Norman Rockwell would have been at home last Thursday night at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury when a grateful community turned out to honor retiring animal control officer Joan Jenkinson.
Ms. Jenkinson, descended from generations of townies, has become a beloved figure Island-wide, with 26 years of selfless dedication to a job she loved. Her authenticity in a small-town setting is the stuff Mr. Rockwell used to paint portraits of us at our best.
Ms. Jenkinson has probably intersected with more than 35,000 animals and their owners, some multiple times, during her tenure as the town’s animal control officer, working day and night, 24/7 365, finding, rescuing, returning, and placing animals, and often interceding and smoothing differences between people stuck in animal contretemps.
So her retirement potluck party drew upwards of 100 residents who brought enough food to feed the 101st Airborne Division, a feast symbolic of their feelings. West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel kept it light in brief remarks of gratitude for Ms. Jenkinson’s service, noting that the communications center had called in a report of a giant alligator emerging from Great Pond, causing Ms. Jenkinson to half-rise from her seat before grinning, a sort of muscle memory response.
Ms. Jenkinson is on the job until Nov. 1, when animal-wise Prudence Fisher, a dispatcher at the Island Communications Center, succeeds her.
Ms. Jenkinson is unremittingly self-effacing, and appeared a tad embarrassed by the Thursday-night limelight. Town manager Jen Rand observed, “This feels like a wedding. Everyone is eating except the bride.”
Ms. Jenkinson’s sister, Angie Waldron, is the animal control officer in Aquinnah: “She’s the pro, been at it twice as long as I have. I called her a lot, particularly when I was first at it. One time that stands out is when I had a swan on the road, couldn’t get it off, had a blanket trying to capture it. I called Joanie. She showed up, walked over, and picked it up at the neck, put it in the truck and left,” Ms. Waldron recounted with a head shake and grin.
Longtime West Tisbury cop Sergeant Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, a veteran of late-night police work, remembers the invisible Jenkinson work. “She was always there, even at night. She’d take care of it herself. We’d never know that something happened. She resolved it herself,” he said.
Noted dog lover and retiring Dukes County register of deeds Dianne Powers was there to honor her friend, and saw a silver lining in both retirements: “Finally, we’re going to be able to have lunch together.”
Beth Kramer, West Tisbury library director, said, “It’s the heart that she brings to the work, and a wisdom and skill at conflict resolution, smoothing things out. Dogs weren’t out of control to her, just a little unbalanced or misunderstood. She regards them in that way as we often look at children.”
We have been reminded of that wisdom often as we passed Ms. Jenkinson’s distinctive vehicle and of the importance of unselfishness embodied in this human being who has dedicated herself to the care of animals and to the people they live with.
We talked with Ms. Jenkinson last week on the eve of her retirement gala:
Q.What are the easiest, and the most difficult, types of animals to deal with?
A:Whichever comes my way gets my attention. Dogs are the easiest. Pigs are the most difficult if I’m alone. But if I have a bucket of grain, they’ll follow me. I can usually figure it out. I’ve gotten to know where everyone is, and who their animals are. I have 500 telephone numbers of people on my phone, and a list of five different ways to identify their animals; for example, I know dogs by license tag number, color, or breed
Q. Do pets reflect the personalities of their owners?
A. That’s a tough one. A lot depends on how a dog has been raised. If they are in a loving home where they get a lot of attention, there’s no problem. Dogs who’ve been taught to scare people can be a problem, but every dog is different.
Q. What is the most bizarre situation you’ve had?
A. Been a few. I went to pick up a dog at Abel’s Hill, brought him back to the pound, and he trapped me in the car, wouldn’t let me out. After a while I talked him down, and he calmed down. I talk to them like a person. Maybe the funniest was a call from Carly Simon about a bat in her closet. We looked and looked — Carly has a lot of clothes — but we couldn’t find it. When I got back home, there was the bat, hanging on the side rear-view mirror of my car. Bats are pretty easy. I just left him there, and he was gone in the morning.
Q. Has the work provided opportunities to help owners as well as their animals?
A. Yeah. For example, if an elderly person, or any person really, needs help getting to the vet, I do that, and I’ll stay with them when an animal has to be put down. I’ll do anything needed for animals or people. I never declined a call, except last month when I hurt my leg.
Q. How many calls is that?
A. A lot. I don’t know. Usually three a day in the winter, up to eight a day in the summer. Some days none — but 365 days a year over 26 years, it’s a lot of calls.
Q. We’ve all seen you feeding the swan pair at Mill Pond early in the morning before work. Where do you get your love of animals.
A. I always seemed to have it. I started bringing animals home when I was a kid. I was raised on a small farm across the street from Alley’s store. We had horses, cows, pigs, you name it. I like that my grandson, Wyatt, wanted to go on calls when he was a little kid. And now he’s at the University of Vermont. I do miss the swans. They [town officials] asked me to stop feeding them.
Q. What now?
A. I’ll help out at the Edgartown Animal Shelter, just be available. I’ll ride with Prudie Fisher for a week or so. She’s been at Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm, knows animals and all the back roads in town. She’ll step in easily, but they’ll miss her at the communications center.
I just want to thank the town of West Tisbury for allowing met to do a job I love. George Manter [late West Tisbury police chief], a very good man, got me to apply for the job. My family has been so supportive: My mom instilled love of animals; my husband Pat, who’s had a lot of burned dinners or none at all, and never complains; and my kids and grandkids the same. I’ve met thousands of summer people and residents, people who come up to me years later and thank me for something. You know, the longer I’ve had the job, the more I think the people should wear name tags, because I can remember the animal’s name but not the people’s names.