Pet shelters seek homes for strays on Martha’s Vineyard

Declan Feuchtwanger with Jack, a rabbit nearly as big as he is. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

We all know that permanent housing isn’t always easy to secure on the Island — for humans, anyway. For a dog it’s actually pretty easy, but for a displaced cat on Martha’s Vineyard, finding a secure home can be difficult.

That’s where the two local animal shelters come in — Helping Homeless Animals (HHA), an independently owned and operated facility on June Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard (ASMV) in Edgartown, which opened in April 2009 to replace the MSPCA in the same location off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Neither shelter has any dogs available for adoption right now but, between the two, there are about 50 cats (and one bunny) looking for homes.

“A dog is more of a family member,” says Lisa Hayes, director of The Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard. “People think of cats as more dispensable. They work a little bit harder to find a home for a dog.” Approximately 30 dogs have been placed in the nine-month existence of the shelter, which relies largely on volunteers for staffing. Currently there are 10 cats up for adoption, but this figure is low. At times there are as many as 30 occupying the cat room.

However, it’s not a bad life for a cat in the cat room at the immaculately clean and well-staffed shelter across from the Triangle. The handful in residence on a recent visit all seemed quite content with the arrangement. The animals have lots of toys, “cat trees,” and a variety of perches. They have the option of chilling out in open cages or socializing with the other cats, visitors, and volunteers. Although the shelter currently has a good number of volunteers who help out with cleaning and dog walking, Ms. Hayes comments, “Socializing with the animals is what we want most.”

On the other side of the office area from the cat room, the dog area, with eight good size kennels, is all but empty. As of last week there were just two dogs in residence — Rascal, a big, goofy mixed-breed who will be going home with shelter employee Gordon Healy in March. And Mufasa (for little lion) a frisky Pomeranian who was just waiting for his new owners to return from a vacation.

“Dogs don’t last long here,” Ms. Hayes said. There are even people on a waiting list for particular sizes and types of dogs.

Most of the animals that are surrendered on the Island come in because of housing restrictions, although a number of cats are brought in by the town animal control officers. Cats must be quarantined for five to seven days before joining the general population in the cat room.

“Any underlying infection will become obvious in that time,” Ms. Hayes said. “Nine out of 10 that come in have not been vaccinated, and many are not spayed.”

Before being sent home with a new owner, the animals are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, tested for the most common life-threatening illnesses, de-flead, de-wormed, and micro-chipped. The shelter suggests a donation of $150 for cats and $225 for dogs.

Dogs go through an assessment before entering the shelter. “We’re a no-kill shelter,” Ms. Hayes said. “They need to be non-aggressive, get along with other dogs, not be resource-guarders, and have no separation anxiety.”

ASMV is only licensed by the state to accept local animals. “They are all Island animals for Islanders.” comments shelter employee Niki Patton.

The HHA shelter, owned and operated by Kym Cyr, will take animals from outside the Vineyard and even from out of state and from as far away as St. Croix. The facility first opened in December 2005 under a different name. For the first few years it was just a cat shelter, expanding to take in dogs two years ago when some additional funding made the necessary construction possible. Right now there are no dogs available, just a few boarders.

There are plenty of cats, however. The structure that houses them was built as a small shed for Ms. Cyr’s husband. Now there is almost no evidence of the original one-room structure. The building has slowly evolved into the current “cat dormitory” featuring a series of connected rooms — upstairs, downstairs and a screened-in porch built around a large tree. This maze of rooms, connected by ladders, doors, a ceiling trap door with climbing perches, was all designed with cats in mind.

Everywhere you look there seems to be a cat — on staggered shelving in the kitchen designed as bunk beds, in the nook of the outdoor tree, in a closed cabinet, draped over the water cooler that supplies the cats with fresh water. Some cats are feral and don’t want to socialize. When kittens are in the house they need to be isolated by closing the trap door. It seems that whatever a cats’ preference, there’s a perch, a nook, or a comfy couch in a quiet room.

There are currently about 30 cats in residence. They are well fed, the area is kept clean, and they get plenty of human contact. Verna Carr, Ms. Cyr’s mother, spends three to four hours a day, seven days a week, helping to run the shelter for her daughter, who works full-time. She is aided by a few volunteers, but emphasizes that she can always use more.

“The hard thing is if you don’t have enough volunteers you can’t get at the ferals,” Ms. Carr said. Out of the approximately 250 cats who have come through the shelter, a number have been feral cats who can sometimes be socialized and adopted.

For many years. Ms. Carr worked for CatTrap, the organization that trapped, neutered, and released up to 4,000 cats on the Island in ten years. Her experience prepared her for working at the shelter, but she is disheartened by the failure of the CatTrap program to eliminate an overabundance of strays.

“What bothers me is that we did so much work with the feral cats,” Ms. Carr says. “Most of the time that we find a cat with kittens the mother is not feral,” meaning that cat owners aren’t following through with their obligation to fix their pets.

The two shelters have a good relationship. ASMV will help out if there’s an overflow at HHA, and the Oak Bluffs shelter will take dogs that the Edgartown shelter cannot because of state restrictions.

Helping Homeless Animals turns away almost no animal in need. They not only take ferals and out-of-state animals, they, unlike the Edgartown shelter, have no requirements for dogs.

“Nine out of ten times if there’s a behavioral problem with an animal, it’s related to a medical problem,” said Ms. Cyr, who has spent a great deal of time — and money — working with problem animals.

“It’s hard to say no now that there’s an animal in need,” Ms. Cyr said. “Some people know what their purpose in life is and some people don’t. I happen to know what my purpose is right now.”

This article was corrected on Feb. 16 to say that the Animal Shelter of M.V. opened in April 2009, not 2010. In addition, the shelter is not funded by the state, but from donations.