By Coconut Mutts Contributer: Emma Relei
One of the first words Seattle-based Park Ranger Kelsey Johnson learned when she came American Samoa in October of 2015. The literal translation means “Go Away” in English. However, it is more than just a warning. It is a word imbedded in the Samoan culture to remind the people and visitors of the small American Territory in the South Pacific to be wary of the feral animals living there. Dogs run in packs. And beyond learning “Halu,” visitors to the island are taught to bend over, pick up a rock and throw it to keep dogs at a distance.
Fruit bats, coral reef ecosystems and hot, humid climates all made Samoa a completely different world than the Seattle-home Kelsey knew. Not long after arriving, Kelsey had her first experience with animals of the island. Each house in the neighborhood had a collection of its own animals. In this way households and animals would build mutual trust with each other—if they knew you, they were okay with you. Kelsey had a hoard of orange and white cats coming around her home. One of her first encounters with this crowd was with a tiny cat, later christened “Esi” meaning Papaya. Esi was small, no more than four pounds. She had sores across her back and to Kelsey’s eyes Esi was starving. But despite all this, Esi was brave. And slowly, the pair began to build trust with one another when Kelsey began to feed Esi.
Then one day in December, Kelsey invited some people to her humble home, including a veterinarian. The sight of Esi was not alarming to the vet’s eyes. She remained calm when she announced, “She looks like she’s about four months. And she’s pregnant.” How could Esi, so tiny, so malnourished, so helpless herself still give birth and protect kittens of her own?
Samoa only offers one vet clinic between all five island. And on top of that, the available veterinary equipment is limited. A square building with five rooms. No X-ray machine, exam room, surgery room, or patient room. Space is tight even for fostering recuperating animals. However, soon Kelsey began to visit the clinic regularly. Thus, began the Great Capturing and Transporting of Animals, as Kelsey likes to call it. Every morning there would be a crowd of animals at her door. The cats looked emaciated and unhealthy. Not having cages, Kelsey beguiled them into Tupperware bins in order to get them to the veterinary clinic. However, this task was not as simple as it may have seemed. These cats were feral and had no intention of going quietly to the veterinarian. A routine developed nonetheless. In the morning, Kelsey would bring in the feral cats for spaying, neutering and shots. Then at the end of the day, she would pick them up. Afterwards, animals would be given up for adoption. But if they were hurt, older, not pretty or charismatic in any way, they would not be adopted and just released back into the world they came—to slink between houses and nap under the shade of banana trees.
Not long after developing this routine, Kelsey moved to a new neighborhood. But in this neighborhood, the roaming animals were not as well cared for and they were mostly dogs. The cats Kelsey originally captured were perfectly healthy in comparison. These dogs were starving. They were scared. They were mangy and had multiple wounds. But they were her dogs. They were her pack. So now, it was her responsibility to take care of them.
And that is what Kelsey did. She kept a list of all the animals, all the dogs she took to the veterinarian. Not only did she rescue each animal that arrived at her door, but she rescued their stories.
One such story recounts the first dog Kelsey began to tried to help. A neighborhood dog, mangy and balding, but sweet-tempered. So lovable. Kelsey called her “Mama” because she had clearly given birth not too long ago. Kelsey lured her into a pet carrier and brought her to the vet. Later that day, however, she got a disheartening call from Dr. Kristen who was performing the sterilization surgery:
“Hey Kelsey, I’ve got Mama on the table and she is riddled with cancer and heartworm. We could probably foster her for a few months, but she doesn’t have much time.”
Kelsey sighed and replied, “Alright…what do you think I should do?”
The vet said it would be best to put Mama down. The harsh effects of a lack of animal welfare kept revealing themselves time and time again to Kelsey—all reinforcing her desire to increase awareness about and improve animal welfare in American Samoa.
Soon after, Jessica Sutherland, better known as Jess, one of Kelsey’s closest and longest friends arrived in AmSam to see Kelsey. Jess is a Zoologist based in Tacoma, WA. Her love and knowledge of animals inevitably became a fighting factor in the course of Coconut Mutts. Although the pair were hoping for a fun get-together holiday, before long, these animals and their stories were lighting small fires in both their hearts. So together, the two formed a partnership and they began collecting abandoned or harmed animals together.
All the animals of AmSam must have known that Jess and Kelsey were together because they began to turn up all around: creeping out of the jungle; clinging to the shadows on the sides of the road; and curling up under cars at night. There was “Julep,” the mangy mother dog with one crazy ear and her three babies dubbed “Curry,” “Sausage” and “Tulip,” all started to come around looking for food. Getting a trap from the vet, Jess and Kelsey captured the pups and brought them into the clinic. Being older, Julep would not be considered “pretty” enough to be adopted back. The vet clinic only can foster a limited number of animals because of the size of the clinic and the staff and lack of resources. So, Julep was spayed and then released. While her babies were spayed, neutered, given shots and adopted out.
One day, Kelsey went in to the vet to see all the animals being fostered in the back room. She spotted two super tiny, dirty kittens with big, beautiful eyes and white and gray tufts of fur. Thus began the story of “Lupelele” and “Masina”…and Kelsey. Lupelele was weak from low blood sugar, but as Kelsey stared back at these small creatures she was enchanted and the vet softly whispered in her hear:
“They need a foster home you know?”
And Kelsey whispered back without looking away from the cage—most likely, with eyes as big as the kittens, “I can do that.” Originally, the plan was just to foster them for a little while, but the pair just got to be too much fun. And now, Lupelele and Masina have found their forever home with Kelsey.
However, not all stories can end as well as Lupelele and Masina’s. Although every story does not have a happily ever after does not mean that every story cannot be the inspiration for a great cause—a catalyst for change. With heartache comes empathy, with devastation comes growth.
Shortly after meeting Lupelele and Masina, Kelsey went on a hike. The trek wound through the jungle. But often, feral animals roam throughout the tropical rainforests because people will abandon them when they are no longer wanted or able to be taken care of properly. As the group hiked, “Jojo” was discovered. She had tucked herself away in some bushes. Extremely emaciated, Jojo’s bones protruded from her back. Even as weak and dehydrated as she was, Jojo was alert—her survival skills were kicking in. When Kelsey brought Jojo home, Jess helped to bathe her. In comparison to the strengthening sisters, Lupelele and Masina, Jojo had large head and thin body. After taking her to the vet for shots, Jojo came home and was lethargic. Calling back the vet, Jess and Kelsey were told to bring Jojo in again the next morning.
That evening, Jojo fell asleep with Jess. Kelsey woke up in the middle of the night to see Jojo struggling. Calling the vet back, they decide to meet up as early as possible at 7am. Jojo was placed gently in a box to wait, but she kept trying to claw herself up and out—she was restless, struggling for peace. Picking her up in a towel, Kelsey tenderly whispered to her,
“I love you.”
And in that moment, after hearing those three precious words, Jojo quietly passed away in Kelsey’s hands. Everything that happened, everything that made Jojo so fragile, so helpless, so hurt could have been completely avoided. The profound sadness and iniquitousness of the whole ordeal greatly shook and rattled Jess and Kelsey’s hearts.
They laid little Jojo to rest inside a shoebox full of freshly picked hibiscus overlooking a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. The perfect combination of the ugliness of unnecessary death and the beauty of life.
All the efforts Kelsey and Jess had made to protect the animals of Samoa became an educational cause. It became a fight for animal welfare—it became Coconut Mutts.
Often human compassion is measured by how one person treats another—how one person shows kindness altruistically—especially to those in need. But at Coconut Mutts our mission goes beyond the boundaries of just human compassion. We strive to share the stories of Esi, Mama, Julep, Curry, Sausage, Tulip, Lupelele, Masina, Jojo, Tuni, Tupu, Matai, Tuto, Maya, Yodi, Fia and countless others like them in order to spread messages of love, beauty and hope between the people and animals of the American Samoa. As a nonprofit, we hope to improve animal welfare, to bridge the gap between man and animal, between “Halu” and “Alofa”, between “go away” and “love.”