The dog and cat population in American Samoa is almost 100% mutts. Most are hardy and domesticated, living outside and eating any scraps thrown to them.
The problem is, there’s only one veterinarian clinic in all of American Samoa. It’s housed by the Department of Agriculture and is open to the public with very affordable fees. And that’s great. It’s just that there’s a lot of work to be done and only so little resources.
Pssst… I made my very first podcast! It was a random occasion right before art night with some girlfriends, and Kelsey and I just started jabbering over my iPhone’s recorder. Please listen below, and let me know what you think!
Meet Kelsey Johnson
Kelsey Johnson is a Seattle native who works full time for the National Park Service, but during her stay in American Samoa, fell head over paws and founded a nonprofit organization in American Samoa dedicated to animal welfare. I interviewed her to learn more about Coconut Mutts.
LISTEN: Coconut Mutts by Kelsey Johnson
Tell me a little bit about yourself – your background, where you’re from, and what you do.
Sure. So my name is Kelsey Johnson, and I am a Park Ranger by trade so I work for the NPS, and have for the past 13 years. I grew up in Washington State, but with the Park Service, I moved around quite a bit throughout the PNW and SW, and more recently to the South Pacific in American Samoa.
You have a non-profit called Coconut Mutts, what is it exactly?
So Coconut Mutts is a nonprofit dedicated to improving animal welfare in American Samoa, and it was started by myself about a year ago. I was living in American Samoa in a temporary capacity for my job. And I noticed that there were a lot of stray animals, and cats, and I was raised to take care of the animals that I would inherit; whether I moved into a new house or was driving down the road, and an animal looked like it was lost on my street, so I started to collect animals basically (lol) and take them to the clinic. And I met Dr. Kristen and started learning more about veterinarian services, or the lack thereof on island, and realized that I wanted to help them out however I could.
Oh awesome, cool! So I understand there’s a story about Coconut Mutts, like how it started… What is the story? How did you get started? And what’s the vision of Coconut Mutts?
Sure! I never moved to AS thinking that I would end up being passionate about animal welfare, and starting a nonprofit business to help a veterinarian clinic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But I happened to go on a hike in the village of Vatia and I found a kitten in the grass who had been abandoned, and she was completely emaciated. I could fell all the bones of her spine, and she was really dehydrated so I held her in the palm of my hand and when I would release one of my hands while holding her by her shoulders, her legs would stay crumpled up because she was so dehydrated. So the people I was with still wanted to go on the hike, and they were wondering what I should do with the kitten and they suggested that I should put her in the garbage can and she won’t go anywhere and we can always pick her up on the way back. And I thought that was kind of asinine because she weighed only a couple ounces. And so, you know, I carried her and she was fine with that, and she was so weak, she couldn’t protest basically. So took her home and it was on a Friday, and the clinic was closed on the weekends, so I did what I could—gave her food and water and she seemed to perk up quite a bit, and did really well throughout the weekend and during those next couple days, I completely fell in love with her. She was such a snuggle bug and had the most beautiful green eyes, and was just a pure sweetheart. Took her to the clinic on Monday, and she got all fixed up and dewormed, fluids. That night when she was home, she started to get kind of lethargic and wasn’t acting like herself. We called Dr. Kristen and she thought maybe the kitten was so weak and had some type of underlying condition. My friend Jessie was visiting at the time, and we were pretty sure that she was going to have to be put down if we took her into the clinic so we decided to see if we could continue to nurse her back to health. If nothing else, she would spend the night being loved and she fell asleep on Jessie’s stomach that night and later on I cuddled her on my stomach. And in the morning she woke me up because she was crying, and I woke Jess up, and I told her the kitten was doing really well so we were rushing to get her clothes on and just get everything together so we could take her to the clinic. I had Dr. Kristen on the phone and Jessie was in the bathroom, and I was sitting on the bed. [The kitten’s name] was Jojo, and I was holding Jojo in my hands and she was taking kind of gasping breaths, and all of a sudden she died.
In your hands?
Aww that’s so sad…
Yeah… and so um, [it] like completely broke my heart. And again, I had only known the kitten a couple of days, but something just kind of clicked inside me when, you know, you hold something… like I think anything, or you know, that would happen to anybody… if they cared for a kitten and put so much love into it. And seeing how innocent it was, and realizing that it shouldn’t have died in the first place… that most of the things that were wrong with her could have been fixed, and it would have been great if she wasn’t abandoned in the first place. So that was really sad. So we, you know, buried her out in the front lawn, and she has a nice view of the Pacific Ocean, and we put flowers on top and… I think something changed after that. Like, it became less of like, this is what I’m supposed to do as a member of the community to I think this has something to do with something bigger—a bigger mission. But her story doesn’t stop there obviously because she inspired a nonprofit. But even that day, you know, me and my friend were so heartbroken that I just wanted to go home and take a nap, and Jessie said she wanted to go on a hike. And I’m like, well that’s probably the healthier option—to go on a hike. So we went back to the place where we found her. And as we’re driving along, we see a dog coming down the road. And we slow the car down. The dog is completely emaciated. He has pus running down the side of his face, and that dog ended up being one of the dogs that I took home with me.
Nice! …So the name of Coconut Mutts? How did you come up with that?
So on the surface, it’s kind of a cutesy little name, like “oh my gosh! Tropical coconut trees with these dogs, you know, romping around or whatever, playing in the bushes and the flowers. But coconuts are everywhere in Samoa. And often you can find animals under the shade of coconut [trees] trying to get out of the heat of the sun or being pelted by monsoonal rains or anything like that. But also, coconut trees and the coconut itself is a symbol of life in American Samoa. And growing up in the PNW, I mean I grew up knowing that the western red cedar is the tree of life in my neck of the woods. Knowing that that tree is the tree of life here in Samoa—we thought that it was appropriate to incorporate into an organization where you know, we deal with life on a daily basis.
That’s awesome. Thanks for sharing that. And then you said you collected pets—so how many pets do you currently have?
I went from 0 to 3…
In a span of?
…like, a month haha!
Are they all “coconut mutts”?
Mmhmm, yeah. So I have a dog—the dog that I found on the day that Jojo died—and then I have 2 cats who came from the island as well, and they only weigh about 4… 4 and a half pounds each currently. They were really really tiny when I first got them, and they stayed tiny ever since then.
So I heard about your recent excursion to Manu’a with the vet clinic. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that was and how that happened?
There’s only 1 veterinarian clinic in American Samoa, and it’s based on the main island of Tutuila so that means that the other 4 islands don’t have access to veterinary care. There’s a grouping of islands called the Manu’a islands, which includes Ofu, Olosega, and Tau. It was Coconut Mutts’ first big fundraising campaign. Dr. Kristen said she wanted to go over and we offered to help however we could. and so we focused on trying to get resources for her to go over. So just doing kind of basic medical veterinary stuff that we take for granted on the mainland. Like spay and neuter clinic, vaccinations… I mean, you know, when we went over—myself and Coconut Mutts board member Alanna Olear were prepared to have an efficient spay and neuter clinic. But when you go over there, you have people bringing their pets and you know, a dog is already spayed and is looking great, but it has a hematoma on its ear. And so Dr. Kristen has to look at that. Or when someone says that their neighbors dog got in a dog fight and their intestines are spilling out. So it’s not just a clinic in those areas, it’s an ambulance service and a counseling service and an education service as well.
That’s so cool.
Yeah, so they’re still over there right now.
Yeah, we had some pretty interesting weather.
Yes we did! Still are…
But they were delayed for a couple days because of the weather so they were able to go from the island of Ofu and get to Tau today.
Cool, and do you know how many animals they’ve serviced?
Last I heard, as of yesterday it was 30, and she said today that she has at least 25 more animals lined up in Ta’u…
So she’s actually extending her stay in Ta’u. Which is awesome because Coconut Mutt’s goal was to sponsor 50 animals, and so I think we’re gonna go over that, which is awesome.
How do you balance a full-time or part-time job with a non-profit business? Just because I understand you’re here for a few weeks, then you go back to Seattle. How do you balance all of this?
I work full time for the Park Service and I think that, for me—Coconut Mutts balances work out. I don’t consider it a burden in any way because it’s something that I feel really passionate about. And I’m also surrounded be people who are equally as passionate, and so it’s easy. it doesn’t feel like it’s a time-suck in any capacity. And so you just find those moments where you can write a little paragraph, or write an email, or edit a picture. Whether it’s on the bus or before you go to bed, or while you’re watching TV… It feels… I don’t know, it’s almost relaxing in a way. Like, that’s the relaxing part of my day.
Right, you do what you love, that’s so cool.
And so what are the biggest challenges that Coconut Mutts faces?
I think that a lot of folks on the mainland, don’t actually know—number 1, where American Samoa is, or that it exists, that it is an unincorporated territory of the US. And so the remote location of the islands is one of the biggest challenges, in getting supplies here, in getting mail, getting people here—it’s incredibly challenging. It’s not “oh I’m gonna drop something off at the post office and it’s gonna get there when it says it’s gonna get there”. One of our volunteers sent a package 2 months ago, and it didn’t make it on the boat or the boat was delayed, and so you know, it was a box full of collars and leashes and dog toys and cat toys, and it took 2 months to get here. So just preparing for things like that and trying to figure out how to communicate all those challenges to potential donors and contributors on the mainland I think is one of the biggest challenges.
So [the mainland is] your demographic for fundraising, would you say?
Yeah, at this time. It started when I was coming back from AS and I wanted to bring my animals with me, and there was an overwhelming support from people on the mainland, and so you know, life is hard [enough] here in AS. So it doesn’t feel right asking people who are already often struggling themselves to contribute more to their community. So if we can get folks who are passionate about animals, and passionate about community welfare to contribute, then that’s great.
Awesome. So I mean, I love animals as well. How can people help? Like where can I go to help Coconut Mutts?
That’s a really great question! So obviously, donations… all money collected goes directly to helping animals in AS. We’re a volunteer-run organization, so again, yeah all funds goes directly to the animals, or to the clinic. If folks are interested in volunteering their time, [we] definitely have some volunteer opportunities—whether it’s writing a blog, or promoting the organization over Facebook or Instagram, or other social media outlets. And also if people want to actually donate physical items. They can ship them to us on the mainland, and we can ship them to AS, or they can ship them directly to AS. So again, little things like just dog toys or cat toys or leashes or collars, or old towels, old t-shirts… anything like that.
Definitely doable! Yeah cool. So i’m just gonna ask you one more question just about Coconut Mutts, and I’ll ask a little about you. What surprised you the most about starting a non profit from scratch?
What I think surprised me the most—and it probably sounds really cliche, and a lot of people have already learned this lesson before, but it’s that the overwhelming amount of support that we’ve gotten, not only from friends and family, but community members. I think most of us… well I started it thinking that I would just do it. I didn’t expect that people would be interested to be on the board. That people would be interested in interviewing me, or donating their time to take pictures, or to write content for the website. And once you start seeing people tagging you on photos on Facebook and Instagram, and asking you questions about the organization, and then donating on top of it… A lot of our donations come from folks who don’t make a lot of money, but they feel like it’s their responsibility to give back to the community through animal welfare. So that, to me, has just been, again—it’s so cliche of me to say—but so incredibly inspiring, and unexpected.
No, that’s great. Cool, thank you so much.
And then just for the last bit, I just want to ask a little bit about you so we can understand, you know, Kelsey Johnson.
Hahaha… the complex thing that I am.
Haha! You know, not everybody starts nonprofits from scratch, so I wanna know a little more about you—when you’re not working for the National Parks, and not working necessarily on Coconut Mutts—what do you do for fun?
Oh my gosh, yeah that’s a good question. Um, I love the outdoors. I’m a total nature nerd, so I love to go hiking.
Not for work?
Not for work, haha. I mean if I can hike for work, you know that’s an extra added bonus…
I really enjoy photography, which helps a lot with Coconut Mutts. And I live in Seattle which is where I was born and raised in a small town outside ofSeattle, so I’m fortunate that I have a lot of friends and family there. Sometimes it’s just nice to hang out with friends, and cook, and not do anything at all.
Cool. Awesome, and so what are you looking forward to, for the rest of 2017?
Personally, in respect to Coconut Mutts, or just in general?
In both capacities, sure.
I think that after spending some time here, like coming back to AS, and seeing how Coconut Mutts was received, and kind of building connections, and strengthening our foundation, I’m excited to go back and see what the next step is after this first fundraising with the Manu’a islands. It went pretty well, and so what are our next steps, what can we do to keep the momentum going? I mean, living in Seattle, one of the things I look forward to most is the summer but I can finally see the sun again! And being outside and being able to take Matai on walks and showing him the life that every dog should be able to live.
We like to consider that the puppy lottery, when they—coming from here, and the story that now they have their forever home with you.
And you know with Officer Scruffles, when you take animals out of that situation, they’re often so loving in return or the love that you give them, because they’ve experienced lives without love. But then also, it’s so much fun to take Matai out on a walk and if he sees a stroller for the first time, it like blows his mind. So you know, things like that are fun. So take him hiking a little bit more…
Nice! So just the last question… and this is so controversial/ debatable… are you a cat person or are you a dog person?
Hahaha! That’s a really good question. I started volunteering at the Humane Society back in Seattle before I came down, and one of the first questions I was asked was if I was a cat or dog person. And I said both.
But are you truly both though?
I think I am. I think before I had cats, i would’ve said dogs… but I don’t know, cats can be pretty cool!
They’re so relatable right?
Yeah! Now that you have one?
I think so. Now that I have one!
OK well thank you so much Kelsey. I really appreciate you taking the time to interview [with] me. And thank you to Paolo and Mareike for letting us use your house!
Aw, thank you Nerelle for all your help with Coconut Mutts, and even wanting to interview with me. And it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Vet tech Shawnti Faumui playing with a rescue pup Kelsey and I named Peppa, he was adopted that same day!
A latex glove filled with water and heated in the microwave is used to keep recovering kittens warm.
“Surgery packs” include sterilized cloths that are cut up from old donated blankets and surgical tools for quick and easy access.
There is a big need for kitten formula because it is expensive and difficult to find on island. They are used to supplement mother’s milk.
This stray tomcat was brought in bleeding profusely with a broken arm. Dr. Kristen did surgery immediately, and is recovering nicely.
With up to 30 animals in the clinic at a time and limited space, the vet team changed all extra space to accommodate recovering animals.
Kelsey reaching over a pile of laundry (filled with swaddling blankets) to access the microwave with limited space in the clinic.
The clinic’s only operating table is a regular table. It is occasionally used for eating lunch as well.
Dr. Kristen Jensen and Vet Tech Shawnti Faumui standing in front of the brand new sign donated by Toea’ina Faufano Autele.
These photos were taken during a visit with Kelsey to the only vet clinic in American Samoa.
We played with the cutest little puppy and I got to see how much need there was for very basic supplies.
Huge kudos to Dr. Kristen Jensen, Shawnti Faumui and Tanya Tarasawa at the Vet Clinic for caring for and servicing our animal friends.