Ozzie, Hannah, and the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard

Ozzie was cautious at first, but in short order he was cuddling with Lisa (center ) and Hannah Murphy. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Church is over and Hannah Murphy is playing in her yard in Dodgers Hole with her dog Ozzie. Mom (Lisa) and Dad (Sean) putter nearby. It’s a sunny, albeit cool Sunday morning in April.

Two and a half miles southeast on Vineyard Haven Road, Rosie peeks out from under her blanket to make sure those people aren’t close by. She crawls out of bed, stretches, looks around again, then proceeds to the litter box. “Rosie is so shy,” explains Lisa Hayes, manager of the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard. “She has no idea what happened to her. She was in one home her whole life and her owner went into Windemere. She visibly shakes, but when you go to comfort her, she cuddles and purrs. You know she’s going to be a wonderful pet for someone.”

Rosie is one of the five cats the shelter currently has available for adoption. Founded on May 1, 2009, when the MSPCA relinquished the facilities after funding was cut and they were forced to close three shelters in the state, the shelter was temporarily under the auspices of the county. When the MSPCA offered to lease the facility to the Animal Shelter of MV for $1 per year on the condition that they become a not-for-profit agency, they jumped at the opportunity. On January 1, 2012, they became a 501(c)(3) organization. The shelter is now supported through grants, individual donations, and in-kind donations.

Lisa, a former veterinary assistant, has run the shelter since the MSPCA moved out. She is assisted in the care of the animals by staff member Gordon Healy, but the Island community is a big help.

“People are so very generous,” Lisa explains. “There’s not a day that goes by that someone opens the door and walks through with cat food or dog food or kitty litter. Children do lemonade stands and bake sales.”

Very recently, two children — Sydney Jasny and Keith Chatinover — raised $100 for the shelter. “It was a project at the Charter School,” Lisa says. “They chose the shelter as the nonprofit to donate to.”

Besides donations, a large corps of regular and summer volunteers assist by walking the dogs, cleaning up after the cats, and advertising the shelter’s lineup of adoptable pets. Many of the volunteers socialize with the animals while they’re there. “Mary Gillette comes in on Wednesdays and Saturdays to clean.,” Lisa shares. “We have a geriatric cat named Cyrus. She loves him and sits with him for an hour or more. She just pets him and he’s in heaven.”

Hannah Murphy, a second grade student at Oak Bluffs School, discovered Ozzie at the shelter in August of 2010 when she and her parents decided to add to their menagerie of an elderly cat called Chula and a rabbit named Peter. “We were trying to volunteer to walk dogs,” Hannah recalls. “Instead we fell in love with Ozzie.”

Her mother, Lisa, a stay-at-home mom, elaborates. “They only had this big, huge dog that was too powerful for Hannah to walk. Ozzie was recently surrendered, so they didn’t want anyone to walk him yet.”

“He growled at us the first time we saw him,” Hannah adds. Her long brown braids wiggle and her dark expressive eyes grow wider when she produces her own ferocious growl to illustrate.

On the third visit, they were allowed to walk the small brown and tan mixed-breed on a leash. Sean Murphy, Hannah’s dad, came along for visit four and, although Ozzie was profoundly nervous and shy, he approved the adoption. Soon Ozzie was acclimated to the friendly house with the fenced-in yard on Mockingbird Drive and became part of the family. Though he’s still a bit barky around strangers, he quickly settles down and begins to charm with his perky ears and big brown eyes.

It’s evident that Hannah has a passion for animals. Of the nine future occupations she lists as goals, five are animal related and she professes to have three more that she couldn’t recall in the moment. She inherits her enthusiasm for fauna from her mother who confessed to rescuing their cat, Chula, 12 years ago from the streets of Lawrence within a week of her wedding and moving here.

Sean feigns a gratuitous tolerance for the Murphy menagerie, but it’s he who is kneeling on the floor and scratching Ozzie under the chin during the interview.

Based on a “letter of persuasion” Hannah wrote as part of a school assignment, it’s clear that she has an understanding beyond her seven years of the plight of the shelter’s denizens. The letter, sent with others from the class to The Times, articulately spells out the need and advantages of adopting. “Many animals from the shelter were abused, neglected, or abandoned,” she writes. She continues to argue that adoption doesn’t cost a lot, that there are a lot of choices, and that “the animals need a second chance.”

There was a noticeable lack of dogs at the shelter on the day The Times visited. Lisa Hayes explains that, as a rule, they receive far more felines than canines, especially in the summer and fall. “I think people consider cats to be more disposable than dogs,” she laments. “They’re ready to leave for the boat and if the cat’s not around, they just go.”

That said, she also insists that a variety of dog breeds pass through but are adopted pretty quickly. She keeps a list of people who await specific breeds and call when they are surrendered. They’ve also had a large inventory of rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and mice. Those are sometimes adopted out to the Island’s schools.

All the critters that come through find a caring environment at the shelter. A new acquisition is taken to a clean, modern examination room where Island vets donate their time to determine the medical needs. If nothing immediate is called for, the animal is isolated for a few days so Lisa and Gordon can observe its behavior. If it passes muster, it settles into the comfortable rooms or kennels that comprise the shelter. If it’s very socialized, it might be allowed to wander free in the company of the staff and other animals.

The facilities are bright and cheerful. Bordering on hospital clean, there’s a conspicuous lack of animal odor anywhere in the building. In all, it’s a compassionate and loving atmosphere for the surrendered pets to spend their days before finding their forever homes.

The transition to that home is sometimes rocky: the animal has, after all, been through a lot. Lisa Hayes maintains, “No one surrenders a perfect ten, but they become tens in a loving forever home.”

As Hannah attests in her pro-adoption letter, “I think everyone should do this because the animals show extra love.”