Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Caring for the animals of the South Pacific: Interview with Cathy Sue Ragan Anunsen, founder and CEO of the Esther Honey Foundation

Cathy Sue Ragan Anunsen, founder of the Esther Honey Foundation, has always been an advocate for animals (Photo by Keith Gunnar).
Lots of people love animals, but some are better able to put those sentiments into action. Cathy Sue Ragan Anunsen is a dynamo - animal lover and mover of mountains. She tells SAT how an innocent holiday to the Cook Islands has turned into an international effort to care for the country's critters.

Can you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?

I’m a former mental health therapist, animal advocate and currently the President and CEO of the Esther Honey Foundation. My husband and I live in a cottage perched on the edge of two large ponds that are tucked in the center of a mixed forest. We devoted two decades to developing the gardens and wildlife habitat within the small wooded acreage which we share with two extremely entertaining terrier puppies, that my son rescued and delivered to me last Mother’s Day, and a tolerant ginger cat named Felix. The results of our garden design efforts were featured in Architectural Digest Magazine several years ago but the biggest reward is being able to provide a safe and nurturing space for a large variety of birds and other wildlife.

A blue heron enjoys the habitat.
When did you become involved in animal issues?

I have always been fascinated by animals. My first word was “Andrew”, the name of my Grandmother Esther’s cat, which contributes to my belief that some people have an innate connection with animals.

I guess my initial “rescues” occurred in the first grade when I was late for school on rainy days because I had stopped to scoop up stranded earthworms from the sidewalk to prevent them from being squished by other children sloshing their way to school.

My involvement with animals when I was younger was limited to caring for the usual suspects, a number of dogs, cats, gerbils, mice, white rats, an opossum, a skunk and a baby goat -- I’m sure I’ve missed some. My father owned several businesses including raising cattle. One evening when I went with him to check on what was then a small herd I began petting the face of a large steer who came up to me at the fence line. Looking into his large brown eyes as I scratched around his ears I suddenly realized that it was wrong for me to eat meat. This was not a popular decision within my family.

Later, like many people, I was horrified by the clubbing of harp seals and started an organization to raise funds to send to Greenpeace. Thanks to Country Joe and the Fish (Yes, that Country Joe of Woodstock fame) who generously performed without compensation, we were able to raise and send $10,000 directly to Greenpeace and their volunteers on the ice flows.

Not long after, I read an article about black bears being shot by timber companies for awaking after hibernation and trying to survive temporarily by eating portions of the bark on trees. I wanted to help find a non-lethal solution and called Cleveland Amory, renowned writer, co-founder of the Humane Society of the US and founder of the Fund for Animals.  Within a few days, Cleveland flew to Oregon to help protect the bears by adding his considerable resources to help me challenge the politically and financially powerful timber companies.

Cleveland Amory with Cathy-Sue.
Shortly after meeting Cleveland he asked me to serve as the Fund’s regional coordinator where I helped design programs to educate the public, media, government officials and stakeholders regarding wildlife issues and to serve on the steering committee of one of the first state-wide initiatives introduced by the Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States. These efforts contributed to the passage of ground-breaking wildlife protection laws for black bears and cougars in the State of Oregon.

When I learned that the US National Park Service planned to hire sharp-shooters in helicopters to kill all of the goats in the Olympic National Park I knew that there had to be a better, kinder way to resolve the issue. I was appointed to the National Park Service Olympic National Park Mountain Goat Management Advisory Committee (whew) and, on behalf of the Fund for Animals Initiated and led the national campaign opposing the National Park Services' lethal plan.  

The campaign generated nation-wide interest and extensive media coverage ranging from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the NBC Nightly News to Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. This 13 year effort to prevent the extermination of the Olympic Mountain goats was a success, and their population numbers remain stable. I am especially proud of my contributions to the lengthy endeavour that helped ensure that these majestic animals remain in the park.

Scallywags...Rags and Maggie.
How did you find yourself in the Cook Islands?

My family traveled to the Cook Islands to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

What was the condition your family gave you?

Because of the time I devoted to animal issues, my family asked for a promise that during our holiday in the Cook Islands I would not get involved in ANY animal matters.

Why do you find it hard to stay away from animal issues?

I just feel compelled to do whatever I can to end or prevent animal suffering, mistreatment and abuse of power. The drive is partly self-serving in that once I become aware of the issue I cannot rest until I have done something to help. 

What was the animal situation like before the EHF started?

I was advised that there was no veterinarian for the country’s estimated 14,000 cats and dogs. Officials were shooting dogs to control their population. I was told that more than 1,000 dogs had already been shot.

Who is Esther Honey?

Esther was my paternal grandmother whose cat was “Andrew” and Honey was the name of the golden Raro dog with a white heart-shaped mark on her forehead. She adopted my family in 1993 as we exited our airport van at the Lagoon Lodges.  She followed us from the van to the check-in desk and then to our lodge where we began our life-changing friendship.  Over those few weeks I was inspired by her sweet face, resourcefulness, ingenuity and powerful spirit.

How did you come to be involved in the Esther Honey Foundation?

I had read a notice in the local paper about an anti-cruelty group being organized on the island. I had extended my stay for a week and my family had returned to Oregon. I felt that I had abided by my promise and was now free to contribute to the new group in honor of Honey. When their representative came by my accommodation to collect the check he asked if he could talk with me about the animal situation in the Cook Islands. More than eight hours later, I found myself promising to try to find a veterinarian who would donate his services. It wasn’t until I returned home, faxed the question “what equipment and supplies to you have’ and received the one-word response: “forceps”   that I began to realize the potential enormity of that promise.

Cathy Sue.
When the EHF started you were adamant that meticulous records be kept from the start. Why is this important and why is it something other animal organisation should consider?

I didn’t ask for financial compensation but I did value my time, our volunteers’ time and our donors’ contributions, and wanted to be certain that our joint efforts were going to do more than offer a temporary band-aid to a never ending problem.

The program model of providing a week or two of free spay/neuter and up-skilling a local vet before moving on to another island is certainly important to those individual numbers treated but it is very unlikely that it will likely result in any significant long-lasting change. I wanted our time and funds to be used wisely to work toward a measurable and permanent improvement in the lives and health of the animals and their community.

To achieve this goal, it was vital that we document our services and expenditures to ensure that the information would be there to be used by the Esther Honey Foundation and others who want to learn from our long-term non-lethal animal population control programs. Our last census documented that EHF’s scientifically-proven spay/neuter program reduced the dog population on Rarotonga from 6,000 to 1,666 with 71.19% of the remaining 1,666 dogs desexed. Our 2013 census is now underway. When completed we will learn whether the number of dogs has continued to decline, remained the same or increased. Whatever the outcome, we will learn from the information collected.

You work seven days a week. How come? What sort of work do
you do for the organisation?

In addition to all of the US Administrative responsibilities, I communicate daily with the clinic administrator on management and program matters. I am also responsible for recruiting and coordinating the tenures of an average of 80 volunteers annually.

Esther Honey and our supporters purchase an average of just under $100,000 in new drugs, supplies and equipment annually (in addition to donated recently-expired products). The majority of the solicitation and organization of transport of these goods is done through this office.

How many animals has the EHF helped?

The Esther Honey Foundation has treated 38,000 animals and S/N more than 14,000. Last year alone we served 14,953 meals to the animals in our care and rehomed 244 homeless.

How can vets become involved?

To date, 345 generous veterinarians have volunteered their time with the Esther Honey Foundation. We would welcome inquiries at