Inga Gibson’s dedication to animal welfare issues took shape while growing up in Hawaii and spending time elsewhere in the mid-Pacific.
Gibson, 45, whose father had a law practice in the islands and served as deputy attorney general in American Samoa and later as a justice on the Supreme Court of Palau, said her family witnessed troubles tied to matters such as roaming dog populations and weak animal protection laws.
“We were always rescuing animals,” said Gibson, now a Hawaii policy consultant with the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States. The advocacy nonprofit focuses on policy-making efforts and assists various local organizations, such as the Hawaiian Humane Society, with training, grants and other support.
Earlier this month, when the Hawaiian Humane Society seized more than 300 dogs — some of them sick and malnourished — from a private animal shelter in Makaha, Gibson pointed out that there are no state laws regulating Hawaii’s animal shelters, breeder operations, boarding and grooming facilities and pet stores.
In such seizure cases, Gibson said, “Oftentimes, they start out with good intentions. They just get in over their heads, but that ultimately doesn’t absolve an organization or an individual. These animals suffer just the same.”
What’s in the works to avert future large-scale seizure cases?
“We’re working with legislators right now to potentially draft some legislation” that would establish a “mechanism to allow for some kind of inspection” at such places. “Whether it’s a shelter, or a pet store or a grooming facility … we want veterinarians to be able to get in and actually see the animals, see the conditions that they’re raised in,” Gibson said. “We really want to be able to intervene before we get to a case that’s like now where animals are extremely sick.”
Gibson would like to see a state agency tasked with handling administration of site inspections and other animal welfare issues. Currently, the Department of Agriculture focuses on quarantine, and the Department of Health’s purview does not cover companion animals.
“This isn’t about being punitive. If you’re a legitimate operation, you’re not going to object to a regular inspection to make sure that the animals are being provided care.”
When the Humane Society of the United States opened its Hawaii office eight years ago, there were few animal-protection laws in place here. Why?
Decades ago, Gibson said, “because of our diversity and our amazing cultural melting pot, there were a lot of differing attitudes toward animals.” Some cultures “had not recognized the connection between animal and people issues,” including general public health concerns. Gradually, though, changes are taking hold. For example, in 2007, Hawaii became the 43rd state to create a felony offense for cruelty to pets, which could fetch an offender up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The following year, horses were added to the law.
What do you see as the top animal welfare issues now confronting the state?
The Humane Society of the United States pursues issues affecting both companion animals and wildlife.
Gibson ranks the aquarium industry trade as among the most pressing issues. She would like to see the trade banned as it’s depleting species and degrading coral reef health. Hawaii is the nation’s top player in the wild-caught aquarium fish trade, with 99 percent of the catch going to mainland pet shops and related businesses, she said.
“To me it’s just appalling that we are literally allowing people to sell our native wildlife,” Gibson said. “Would we ever allow people to catch and sell to the mainland our nene … or monk seals or turtles? But that’s exactly what’s happening in this aquarium trade.”
Among the targeted species is yellow tang. In the wild, the fish can live up to 40 years. But once placed in an aquarium setting, Gibson said, the mortality rate for wild-caught fish is upwards of 40 percent.
“This would never be tolerated in any other pet industry. If we were losing dogs and cats even at 5 percent, the public would be outraged.”
While the topic has been discussed many times at the state Capitol, lawmakers have yet to enact strict limits pertaining to aquarium fish collection, Gibson said.
“It takes political will and courage, and we have yet to see it on that issue.”
Among the other issues: a loophole in the state’s animal cruelty law that appears to permit consumption of dogs and cats; and cockfighting.
Regarding the latter, she described Hawaii’s law as among the weakest in the country. While cockfighting is a felony in 43 states, in Hawaii it’s a misdemeanor. Plus, Gibson said, the state has no “possession with intent law” on the books. “There’s nothing illegal about breeding, raising and training birds for fighting purposes.”
She noted, however, that in 2012, the Legislature passed one of the nation’s strongest anti-dogfighting laws. Prior to that, Hawaii had one of the weakest laws in the nation, through which it was legal to attend a dogfight, Gibson said.
How did you get your start in this field of work?
Before taking up policy work with the Humane Society of the United States about 12 years ago, Gibson logged “a lot of first-hand experience in rescuing animals” as an animal-control officer. She responded to some of the largest national animal cruelty/hoarding cases — 500 dogs, 350 cats, 5,000 fighting roosters. Also, she has responded to some of the largest natural disasters to impact animals, including Hurricane Katrina and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
As a kid growing up on Oahu, Gibson volunteered at the Hawaiian Humane Society and the Honolulu Zoo.
Which policy efforts are you most proud of?
Gibson holds up shark-fin and ivory bans as big victories.
Six years ago, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to make it illegal the possess, sell or distribute shark fins in the state. “It has since become a global initiative,” she said. “Our efforts in 2010 really set Hawaii as a leader in that.” And earlier this year, Gov. David Ige signed into law Act 125, which bans the sale or barter of any item made of ivory or any part of an animal considered an endangered or threatened species. The law will take effect June 30, 2017.
The Humane Society of the United States has tagged Hawaii as the third-largest ivory market in the nation after California and New York, which also recently banned its sale.
In addition, Gibson said she is pleased that Hawaii is poised to become the first state in the nation to prohibit wild animals from being brought to the islands for use in circuses and fairs. A public hearing process for the Board of Agriculture’s proposed rules is still underway.
Away from the state Capitol, Gibson is especially proud of collaborative efforts, such as one wrapping up on Hawaii island that involved rounding up more than 500 donkeys — wandering cast-offs from the earlier days of coffee and plantation operations.
The herd went entirely unmanaged for nearly four decades because the donkeys were neither game nor endangered.
About six years ago, though, when drought and development drew the animals into residential areas, they started turning up on roadways and drinking out of swimming pools. In response, a group of veterinarians, ranchers, farmers and residents began capturing, castrating and “re-homing” the donkeys, Gibson said. Some 120 were relocated in sanctuaries in California.
“That was a tremendous undertaking that epitomizes how community can come together,” she said. “None of us could have done this alone. It was really the community coming together, stepping up.”
The same sort of can-do strategy could be applied to the state’s feral cat problem, Gibson said. On Oahu alone, the feral cat count is estimated to be higher than 300,000.
Over the past several years, the cats have been blamed for killing endangered monk seals, dolphins and native birds due in part to their spread of toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is supporting a “multi-pronged” solution that encourages adoption but also supports euthanasia when necessary.