Animals’ Best Friend

With the closing of the MSPCA on the Vineyard earlier this year, the community has rallied to maintain a shelter at the same location in Edgartown. Animal lovers on the Island have a long history of helping all kinds of beloved creatures through a variety of organizations – walking a path pioneered by Katharine M. Foote.

One hot summer day in 1929, a diminutive woman in her late sixties sailed over on a ferry boat from the mainland to Edgartown. She was an animal lover coming from Boston for a quiet Island holiday. But that wasn’t to be. Nor, for the next eighty years, was life for animals on the Vineyard going to be as it had been before.

Blue-eyed, five-foot-tall Katharine M. Foote, was Massachusetts’s first woman embalmer and had laid out Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. As Kitty Foote stepped off the gangplank, looking forward to respite from the city, she was greeted by a fellow animal-loving friend.

The friend told her there were seventeen stray cats in need of a home. Something had to be done – and right away. Old Tom Baylies had been feeding and caring for them, but he had taken sick and gone to the hospital. (There, in those simpler times, his devoted dog Shep kept him company under his bed.) But what would become of the cats, the friend asked. Katharine Foote sighed.

Gone was her dream that, on the Vineyard, she would simply be enjoying the tranquility of the country. Clearly that wasn’t to be. The cats had to be cared for first, for, as Katharine Foote was wont to say, “I love all animals, and I cannot bear to see them in need or in pain.”

Then and there, she made up her mind that she would establish an animal rescue league on Martha’s Vineyard. She soon rented quarters on Edgartown’s Main Street. Then, when she needed more room – both for herself and the animals – she built herself a modest house with accommodations for strays in the cellar and a clinic attached; she moved into this home and shelter on Pennywise Path in Edgartown in 1933, cutting all Boston ties.

Until this year, thanks to her generosity and perspicacity, few Island strays have remained without a home for long and few injured animals have suffered without care. But it has taken money. In the beginning, that was provided by Kitty Foote herself. But as the Island’s human population increased, so did its animal population. Her Martha’s Vineyard Animal Rescue League, a friend but not an affiliate of the Boston Animal Rescue League, had to seek private contributions to keep going. The flood of animals that came through her shelter’s doors – not only dogs and cats, but birds, goldfish, turtles, and rabbits – soon forced her to hire both an assistant for the shelter and a veterinarian. She insisted that not only house pets and small animals on the Island be cared for, but sheep and goats and pigs and cows and horses and wild fauna.

Even though Katharine Foote was a frail woman, she would comb Island beaches if an oil spill had been reported, looking for ducks that might have been sickened. In the days when sheep were still kept on Noman’s Land, she concerned herself with their welfare. It was through her love of animals and concern with their suffering from wood ticks that research first began on the Vineyard into Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ways ticks might be eliminated. In the early years of her shelter, when an animal could not be properly cared for on the Vineyard, Kitty Foote would take it, nestled in her
lap, by boat and train – or whatever transportation she could find – to Boston to be treated.

As the cost of such care mounted, both year-rounders and summer residents generously supported her. Donors to her shelter included the wife of United States Senator William Butler, who had a Lambert’s Cove home. Mary Butler compared the good works of Katharine Foote to those of Father Damien, who cared for the lepers of Hawaii, and Florence Nightingale, who nursed the wounded in the Crimean War. Among other supporters was the Broadway actress and Dachshund owner Katharine Cornell, who summered on Lake Tashmoo. Suffragist Alice Stone Blackwell of Cambridge and Chilmark lauded Kitty Foote with a rhyme:

 If all the creatures you have aided
 Could now before you be paraded,
 The line, beginning at the beach,
 To the horizon’s verge would reach.
 If each good deed of yours could be
 A pumpkin lantern bright to see,
 The stars they would outnumber quite
 And make a glory in the night.

But still, in 1947, when she was eighty-six, Katharine Foote was worried about the future for her shelter after she was gone. To assure that the animals she so loved would be well cared for, she deeded the property she had dedicated to their welfare to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The deed gave the bounds of the land that was her gift, but in the casual way of those days, failed to stipulate the property she was giving be used for her Island animals, their descendants, and successors. She assumed, of course, that was understood, never considering that the MSPCA would ever abandon its Vineyard commitment.

Her gift of land was gratefully accepted, and Kitty Foote was praised by the society for her far-sighted concern for Vineyard animals. Indeed, on her ninetieth birthday in 1951, then-president of the MSPCA Eric H. Hansen and Dr. Gerry Schnelle, chief of staff at the Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, were both on hand to hail her for her humane work. In 1955, when she died, she willed the greater part of her estate to the MSPCA, “with the power to use the principal and income from same solely for the maintenance of the property here and not for the general purposes of the corporation.” The grateful MSPCA president and the Angell Memorial chief of staff returned to the Vineyard to erect a tablet in her honor as a humanitarian and the founder of the Island branch.

But this year, MSPCA President Carter Luke, citing the high cost of maintaining the Edgartown shelter in bad economic times, announced that his society would be closing the Foote Memorial Animal Shelter – the successor to the one she had built for Island animals in 1933 on the land she later deeded to the MSPCA.

The present shelter was constructed in 1988, after six years of brouhaha with neighbors who objected to it, and the Edgartown Zoning Board of Appeals. That was the first time the MSPCA, weary over the years of controversy, said it was ready to give up and close down the shelter. But a group of
Island animal advocates took up the cause and fought the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board finally capitulated after the Superior Court found in favor of the MSPCA.

In announcing the decision to close the shelter this time, a spokesman said that the monies Katharine Foote’s will had left for the shelter were long gone and contributions in recent years had faltered. (For some time now, however, donors pointed out, they had not been able to earmark their contributions to the state-wide society to go to the Island shelter. This had been an option in the past and was as Katharine Foote had requested.)

So as announced, the MSPCA withdrew all its support in May, but for the time being, the society is allowing the county to use the building rent free for Island animals in need. That building and everything else on Kitty Foote’s former land – her house, now empty, and the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic – remain in the hands of the MSPCA however. Any income from the rental or sale of them will not be used for the care of Island animals, but for the Boston-based society’s purposes anywhere in the state.

As an emergency measure, the Dukes County Commissioners agreed in April to provide temporary financial assistance from a reserve fund to keep the shelter open into this fall. The mission of that facility, now called the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard, is “to provide shelter, health care, love, and support to all domestic animals until a permanent home is found.”

Last year at the Island MSPCA – the predecessor of the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard – 165 dogs and 86 cats, along with three rabbits, eight birds, and 27 other animals that included hamsters, mice, and gerbils were sheltered, and homes were found for 158 of them. Youngsters seeking pets could always find one. When animal control officers’ facilities were full, the MSPCA shelter was always there for the homeless to wait for adoption. Injured animals would be nursed back to health at the shelter. Owners who for some reason could not keep their pets (because of a new rental situation or an allergy, for example) could be assured that the animals they loved were safe until other devoted owners could be found. The new Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard is now answering these needs.

Heading its board of directors is lifelong Island seasonal resident Mary Jane Pease of Chilmark, who’s been a teacher and volunteer at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Other members are Diana Muldaur Dozier of Edgartown, an Airedale breeder and actress; Edgartown attorney Rosemarie
Haigazian; Jessica Burnham of Edgartown, a horse owner and longtime volunteer at the old MSPCA; and Greg Orcutt of West Tisbury, general manager of WMVY radio. Roger Williams of Animal Health Care Associates in Edgartown is the medical adviser, and County Manager Russell Smith is the general adviser.

Russell says the Dukes County Commission will be funding the shelter through the end of October. Since it took over in May, the commission – with the highly hands-on board members and other volunteers – has been renovating the facility, operating it, and trying to determine its running costs. At the end of this six-month commitment, it will determine what it would cost each town and the county to maintain the shelter on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, volunteers are needed to look after the animals, and both financial donations and such physical donations as a new storage building, replacement windows, and a winter-sturdy roof for the dog run are being sought. Katharine Foote would be well pleased that her beloved Island animals will not be forsaken.

Tax-free gifts made out to the County of Dukes County – designated in the check memo for the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard – may be sent to the Dukes County Commission, P.O. Box 190, Edgartown, MA 02539.

Other animal lovers and organizations

Katharine M. Foote was not alone in her devotion to Island animals. The list of those devoted to the welfare of Vineyard critters of land, air, and water through the years, and today, is myriad. Among them, in the past, were Edgartown tender of strays Tom Baylies, Vineyard Gazette editors Henry Beetle Hough and Elizabeth Bowie Hough, artist and wild animal lover Ruth Emerson of Chilmark, Chilmark wildlife rehabilitator and rescuer of domestic animals Karen Bunting, and Tisbury animal control officer John Rogers.

More recently, there’s been Cattrap Inc. founder Laurie Huff, PAWS founder AnnaBell Washburn, SPAY founder Katharine Tweed, former Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary director Gus Ben David, cat rescuer Pat Rogers. And today shelters other than the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard are providing care to the Island’s injured and abandoned pets and wildlife.

Cattrap Inc.

Since 1995, when Cattrap was founded by Laurie Huff, formerly of West Tisbury and now of Sonoma, California, this cat rescue has trapped and neutered more than 6,000 stray or abandoned Vineyard cats and kittens, and placed more than 1,500 in Island homes. Today Lee Dubin of West Tisbury manages Cattrap on a fifteen-acre site off Indian Hill Road, where the animals are free to roam. They also have accommodations in heated barns, with cat doors that allow them access to the fields and woods. Although she is long gone from the Island, Laurie Huff still finances the operation she began. At present, there are thirty-five cats at the Indian Hill barn-shelter. All are grown, spayed or neutered, and will be lifetime residents. Although the organization is no longer trapping animals, it does seek to educate owners about the need to spay or neuter their pets, and to educate those trying to trap a stray.

Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals

Eleven years ago in Oak Bluffs, Kim Cyr opened a rescue center for injured and stray dogs, cats, and other creatures outside her June Avenue home. What was Second Chance has been revamped and is now called Martha’s Vineyard Helping Homeless Animals. On any given day, there are likely to be half a dozen dogs and four dozen cats sunning in the yard or, in winter, enjoying their own heated accommodations. Tessa Dahl, of Edgartown, heads its board of directors and among its members are her mother, actress Patricia Neal of Edgartown; singer Carly Simon of West Tisbury; car dealer Ernest Boch Jr. of Boston and Edgartown; and author Geraldine Brooks of Vineyard Haven. Helping out at the center is Kim’s mother, Verna Carr, formerly a Cattrap volunteer. The new center is not adopting out animals.

Vanderhoop Bird Sanctuary

Eight years ago, Forrest Vanderhoop accepted an invitation to attend the Rhode Island Pet Show. He came home to Edgartown with a cockatiel. His wife, Kate, an assistant animal control officer in Edgartown, was enraptured with it. Today, attached to their Jernegan Avenue home, is a heated aviary that houses some forty birds. There are button quail, macaws, a ring-necked dove, a maroon-bellied conure, finches, and lovebirds. For a while, a parrot put up for adoption and two baby sparrows that had fallen from their nest were part of the mix. The birds entertain the Vanderhoop family with their songs and their antics, but many of them are available to go to other homes.

Vineyard Miniature Horse Rescue Inc.

For eleven years now, Vineyard Haven animal control officer Laurie Clements has been caring for miniature horses in need of good green pastures, and four years ago she established Vineyard Miniature Horse Rescue Inc. The animals she acquires often come from off-Island petting zoos that are closing down or from children who have grown too big for them. (Miniatures are thirty-eight inches at the shoulder and can only carry a child weighing up to fifty-five pounds.) Whenever Laurie hears of such animals, on- or off-Island, she is quick to look into what their future might be. If one needs a home, she provides it. Occasionally, if the match seems perfect, she allows an animal to be adopted. Right now, she has seventeen miniature horses including two elderly ponies in her charge – one born in 1964 – being pastured off-season at John Packer’s Northern Pines farm in Vineyard Haven. And from May through October, the miniature horses roam various pastures, some rented and some donated, such as the farmland fields owned by Iron Hill Farm in Oak Bluffs, where five of the horses summer.