Martha's Vineyard cat identified as Alabama dog is reunited with Vermont owner

Despite his unexplained disappearance, the 2-year-old feline landed on his feet hundreds of miles away on Island shores.

Fran Hendricks holds her missing cat after a speedy trip from Vermont. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

The mystery is how a cat from Vermont, who was mistaken for a dog from Alabama, landed on Martha’s Vineyard. For Fran Hendricks, his grateful and very happy owner, it was enough to have him safely back.

On Tuesday, Oak Bluffs animal control officer Anthony BenDavid was waiting at the Vineyard Haven Steamship Authority when the 12:45 pm ferry arrived. The friendly black feline with green eyes sat calmly in a cat carrier.

Missing from his home in Shaftsbury, Vt., since the week before Christmas, he offered Ms. Hendricks little more than some timid mews as an explanation for his absence when she walked off the boat and greeted him. Despite weeks of worry and a tense, almost four-hour drive from her home in Shaftsbury, Vt., to Woods Hole — “I was driving 80 all the way” — the how didn’t matter.

“I’m going to rename him Lazarus, because as far as I’m concerned, he’s risen from the dead,” Ms. Hendricks said, with a huge smile. “I really thought I’d never see him again. Getting him back is like winning the Powerball for me.”

Ms. Hendricks adopted Lazarus and another cat in early December at Second Chance Animal Center (SCAC) in Shaftsbury. The 2-year-old cat was known as Boxer because he would reach out with his paws as people passed his cage. “They were having a sale on cats for $5, so I got two,” she said. Boxer went missing a few days before Christmas.

Ms. Hendricks walked off the boat, her first trip to the Island, holding her cat-size dog, Little Man, who leaped joyfully around her on his leash, competing with her for a glimpse of his beloved playmate in the cat carrier. Ms. Hendricks said he and Lazarus had already become good friends, and like to play and romp with each other.

But unfortunately, in their dogged pursuits, Lazarus discovered Little Man’s doggy door, and figured it was an equal-species opportunity to explore the great outdoors.

“I watched it carefully, but I didn’t lock it one night,” Ms. Hendricks said with regret. “I got up in the morning and he was gone.”

She searched everywhere, without success. Fortunately, Lazarus had been implanted with a pet identification microchip registered by SCAC. In addition to notifying the animal center and the local animal control officer, Ms. Hendricks also put up dozens of posters and got the word out as best she could.

Ms. Hendricks said she wasn’t very hopeful. Her property backs up to a state forest where a good-natured housecat would stand little chance in the wild against coyotes, foxes, and many other predators.

“I’d look at that dog door every day, and think, if only he’d come walking back in,” she recalled.

Lazarus on the lam

Somehow, Lazarus traveled 245 miles to Woods Hole. Mr. BenDavid received his first report of a cat roaming from house to house in Oak Bluffs last weekend. He advised the caller not to feed him, to see if he would go home. When another caller alerted Mr. BenDavid on Saturday afternoon that Lazarus was in his own neighborhood around Sunset Road, he found the cat and took him in for the night.

Mr. BenDavis scanned Lazarus for a pet identification microchip with a wand from Petlink. He was able to find a chip and read the numbers on it, and called Petlink, which directed him to the chip’s manufacturer, SmartChip. When he called, their representative basically said he was barking up the wrong tree.

“They told me the chip was registered to a dog in Alabama,” Mr. BenDavid said. “I said, What? This is a black cat on Martha’s Vineyard.” He went back and forth with a customer service rep, repeating the chip number five times.

One local wag, known for his dislike of cats, speculated after hearing this tale that the cat ate a dog from Alabama. A representative cat lover, however, argued it was simply an innocent case of mistaken identity.

Mr. BenDavid’s daughter Lyla gave Lazarus some loving attention Saturday night, and his wife Rachel put a notice up on Facebook. With no response by Sunday night, Mr. BenDavid took Lazarus to Animal Healthcare Associates, which he uses as a boarding shelter.

“He is one of the nicest cats I’ve ever met,” Mr. BenDavid said. “He would go in and out of the cage just like a dog.”

Despite the number mixup, the registration system did work. On Monday morning he heard from SCAC, which had been alerted by SmartChip as the entity that registered Lazarus.

“They called and said, We have a woman here who’s missing a cat, and asked me to describe it,” Mr. BenDavid said. He confirmed it was a match, so SCAC relayed the good news to Ms. Hendricks.

She called him that night, eager to make a trip to Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. BenDavid gave her the scoop on Island travel, and advised her not to bring her car. He offered to bring Lazarus in a carrier and hand him off to her at the ferry, so she could turn around and head back to Vermont.

Unsolved mystery

On her arrival, Ms. Hendricks greeted Mr. BenDavid with a big hug and thanked him repeatedly for all his efforts. The two of them chatted for about 10 minutes inside the terminal before she got back on the boat. She took Lazarus out of his carrier, and he sat calmly in her lap, despite the chaos of a girls’ sports team that was swarming the lobby.

“This cat is a special one,” Ms. Hendricks said. “If it wasn’t for a bad right eye and droopy nose, he would have been adopted long before.”

Ms. Hendricks, who is retired, could shed no light on the cat’s mysterious journey.

Shaftsbury is located between Brattleboro and Bennington. She speculated that someone visiting the area to ski may have found Lazarus and decided to take him home to Martha’s Vineyard or along on a holiday visit here. She said she plans to start asking people around her hometown if they had any guests around Christmastime that might have been heading to Martha’s Vineyard.

“I have no idea how he got here,” Ms. Hendricks said, adding with a laugh, “I’ve never been here; my cat’s the jet setter.”