Martha's Vineyard MSPCA shelter closing a shocker
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) late last Thursday announced it would close the Katharine M. Foote memorial animal shelter in Edgartown in May, as well as two other mainland facilities, due to economic difficulties. The unexpected news left Island animal lovers reeling.
This week, Ron Whitney, the long-time director and only full-time employee of the Edgartown shelter, said he was exploring the possibility of operating a community-based shelter with the MSPCA, which owns the property and buildings that include the shelter, a house, and the independent Vineyard Veterinary Clinic.
On Tuesday, Brian Adams, MSPCA communications director, told The Martha's Vineyard Times, "Right now we are formulating a plan so that when we are no longer on the Vineyard there will be something in place to take our spot."
Photo by Steve Myrick
Mr. Adams said the MSPCA is looking at how to create a "self-sufficient animal welfare community." He said more details would be made public in the coming weeks.
"We know the community is wondering what is going to happen," said Mr. Adams. "However, we needed to make these decisions to close the facilities very quickly in order to sustain the entire organization."
Asked if the MSPCA planned to sell its Island properties, Mr. Adams said no decision has been made yet on any sale or use. "We are still reviewing every possibility for every use of the building," he said. "Once we have an answer, we will be sure to let everyone know."
He said the MSPCA plans to meet with the public at some point to explain its decisions.
"One thing I want to make clear," he added, "if people have donated to the Martha's Vineyard adoption center, that money will be used to help animals on Martha's Vineyard, even if we are not there. That money will not be taken to Boston.
"Now part of the plan is figuring out if there is money left and if it hasn't been spent on the Martha's Vineyard adoption center, who will it go to, how will it be spent. That is something we are still working on."
The Foote shelter takes in abandoned animals and arranges adoptions in new homes. It also operates the Vineyard's only pet cremation service. Mr. Adams said that in 2008, the shelter cared for 470 animals.
Mr. Whitney, shelter director, said the shelter is currently home to 12 cats and one guinea pig. The shelter accepts all animals and puts animals up for adoption at no cost but does request a donation to help defray associated expenses.
The shelter recommends a donation of $125 for a cat and $175 for a dog. The fee for a private cremation is approximately $200, he said.
Island veterinarians and animal control officers said the loss of the shelter would be a serious blow.
"It serves a lot of functions," said veterinarian Steven Atwood of Animal Health Care Associates. He estimated that approximately 80 percent of the animals that are owned by Islanders were adopted at the shelter.
Dr. Atwood said the impact of the shelter closing could include unwanted animals just turned loose and a reduction in educational programs designed to teach young people respect for pets.
The announcement has also created some confusion. Veterinarian Bridget Dunnigan, Vineyard Veterinary Clinic manager, said people think her clinic is connected to the shelter. "We are tenants in the front building," said Dr. Dunnigan. "People are scared that we are closing, and we are not."
Dr. Dunnigan said the MSPCA announcement is sad news. "The shelter has done, and hopefully will do in the future, a wonderful job of placing animals into homes," she told The Martha's Vineyard Times during a break from her office schedule Tuesday. "We hope that there can be some kind of development that will get the building back working as a shelter."
Tisbury animal control officer Laurie Clements said the news came as a shock to her and people she has spoken with since the announcement. "Everyone is freaked about it," she said.
Ms. Clements said if the shelter does close, she expects to use some of the space in the town kennel to house stray animals. "I'm sure we're going to be inundated. There are only three pounds on the Island," she said. "Joannie [ACO Jenkinson] in West Tisbury and I have talked about it. We're expecting the worst. We're expecting overflow conditions."
Ms. Clements said a major concern is the loss of the MSPCA's cremation services. Many pet owners cannot, or do not want to, bury a beloved pet, she said.
The shelter also provides a no-cost option for people unable to afford to euthanize a pet and the Island's ACO's. "I guess we'll have to call veterinarians and incur bills to the town," said Ms. Clements.
Barbara Prada, Edgartown's veteran ACO, said she was very upset to hear about the closure. "It is an integral part of the community. There are a lot of animal people here," she said.
Ms. Prada agreed that loss of the crematorium would have a significant impact. "Animal people, pet owners and ACOs have to start formulating some plan of attack," she said. "There are some options we need to explore."
The nonprofit MSPCA announced its plans last Thursday night to close animal care and adoption centers in Brockton, Springfield and on Martha's Vineyard due to the challenging economy, and eliminate 46 positions.
"Our entire staff has worked tirelessly to cut costs and streamline operations over the past year while continuing to provide outstanding care for thousands of animals in need," said MSPCA president Carter Luke in a press release. "Unfortunately our diligence has only partially protected us from the recession and collapsing markets. Losses in our endowment have been devastating. We lost 25.7 percent of our endowment in 2008, translating to over $11 million. This puts us in a position where we must now take action to ensure our long-term financial health and ability as an animal welfare organization to serve the greatest good for animals across Massachusetts into the future."
The MSPCA, founded in 1868, is the second-oldest humane society in the United States. According to the most recent figures available the nonprofit's 2007 operating budget was $51,267,726.
Asked for a breakdown of revenue and expenses for the Vineyard, Mr. Adams said the MSPCA does not make available financial information for specific shelters.
According to Edgartown town assessor records, the MSPCA shelter facility and the half-acre of land it is located on is valued at $667,100. The adjacent clinic and quarter acres of land is valued at $527,200.
Mr. Whitney said he learned of the closing a few days before the official announcement. "It came as a shock to me as well," he said.
Asked about shelter finances, Mr. Whitney said it is not self-sustaining but does manage to cover approximately 60 to 70 percent of its expenses with local contributions.
Mr. Whitney said he has worked for the MSPCA for 31 years. "Obviously I am personally and professionally affected by this," said Mr. Whitney.
Mr. Whitney said he has been telling the many concerned callers not to take a negative approach. "We can turn this around to be even a better shelter than what it was if we can be responsible and take a positive approach," he said.
Mr. Whitney described an Island-based community shelter with a board of directors drawn from the Island community who understand the perspective of the Island.
"If we do this responsibly and we act professionally about it, I think we can get the MSPCA on board to try to help us in some way," he said. "The decisions be made and now it is up to us to make something of it."
At this point, said Mr. Whitney, he is asking people who would like to be a member of an Island-based shelter to email him at email@example.com.
The community concern has apparently not eliminated all divisions. A copy of an email, whose author could not be reached by The Martha's Vineyard Times to substantiate the content, was sent to several Islanders. The email calls into question Mr. Whitney's continued involvement.
The late Katharine M. Foote, an animal lover and defender of animal rights, founded the Vineyard shelter that bears her name in 1933. In 1947 Ms. Foote deeded the Edgartown property on which the shelter is located on the corner of Pennywise Path and Vineyard Haven Road to the MSPCA.
In the 1980s, Janet Norton of Edgartown and AnnaBell "A'Bell" Washburn of New York City, a seasonal Edgartown resident, mounted a campaign to rebuild the MSPCA facility that was then badly in need of repair.
After much fundraising and planning, the MSPCA went before the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The plan was approved in February 1989.
Mrs. Washburn is also the founder of PAWS (Pet Adoption and Welfare Services), which offers spaying, neutering and medical services for stray animals, and she is intimately involved with animal shelters in New York.
Reached yesterday at her home in New York City and asked for her reaction, Mrs. Washburn said, "I am stunned. Truly I am shocked. Obviously the Vineyard needs a shelter."
Mrs. Washburn said she has received many concerned telephone calls day and night seeking her counsel and support. "But unfortunately," she said, "and maybe this is truer in small communities like an island, but there are a lot of factions."
In a telephone call Tuesday from her home in Edgartown, Mrs. Norton said she met Mrs. Washburn in the late 1970s. Both women discovered they had a love of animals and were distressed by the condition of the animal shelter at that time, including especially the number of cats available for adoption. "The two of us decided we would do what we could to see that these animals found homes," she said. That concern turned into a very successful campaign in which Alison Shaw, the award-winning photographer who was artistic director at the Vineyard Gazette at the time, took a photo of a pet available for adoption. The photo was then published in the newspaper. That effort led to the campaign to rebuild the shelter, she said.
Mrs. Norton said she feels betrayed by the MSPCA and suspects the MSPCA will lose support from the Island. "I feel that they have just abandoned us. The fact that they have just announced that they are shutting the shelter without any alternative plan to take care of these animals is what concerns me. This is an Island."
Mrs. Norton said a representative of the MSPCA needs to visit the Island to provide an explanation in person.
Kerry Scott, an Oak Bluffs selectman and owner of Good Dog Goods, said that either in her official role or as a business owner she is committed to keeping a shelter open. The welfare of the animals is the priority, Ms. Scott said, adding that she has been in touch with individual supporters and organizations. "We can't be without a shelter," she said.