Keeping The Humane Society Purring Along

The financially ‘strapped’ Kaua’i Humane Society takes in 4,000 dogs and cats every year. Executive director Penny Cistaro is finding creative ways to reduce that number while working on raising funds

Penny Cistaro, new Kaua’i Humane Society (KHS) executive director, is using preventative measures to ensure pets remain with their owners.

“We don’t want the animals,” she says one afternoon in her Puhi office adorned with canine images and memorabilia.

KHS takes in more than 1,500 dogs and 2,500 cats per year, according to a recent article in The Garden Island. Cistaro would rather these animals receive the proper care they deserve by staying in their homes, and she believes this can be achieved by assisting owners in maintaining the responsibility of their pets.

To achieve this goal, the organization has expanded its spay and neuter clinic by providing additional surgeries, particularly for those who can’t afford regular veterinary fees. The clinic also is providing vaccinations at a discounted rate for pets.

She also plans to put a new “safety net program” in place, which assists the community with low-cost services as well as provides assistance with resources such as a behavior helpline and a food bank.

“So when people are starting to struggle with a problem, they have a resource,” she says.

Volunteers currently are working to develop a pet food bank for people who may have financial constraints.

“With the economy today and people struggling, if they can’t afford to take care of the animal, they’re going to give the animal up,” explains Cistaro. “There are times when it’s hand-to-mouth and they have to make some choices. But if they know there is a safety net and they can come here on a monthly basis to get food to tide them over for that last week or 10 days of the month, then they’ll keep the animal.”

The nonprofit also is putting together a rental housing packet for people who have pets, “because it is difficult finding a place to rent with animals. It took me a long time to find a place,” says Cistaro, who has a dog, Morgan, and two cats, Moonshine and Griffin.

The information will provide guidance to those seeking a place to live, such as places where pets are allowed, and how to approach a landlord who is unsure about accepting pets.

“If you’re new to the island and you’re trying to figure that out, it’s hard,” she notes. “But you can just come and get a packet that helps you and navigates you through that.”

Still, maintaining these programs requires proper funding and, this year, KHS requested nearly $1 million from the county but received only $770,000.

“Financially, we are strapped,” admits Cistaro, who cites the organization’s continued deficit with the county and having to subsidize the money shortfall.

“That has hurt the organization’s finances. So we need to rebuild our reserves so that if something catastrophic happens, we have the money,” she explains.

Aside from keeping animals in their homes, Cistaro’s ultimate goal is to make the nonprofit more financially sound, and since starting work March 12, she’s spent much of her time reviewing its infrastructure.

“What I’m looking forward to is rebuilding the organization,” she says.

The foundation already has been established with programs such as adoption, but Cistaro wants to fine-tune and enhance them, “making them bigger, better and stronger,” she says.

She recently made the decision to decrease staff and close KHS’s doors on Sundays to save money.

Cistaro has had a passion for helping animals stay in healthy, happy homes since she was 19 and landed her first job in animal care at the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society, which took in around 24,000 animals each year.

Born and raised in Chicago, Cistaro bypassed college and headed straight into her career.

“I was a product of the ’60s and not really interested in structure or school,” she says. “I just wanted to work with animals.”

The Waimea resident immediately fell in love with the work and, after a few weeks, was promoted to field services.

“I felt like I had found what I was looking for,” she says. “I look back on it now and realize how lucky I was to have found something that I was satisfied in. I felt like I was making a difference.”

Cistaro grew up in a home where her mother brought home stray animals and cared for them. Her parents also served as foster parents, and her mother took in battered and abused children.

“I was raised in an environment by a woman who was giving and gracious,” she says. “So the job just was a natural fit.”

The animal lover continued to achieve promotions for the next three decades at shelters in California, Boston, Washington and elsewhere, consulting and training with shelters across the country.

“I’ve had a great career,” says Cistaro. “It’s been wonderful, and I’ve been able to learn all aspects of sheltering.”

It wasn’t until December 2012 that she even considered moving to Kaua’i, after feeling envious of a friend who had moved to Oahu. That same friend just so happened to mention the available executive director position at KHS.

“And the rest is history,” says Cistaro.

“I instantly loved Penny,” says Laura Wiley, former KHS board president. “She has a very warm and peaceful way about her that lets everyone know that all is well. And she is absolutely brilliant. She brings such wisdom and skill and expertise to KHS. She is all about solutions. The island and Kaua’i Humane Society are so blessed to have her. I am so excited for her and for Kaua’i Humane Society.”

Wiley’s husband, KQNG DJ Ron Wiley, also is looking forward to Cistaro’s developing leadership at the organization.

“From the moment I introduced Penny to Kaua’i on stage at the Kaua’i Humane Society annual event, and saw her immediate poise and confidence with these yet strangers, I knew she would lead us to a great future,” he says. “I love doing interviews with her on the air. She is quick and informed, and Penny loves Kaua’i people.”

Cistaro also obviously loves animals.

“They just give so much,” she says. “They’re just part of the rhythm of my life. A house is empty if there isn’t an animal in it.”

Animals are incredible companions and don’t have expectations. Even those locked in cages or tied to doghouses throughout the days and nights still manage to maintain a forgiving demeanor. Hawaii is one of the worst states as far as animal rights and protection are concerned, and these situations are far more common than not.

“But they are so stoic and so brave, and they just accept what they’re given in life,” says Cistaro. “They’re still open and accepting, and they just take it.

“If we had the same treatment, we certainly wouldn’t be wagging our tails and greeting people.”

Cistaro is looking forward to better serving the people of Kaua’i with their animal needs. She also is excited to continue exploring the natural treasures the Garden Isle possesses. Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast are two of the many places in which she plans to spend more time. One of her favorite activities so far, however, has been running along the beach with her dog. “We’re working our way back up to getting him to nine miles again,” teases the long-distance runner.

“For me, this is a dream come true. And to live on an island in the middle of the ocean in a small community is great.”

KHS currently is seeking new volunteers, particularly graphic designers and those with marketing skills.

Visit for more information.