Angels program helps give animals a new leash on life


Leslie Hurd has always had a passion for helping animals. A longtime Martha’s Vineyard resident and owner/publisher of six magazines including Martha’s Vineyard Wedding, founded Angels Saving Helpless Animals (ASHA) a nonprofit organization that places dogs in adopted homes.

Ms. Hurd had been rescuing animals for over 30 years when she discovered a need she could fulfill in her own backyard. “I’ve learned that there’s a need for dogs on the Vineyard,” Ms. Hurd told the Times. “There are very few puppies and very few dogs.”

The idea began years ago. While traveling to St. Croix for work, Ms. Hurd came in contact with a rescue program called Pets From Paradise. The group was looking for people to transport dogs back to the U.S. “They said they were desperate for help,” Ms. Hurd said.

In 2009, she began working with the Humane Society in St. Thomas and St. Croix to relocate dogs to homes in Boston and the greater U.S. “We transported 30 dogs in that first year,” Ms. Hurd said.

ASHA was formed to transport dogs to the Vineyard. While the idea seems relatively straightforward, the execution of it, according to Ms. Hurd, has been anything but. “The coordinating, and everything from getting the dogs quarantined, transported, vaccinated, and placed into foster care, there’s a lot that goes into it,” she said.

Homeward bound

Ms. Hurd said the first step is determining which dogs are adoptable. “We don’t take puppies under a certain age or dogs with a history of any problem,” Ms. Hurd said. “We’re very careful with double checkups.”

Working in conjunction with Rhea Vasconcellos, a self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” and acting manager for the animal shelter in St. Thomas, Ms. Hurd does a walk through of the shelter’s facility. “When I’m physically there I’ll walk down the rows of cages to see the dogs,” Ms. Hurd said. There are typically 150 dogs in the shelter at any given time.

From there Ms. Vasconcellos and Ms. Hurd discuss how adjustable the dogs are before they figure out the logistics of transport. “There are dogs being put to sleep every day,” Ms. Hurd said. “We can’t place them all, but we’re putting a big dent in it.”

The next step is getting the dog quarantined followed by a lengthy physical exam. Once the dog fulfills the quarantine and passes the physical, the group finds a person who is traveling back to the U.S. and is willing to accompany the dog. Until this past June, American Airlines had provided free air transportation for dogs to the mainland, but the airline has since ended their sponsorship.

The volunteer must be able to handle the responsibility. “If you do an under-the-seat transport, you have to be able to handle the dog,” Ms. Hurd said. “If there’s a layover or if the dog gets nervous, you just need to be prepared. We don’t want a flight risk.” There is a $125 fee for dogs that travel under a seat or $175 for dogs to travel as cargo.

Ms. Hurd works closely with Save A Dog, a volunteer rescue organization in Sudbury. Once the dog is on U.S. soil, it must go through another quarantine before receiving a certificate of health. “We are extremely thorough and we don’t take any risks with these dogs,” Ms. Hurd said.

It is also during this time that Ms. Hurd works to find the dog a home if one hasn’t been arranged beforehand.

Jamie Douglas of the Black Dog restaurant family adopted Antoine, a black lab mix in May 2012. He is one of many success stories.

“I’d seen Leslie around the Island and I knew what she was doing,” Mr. Douglas told the Times. “She brought Antoine to the Vineyard and I was permitted to have a three-day evaluation with him. I fell for him right away.” Mr. Douglas said the Black Dog has already begun fundraising for Angels and will allow Ms. Hurd to have a booth outside of the restaurant to spread awareness and continue to raise funds starting in August.

Problem solving

Asked about the notion of importing dogs, Ms. Hurd said she is trying to solve a problem on both sides.

“Were not trying to create a problem, were trying to solve a problem,” Ms. Hurd said. “We take 100 percent responsiblity if something goes wrong, but so far nothing has happened.”

The Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard (ASMV) does not participate in the Angels program. However, shelter director Lisa Hayes supports the effort.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be able to have this program,” Ms. Hayes said. “But we only have so much room and we only do Island animals. We’re just not licensed to take off-Island pets.” Right now, Ms. Hayes said she has five families who are looking to adopt a small dog.

In order to accept the dogs, the shelter would require a state-approved quarantine facility. “We don’t have a quarantine at the shelter,” Ms. Hayes said. “You really need to be very careful in making sure there’s nothing contagious like parasites, especially when you’re bringing dogs in from another country.”

Ms. Hurd hopes that ASMV and ASHA will work together in the future.

“It should be a team,” Ms. Hurd said. “It’s one Island, more lives could be saved, and it would be a much smoother transition,” she said. “It’s about saving the animals.”

Ms. Hurd said she will continue to raise the funds necessary to open her own facility on the Island. “The way I see it, this is a great program in that people here are looking for dogs, we have great dogs and they’re really fun dogs,” she said.

For more information about the Angels program or how to adopt, contact Leslie Hurd at