Cat whisperer

The Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard has a secret weapon when it comes to getting cats used to their environment.


Colleagues at the Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard refer to Melissa (“Missy”) Kuehne as the cat whisperer. “My joke is that Lisa always sprays me with catnip and sends me on in there, but it requires a lot of patience, and it requires a calm nature,” Kuehne said.

Kuehne is the tax collector of Edgartown, and has worked at the nonprofit Animal Shelter for six years with the stray kittens that come in, sometimes nursing them by bottle-feeding them milk. Kuehne comes into the shelter two to three times a week to domesticate stray kittens on days the shelter is closed.

“The process was so patient and interesting, you can watch the cat start to trust, and the baby steps that they actually take was how I got into it,” Kuehne said.

Kuehne had an unsocialized kitten herself, and it took her five months just to get the kitten to trust her. She did it by feeding the kitten on her porch, and eventually letting it into the house. She named her Calisse, and later had her spayed.

“Cats are a funny breed. They kind of march to their own tune,” Kuehne said. According to Kuehne, stray cats are unsocialized, and it takes four to six weeks until the cats will let you be around them without running away. The Animal Shelter gets one or two unsocialized kittens per year, sometimes more, from across the Island. “Thankfully, we live in a place where most of our animals are spayed and neutered,” Kuehne said.

Kuehne has taken care of two kittens so far this year, one named Bug because of her little bobtail, and another named Josie. The Animal Shelter was able to find them new homes, and they were adopted.

Kuehne domesticated Josie, then a kitten about 7 weeks old, over the winter. Josie was frightened when anyone came into the same room as her. Kuehne got into the large cage and sat with the kitten, using a teaser toy to touch the kitten to see how she would react. It took a couple of days for Josie to get used to Kuehne, and now she is comfortable enough to allow Kuehne to pet her.

“When [the kittens] come in, most of the time they’re scared,” Kuehne said. “Usually there’s a window of opportunity of about eight weeks to be able to bring the kitten around to where it’s not always on the shy side.”

Kuehne usually works with kittens ages 8 to 9 weeks and cats as old as 6 months, with the goal being to domesticate them and find them new homes. Kuehne’s technique involves spending time sitting in a room with the kitten as they just stare at each other for a couple of days. Kuehne remains quiet, but sometimes speaks to the kittens, and uses assessment tools like the assessment hand, depending on the kitten’s situation. An assessment hand is a plastic hand on a stick, used to get the cat used to a human, but Kuehne has rarely used this tool for the kittens. Kuehne also uses toys to teach kittens how to play, mostly because unsocialized kittens and cats haven’t seen a toy, and don’t know what to do with them at first.

Kuehne says that people disregard cats’ intelligence, noting that cats are alert to their surroundings, especially if kittens are born outdoors and are not socialized around people. Once Kuehne gets the kitten to be comfortable with her, the next step is to socialize the kitten with other people, and to give each kitten a name.

“Animals all do have their own personalities. If they’re a little bit older, sometimes they can be a little bit shy,” Kuehne said.

After the kitten gets used to the shelter volunteers, it gets introduced to a new owner. Kuehne lets the kitten get used to the volunteers by being around when other people are in the room, then Kuehne takes the kitten out into the Animal Shelter’s lobby to get them comfortable with new surroundings.

“When [the kittens] come in, we’re the first people that [they] have seen,” Kuehne said. “You could have a cat that’s born in a house with people, and still be shy.”

According to Kuehne, 95 to 98 percent of cats are frightened because of new surroundings. Kuehne recommends watching for overstimulation in an adult cat, indicated through a subtle tail flick, or worse, scratching someone and walking away. In kittens, some don’t like their bellies rubbed or tails touched.

When an adult cat goes missing, the Animal Shelter will get calls about strays, and if the cat is friendly, it has probably been around people. According to Kuehne, the Animal Shelter will post a picture of the missing cat to its Facebook page to get the word out. If someone finds stray kittens, the Animal Shelter will get a call about that as well, but there hasn’t been an increase in calls this year.

“When you do adopt, you want to make sure the kitty has space when you bring the kitty home,” Kuehne said.

The Martha’s Vineyard Animal Shelter can be reached at 508-627-8662, and is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm, by appointment only, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Donations and applications for adoptions are on the shelter’s website at