,” Matthew Runnells said. “That’s a lot of coverage and a lot of areas that we don’t have coverage on.”
He hopes the new hires will help increase their capacity to the uncovered areas. Right now the agency has a facility in East and in West Hawai‘i, and more staff means they can accommodate more needs. The new hires will also will be trained in how to handle aggressive dogs and on writing citations.
“If we make a call on an aggressive dog, we want to make sure what we’re doing is perfectly legal and stands up to the board as well,” Runnells said.
Once the animal control agency is fully staffed, he hopes to do more public outreach to inform the community about the agency’s role and what they can and cannot do.
“Currently we do not deal with feral cats,” Runnells said. “We have a service to loan cages for feral cats but we do not intake feral cats.”
Runnells relocated to the Big Island with his two Doberman pinchers, Samson and Delilah, and his cherry-headed conure parrot named Ireland.
“And before I moved to Hawai‘i I had about 50 tarantulas,” he said.
The tarantulas found new homes, he said.