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How one kitten ‘snowballed’ to country’s first, only dedicated cat facility

Saturday 13 May 2023 | Written by Joanne Holden | Published in Entertainment, Features


How one kitten ‘snowballed’ to  country’s first, only dedicated  cat facility
Paws and Claws Cat Sanctuary manager Shannon Paul had been taking in unwanted cats and kittens for a few years when Don Carlaw approached her about opening a dedicated facility. JOANNE HOLDEN/ 23051251

The cost of running Rarotonga’s first and only dedicated cat facility is between $2000 and $4000 a month, but those behind the venture have ‘no qualms’ about covering the amount if it means less animals being cast into the bush.

The goal of Paws and Claws Cat Sanctuary is to see 85 per cent of cats and kittens on Rarotonga spayed or neutered and for the facility to no longer be needed, says manager Shannon Paul.

“If I can achieve that in five years, I will be extremely happy.”

While the sanctuary has been operating for less than a year, Paul was first called on to take in cats and kittens in 2018.

She had contacted Cook Islands SPCA about a dog with a broken leg, sheltering under a tree on her property.

“They came and got it, and they said, ‘Would you look after this kitten for us?’ Well, it snowballed from one kitten to a lot of kittens,” Paul says.

“The SPCA doesn’t do kittens, you see, and there was nobody looking after them at that time.”

Paul says the SPCA would entrust her with five or six kittens at a time to bottle feed.

“I’ve learned about cats like everybody else – hands-on, talking to other people.

“I’m not a qualified vet, I’m not a nurse, I’m a security officer. How’s that for a change? From Armourguard New Zealand to looking after a cat sanctuary.

“When the pandemic was on and everybody left the island, I had 14 kittens here.

“That’s when I met Don.”

Don Carlaw, patron of Paws and Claws, says he came to Paul looking to adopt a cat after his first cat passed away.

Carlaw would continue to call Paul for advice, as well as asking her to look after their new cat for a month or so while he and his wife travelled overseas.

“We became quite friendly. When my wife and I came back (from overseas), I was talking to Shannon about the need for an SPCA just for cats and that’s how it started,” Carlaw says.

Paul says she was “doing everything on my own back” out of her home before Carlaw offered to fund a charitable facility dedicated to cats.

“I was buying the food, going around the island feeding cats and dogs – because in the pandemic, there was nobody here to feed them. All the tourists were gone,” she says.

“People just didn’t seem to worry about the animals.

“All of a sudden, Don came along and said, ‘How about we build a sanctuary?’ He said, ‘Draw up a plan. Measure it out.’ So, I went out and I put a couple of bricks on four corners.

“His builders came down, we started building, but we had to screen it off because we had so many cats being delivered. My place was crazy. I had bars on windows to keep wild cats in, things like that.”

The sanctuary officially opened on August 1, 2022, with 38 cats and kittens already living there.

The amount of felines Paul could take in multiplied tenfold when the sanctuary was built, 98 being the highest number she had hosted at once.

The facility also hosted desexing days in partnership with Te Are Manu, with Paul saying spaying and neutering cats was the best way to reduce the number of unwanted kittens on the island.

Carlaw says before the facility was built, many people who found themselves with unwanted felines opted to “take them to the back road and let them go, a death sentence for a cat that’s used to being fed and loved by a family”.

Carlaw, who also sponsors cat sanctuaries in Thailand, says he is “happy” to cover the costs of Paws and Claws – which can be $500 to $600 a week for food, and $500 to $1000 a week for the vet.

“It’s certainly something I want to do, and I’ve got no qualms.”

Paul says the idea for a sanctuary would have struggled to get off the ground without Carlaw’s input and financial help.

“It is where it is today because of a lot of hard work,” she says.

“Without Don, where are you going to put your cat? Back in the bush? He deserves a pat on the back.”

Carlaw describes Paul as having “excellent animal skills”.

“We work well as a team,” he says.

“She can handle the large number of cats that we get through. She has dealt with cats being sick, outbreaks of the cat flu where several cats have died – but she’s managed to cope.”

Paul says her policy is that every new cat and kitten must go through a veterinarian before entering the sanctuary, at no cost to the person bringing in the animals.

“If I bring an unhealthy cat or kitten here – which we’ve had happen, where a lady threw one over the wall – every cat is vulnerable to disease.”

She also warned against removing kittens from their mother when they were younger than five to eight weeks old.

“Five weeks gives their stomachs time to develop,” she says.

“When you take them from mum and their stomach isn’t fully developed in the way of balancing up food, and you’re giving them this odd food, it just creates diarrhoea – all sorts of complications come with it.

“We’re trying to set up a programme where we can educate people to leave their kittens on their cats. We will help them. It makes our job easier at the other end because when they come here, they can just lap up the milk and eat the food.”

Paul has taken in kittens too young to be away from their mother before.

“It can be stressful because you have to feed them every hour with a bottle or a syringe.”

Other future plans for the sanctuary include fundraising with branded T-shirts, establishing a foster programme with expatriate teachers on three-year contracts, and expanding the facility.

Paul wants to add a feeding bay, and another sleeping area – because when the sanctuary is a little crowded, the older cats climb out and take refuge in her bed.

“I might go to bed with five cats, but when I wake up there’s probably about 10 or 11.”

Carlaw says the sanctuary’s newly-formed committee, chaired by Katherine Waru, had its first meeting on Thursday, April 27.

The purpose of the committee is to promote the facility, secure sponsorship, and “hopefully, in the future, give Shannon a day off”, Carlaw says.

Paul says the facility is regularly supported by Prime Foods, which donates two pet food rolls a week; CITC, which offers a discount card used on food; and Trader Jacks, which gives offcuts of fish to the cats.

“We’re very lucky, and we’re grateful for anything we get,” she says.

“Things are starting to progress along, because people are now starting to understand what we’re trying to do.”

She adds: “Tourists are one of the best things to come into Paws and Claws. I say that because they bring in not just food, but understanding.”

Children are also a blessing to the sanctuary, Paul says.

“I’ve got three young Cook Islanders – two boys and a girl – who come on a Sunday.

“They go to the KAPS store on the way, they pool their pocket money together, and they buy a tin of cat food or a small packet of biscuits. They give me that, play with the cats for an hour, and then they go.

“They’ve learned so much, and I’ve learned so much from them.”

Paul says the “most beautiful story” she can tell is about a girl who first came to the sanctuary on opening day.

“She lost her cat in a road accident, and her dad asked me if I could find her a very special kitten.

“At that time, we had a little white cat with a tabby tail and two tabby ears, who had two different coloured eyes. This young girl came to our opening day, and I gave the kitten to her.

“Now, every month she comes here and she’s buzzing. She goes, ‘Thank you for my most wonderful kitten. I love my kitten. You chose the bestest kitten for me.’ She’ll spend 20 minutes playing with the other kittens, then she’ll come over and play with the cats, then she’ll say ‘See ya!’and off she goes.”


Marian Clift on 13/05/2023

Nice one Shannon. Sorry I can't get there more often!