We Visited Larry Ellison's Hawaiian Cat Ranch

Three years ago, Oracle founder Larry Ellison bought a Hawaiian island. He also unwittingly bought the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center and its 400 feral cats. BuzzFeed News pays a visit.

“They’re the island’s cats,” Kathy Carroll says as I literally trip over Shelby, a gray tabby who won’t stop rubbing my leg. We’re standing among 399 formerly stray and feral cats in a 15,000-square-foot, open-air enclosure on a sparse hillside that slopes down toward the cliffs above Kaumalapau Harbor on Lana’i, Hawaii’s sixth-largest island. In 2012, as Jon Mooallem reported for the New York Times Magazine, Oracle founder, billionaire playboy, and Marvel movie cameo Larry Ellison bought this patch of red dirt — along with about 97% of the island and everything on it, nearly everything except the airstrip, the harbor, the public school, some playing fields, and a few private homes — for a price reportedly between $300 and $600 million.

Like a cat, an island is a funny thing to own. But Ellison is far from the first person to have this much control over the well-being and employment of the people who made their homes on Lana'i. The island has, at times, served as King Kamehameha I’s favorite fishing village, ranch lands for a cattle company, a pineapple plantation for what eventually became Dole foods, and a quaint resort town in service of two Four Seasons hotels.

Lana'i has the sort of worn-in, authentic-feeling vibe that would make developers in the Florida Keys or North Carolina's Outer Banks flip out. In Lana'i City, the 3,100-resident town that serves as the island's commercial and cultural center, nearly every one of the single-story, plantation-style houses has a porch. You can tell who’s a tourist because they all drive the same late-model Jeep Wrangler rented from the local gas station. Down on the beach at Hulopo'e, next to the pristine luau grounds at the Four Seasons, there’s a boarded-up snack bar where packs of local teens like to vape. There are two golf courses and no stoplights. There’s a pizza place with a bar in the back and a bustling takeout business.

And there are cats, hundreds and hundreds of them — many in the sanctuary, many still roaming free around the island. They, like the deer and sheep that still attract hunters to Lana'i today, were originally brought here for someone's amusement, before they were eventually abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Mooallem was concerned with how Ellison would take care of an island that has a long history of booms and busts at the hands of foreign entrepreneurs. I want to know who's taking care of all these cats.

In 2001, Kathy Carroll and her husband, Mike, an artist, moved from Chicago to open the Mike Carroll Gallery in a green row house along Lana'i City's central Dole Park. Trained as a medical illustrator, Mike Carroll designed the original label for the Goose Island Beer Company before opening his gallery, which now sells original paintings celebrating the island and its many majestic golf holes. One work he is particularly proud of is a portrait of his wife sitting on a bench, surrounded by cats.

In 2004, Kathy Carroll started rounding up Lana’i’s feral cats long enough to have them spayed or neutered. She estimates she has serviced around 1,300 cats to date, but at this point, her real accomplishment is the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center, a sanctuary she built for them on the scrubby west side of the island, out near the airport. Officially founded in 2008, the center operated in a converted horse stable before moving to its current home in 2009. It now works off of a six-figure yearly budget made up of donations and adoption programs. There are 425 cats here in total — 399 in the main sanctuary, and the other 26 in kitty quarantine or special needs areas. About 60 of them are adopted-in-place, meaning a benevolent cat person somewhere is covering the cost of a particular cat’s island lifestyle for $240 per year. The majority of the feline residents appear to be of one breed, which the staff of four lovingly refers to as “the Lana’i tabby,” and most of them were rescued from the island’s dump or near one of the two Four Seasons hotels. Kathy calls them Lana’i lions, and they are her joy.

Kathy Carroll’s cat farm is not solely for the comfort of the island’s feline population, however. Near the beachfront Four Seasons at Manele Bay — the most dramatic of Ellison’s local hotel properties, with room rates starting at $1,000 a night — the cats like to hunt the wedge-tailed Shearwater, a protected species of native shorebird that nests in small ground burrows on the far end of the beach from the hotel. “Every cat should have a lap, and every bird should be protected from cats,” reads the somewhat awkwardly phrased mission statement printed on a sign inside the enclosure. It looks like something you might read at a zoo or a scenic lookout.

The center’s 3.5 acres of land are now leased from Pulama Lana’i, the development company Ellison installed to execute his vision of the island as — in his words — a “laboratory of sustainability,” complete with solar power, organic farms exporting produce around the Pacific, and electric cars shuttling guests around a quaint town square to Ellison’s own modern and eco-friendly hotels. That vision is a stark contrast to the quietude of the island now, where the only cab company is a group of three Chevy Suburbans dispatched with a call to the owner's cell phone — after all, with only three main destinations (the beach, the airport, and Lana'i City), any ride is likely to include a couple people who also happen to be heading your way.

Still, Pulama Lana’i has been winning over skeptics by putting on a charm offensive, as Honolulu Magazine put it, immediately upgrading shared resources such as the long-closed community pool and the movie theater on the edge of Dole Park. When I walked by on a Sunday morning in June, the pool looked pristine and there was a full yoga class going on in the attached studio. The theater was showing Jurassic World in 3D.

Pulama Lana’i’s logo shows up everywhere in town: It’s on the banners hung around the park advertising an outdoor movie series with a lineup of Pixar favorites and '80s blockbusters. It’s stamped at the bottom of the spin class schedule. It’s on the side of the Mercedes shuttle van that comes to pick up the only other tourists on the island. (Later, I learned this was their second time on Lana’i. They came back to adopt a cat.) Even a trip to Richard’s Market, the small grocery store on the corner, always ends with Pulama Lana’i’s logo at the top of the receipt. The masthead of Lana’i Today, the island’s misnamed monthly newspaper, lists “Four Seasons Resorts Lana’i” as a contributor and a source. A small billboard a few blocks off the park advertises new plantation-style homes coming soon — built, of course, by Pulama Lana’i. In the window of the Lana’i Culture and Heritage Center (a space provided by Pulama Lana’i in the old Dole administration building), there’s a blown-up version of a Dole pay ledger. It’s an artifact from when the island economy revolved around the pineapple plantation. The handwritten spreadsheet logs each employee’s hours, along with their daily pay and any deductions from what they spent at Dole’s own general store. Up the hill behind the Heritage Center, in a neighborhood named “haole camp,” after the plantation foremen who used to live there, Pulama Lana’i is building a house for a Maui County Police lieutenant.

It may have existed before Pulama Lana’i, but the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center now shares more with Larry Ellison than just the land it leases from him. The center currently receives staffing support from the Burlingame, California-based Peninsula Humane Society in the form of veterinary expertise and accounting. The center is also finalizing a deal with Pacific Animal Initiatives, another nonprofit that works with Peninsula Humane Society, that will offset salary costs for the staff and allow them to focus on raising funds directly for the cats. On the mainland, PHS has recently earned a reputation for similarly open-minded cat sanctuaries. In 2011, the society opened a three-story “Center for Compassion” where the cats are housed in what the opening press release called "spacious cat condos." That facility was made possible through “a major gift” from Larry and Melanie Craft Ellison, his wife at the time. Earlier this year, PHS announced plans to build a state-of-the-art wildlife care facility, also founded by Ellison, on 170 acres of former quarry and logging land in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the heart of Silicon Valley. The center will focus on species with less personality and appeal than the Lana’i tabby, like the Lange’s metalmark butterfly, whose double-digit population is only found in the unglamorous Bay Area suburb of Antioch.

Although he has yet to visit the sanctuary himself, Ellison's relationship with his own cats was remarkable enough to deserve two mentions in his 1997 biography The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison (subtitle: “God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison”). Ellison’s biographer, journalist Mike Wilson, relays a story told to him by Ellison’s first wife, Adda Quinn. When Ellison’s cat Yitzhak died, Quinn said, he "took off two weeks in mourning. He was nonfunctional.” In another anecdote, Ellison tells Wilson he once returned home to find out his cat Clio died while he was out of town on business. Ellison had the cat’s body exhumed so she could be buried under her favorite tree. When BuzzFeed News reached out to Ellison for comment about his feelings towards felines, especially those on Lana’i, an Oracle rep declined to comment.

America changed irrevocably the day that Japan’s idea of serving tea and coffee in a room full of cats hit our shores. In the past year alone, two coffee shop–adoption center hybrids have opened in the Bay Area. In New York, #brands pounced on the idea before anyone else could, and a cat food company beat everyone to market by opening a heavily sponsored pop-up version on Bowery. Here on Lana’i, where the human population is around 3,200 people, the sanctuary looks less like an indoor cat playground with tea and more like a zoological exhibit from a near-future, post-apocalyptic scenario. Inside a perimeter fence made of black plastic deer netting, the cats live among a few shady trees and salvaged wood structures painted red to match the martian dirt showing through in bare spots. Shipping pallets have been reconfigured into feline-friendly cubbyholes and fuzzy little ears poke out of a row of wicker baskets. On a high shelf, a long-haired black cat named Karma arches her back and glares at me with piercing yellow eyes like a living Halloween decoration. In the center of the enclosure, underneath a corrugated metal roof salvaged from one of the plantation-era homes in Lana’i City, is the kitchen and feeding zone. “The cat-fur-teria,” Kathy calls it. “We’re big on puns here.”

The entire matrix of feline emotion is on display: from tooth-and-nail attention seeking to calculated indifference, from lazily mischievous to openly hostile. Mostly, they just seem aloof. When someone new enters, at least three dozen pairs of curious eyes immediately turn toward the gate. If you’re here to adopt a cat, the first moments are crucial, Kathy says, echoing countless clichés about cat ownership, because you never really choose a cat — cats choose you. She can recall almost every cat’s name and their particular quirks or ailments on sight. She says things like “he’s got a little hitch in his giddyup” when talking about Watermelon, a particularly fat tabby who probably has arthritis. She’s not above slipping into a cutesy cat voice when someone rolls over for a belly rub.

Last year, around 1,000 people visited the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center. It was named the No. 1 most recommended thing to do on Lana’i, according to TripAdvisor, where it also enjoys a five-star rating (the No. 2 recommendation was the Mike Carroll Gallery). The daily open houses are free, but for sale are a new batch of T-shirts, illustrated by Mr. Carroll, featuring a Hawaiian cat playing a ukulele. For a while, the Four Seasons was running shuttles to the shelter as part of its voluntourism offerings, and the shelter’s own handout invites tourists who are longing for their cats at home to “Visit a Cat Lover’s Paradise." One Japanese ailurophile did just that and flew straight to Lana’i from Tokyo, stopping only to change planes in Honolulu. Another visitor proposed to his girlfriend underneath the “Cattic” — a three-walled porch with Adirondack chairs and a cat-sized loft where some of the more skittish cats like to hide out. He’d been carrying around the ring waiting for the right moment.

Since litter training is the only thing separating the sanctuary’s residents from their feral cousins, one might wonder about logistics of supplying all that kitty litter. Where do all these cats go to shit?

Here, Ellison’s predecessors have unknowingly left behind a solution: the common but non-native Cook Island pines, which were imported to the island in 1911 by naturalist and rancher George Munro after he noticed the fog condensing on the stubby needles of the lone pine outside his cabin and saw an opportunity to solve the island’s fresh-water problem. Fast-forward a hundred years and it turns out those needles, once dried out and mulched in a woodchipper, are also great for soaking up cat piss.

Pulama Lana’i now collects the branches at its nursery and delivers them by the truckload to the shelter. The mulched pine litter is spread across six large cat boxes, each about the size of a sandbox at a respectable daycare. While Kathy is showing me the most trafficked of the six, Musashi, a calico who happens to share her name with Ellison's 290-foot yacht, hikes up her tail, and takes a dump right in front of us. She has irritable bowel syndrome.

Across the dirt parking lot from the main enclosure, a donated shipping container serves as a field clinic for Dr. Ako, the visiting veterinarian, who travels over from Maui twice a month to do routine checkups, spay or neuter any new arrivals, and perform final examinations before signing off on adoption paperwork. On the day I visit, Kathy meets me in front of the Lana’i Culture and Heritage Center in her weathered Jeep Grand Cherokee. She's excited to show me a binder full of forms for Butterfinger, an orange tabby with the feline equivalent of HIV who will soon be headed to a new suburban life in Southern California.

All told, 30 cats were adopted from the Lana’i Animal Rescue Center between summer 2014 and the time I visit in June. That’s hardly enough to make a dent in the number of cats under Kathy’s care, but with space to spare at what is basically a free-range shelter, there’s not exactly a huge rush to evict any of the feline tenants either. Some of the more popular cats — like “Mysterious Grey Kitty,” who is so averse to human interaction no one’s even gotten close enough to gauge its gender — have multiple sponsors. Others, like Pepper, a skinny black cat with a patch of white on his nose, is just the opposite — once standoffish and stubbornly feral but now insatiable for attention. Pending Dr. Ako’s approval, Pepper will be moving to Seattle in the next few months. Others, like Pierre — a skinny gray thing with a Salvador Dali mustache, who seems to materialize out of thin air every time I turn around — appear happy to just lounge around the shelter, posing for visitors. When I spot Rosie climbing on the outside of the fence, Kathy doesn’t seem too concerned. The food is inside, after all. They’ve got everything they need here. Where else would they go?

Like a cat, Larry Ellison seems to maintain a certain skeptical distance from humans. His home in Woodside, California — one of many — sits on 23 acres modeled after the estate of a 16th-century Japanese emperor. During the estate’s construction, the local newspaper wrote that the grounds included a network of tunnels designed to keep the staff out of sight while moving between buildings. The company he created to buy Lana’i is called Tentacle Corp., itself a division of Octopus Holdings, another one of his companies with an ominous name and a nebulous purpose. He seems to take some pleasure in cultivating this villainous image. He’s in on his own joke. He also owns 97% of a Hawaiian island stocked with cats.

One staffer at the Lana’i Culture and Heritage Center tells me she saw Ellison on the island around Christmastime last year. That would have been roughly three months after the New York Times Magazine asked of him, “now what?” It’s not an easy place to hide out, either: After two days on Lana’i, people I've only just met start to mention they’ve been seeing me around. Meanwhile, I suddenly start noticing cats everywhere. Walking the grounds of the desolate Four Seasons at Ko’ele, the only guests are construction workers loading into shuttles, roving packs of wild turkeys wandering the grounds, a few koi fish in the Japanese garden, and an orange tabby hanging out on the porch. The only sign of Ellison — not including all those Pulama Lana’i logos — is a stale Pacific Business News article from March that remarks that Musashi (the yacht, not the cat) is docked 75 miles away on Oahu. Its owner had not been spotted, but you can still adopt the cat.