Growing up in Captain Cook on Hawaiʻi Island, Naomi Kamakau-Sakugawa was surrounded by animals. Her ʻohana raised pigs on their farm and she competed in the rodeo circuit. But while the island had many ranches and farms, Kamakau-Sakugawa recalled that there were very few large animal veterinarians.
It was this realization that inspired her to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.
After high school, she left Hawaiʻi to pursue a degree in animal science at Colorado State University. While attending school there, she met Maui-born James Sakugawa who would eventually become her husband.
After completing her bachelor’s degree, Kamakau-Sakugawa continued her education at Washington State University located in rural southeast Washington near the Idaho border because it reminded her of home. “The people there are just genuinely kind. I immediately gave my acceptance letter when I went to visit. I loved it that much,” she recalled.
Although she planned to return home to Hawaiʻi Island after school, she and her husband ended up settling on Maui.
“My then-fiancee’s family had a feedlot [on Maui]. He said there was no way he was moving unless I could find him land to run cattle on the Big Island. We tried but we couldn’t find land so it was either we stay separated, or I move to Maui,” she said.
In 2018, Kamakau-Sakugawa founded her mobile veterinary business, JN Veterinary and Livestock Services, while also working at Central Maui Animal Clinic, an emergency veterinarian clinic in Kahului.
“I knew there was a big demand for large animal vets here on Maui because there’s only one large animal vet clinic in Makawao,” Kamakau-Sakugawa said.
At the time, Maui was experiencing an outbreak of strangles, a highly infectious respiratory disease affecting horses. Because of the outbreak, rodeos were requiring vaccinations for the disease. The tremendous need to get horses vaccinated against the disease helped propel Kamakau-Sakugawa’s business forward.
In 2019, after giving birth to her first child and feeling burned out, Kamakau-Sakugawa decided to take a job with Maui County while continuing to run her mobile clinic on the side.
During the lockdowns resulting from the pandemic, the need for at-home animal services increased sharply and Kamakau-Sakugawa found her services in high demand. Even though her business relies solely on word-of-mouth, demand for her services has stayed steady since the pandemic.
In December 2021, flooding caused by an extreme winter storm devastated her home and property. Kamakau-Sakugawa decided to return to work at Central Maui Animal Clinic to help meet the family’s financial needs.
After Maui’s devastating wildfires, the clinic became busier but, thankfully, they did not see as many burn patients as they anticipated. Similarly, Kamakau- Sakugawa’s business was not significantly impacted, although, since the fires, she has been caring for several pigs rescued from a farm that burned down in Lahaina.
As a Native Hawaiian veterinarian, Kamakau- Sakugawa is one of a rare few. In fact, Indigenous people are underrepresented in the field of veterinary medicine.
Yet she finds that her background actually makes it easier to connect with the people and communities she serves. “It helps being Hawaiian and being born and raised in Hawaiʻi as I am able to build rapport with clients since I understand the Hawaiian/local culture, mentality, and thinking,” she said. “This also allows me to easily converse with them and speak in a way that they are comfortable with and understand.”
Kamakau-Sakugawa traces her lineage back to one of Hawaiʻi’s most renowned Native Hawaiian historians and scholars.
“I wanted to stay true to my maiden name. Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau, the Hawaiian historian, is my great-great-great-grandfather,” she said. “[My name] is a tie to my Hawaiian culture and ancestors. I made a point, when I became a doctor, to stick with it. When I introduce myself it’s always as ‘Dr. Kamakau.’”
Just prior to the fires, Kamakau-Sakugawa was asked to be the veterinarian for a new agriculture program starting at Lahainaluna High School. She spent time meeting with the agriculture program’s teacher and students and ended up at the school library to look at senior projects.
“I didn’t realize that the name of their library is Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau Library,” she said. Samuel Kamakau had been a student there, having enrolled at Lahainaluna Seminary in 1833. “I had to take pictures and send them to all my family. That was awesome. I just feel like my ancestors would be proud.”
In the future, Kamakau-Sakugawa said she would love to focus solely on her mobile business and expand it to include Hawaiʻi Island and possibly other islands too.
She has recently gained success providing bull breeding services to some of Maui’s larger ranches. And she is exploring the possibility of purchasing a mobile veterinary vehicle manufactured by La Boit Speciality Vehicles.
“It’s a full surgical suite in a vehicle,” she said. “If I can get that down the line, I can safely spay and neuter dogs and cats, as well as larger animals like pigs and goats. The sky’s the limit from there.”