Shelter in a Storm

Steeped in history, philanthropy, deeply felt humanitarian principles, and sometimes controversy, the story of the Vineyard MSPCA reaches back through the decades to the early part of the twentieth century. This was when the late Katharine M. Foote built a small house and shelter for animals just off Pennywise Path in a wooded area on the outskirts of Edgartown. Kitty Foote, as she was known, was an indefatigable defender of animal rights. She founded the Vineyard Animal Rescue League and scrambled to raise money to keep a veterinarian on the Island, a difficult task, especially during the war years.

Kitty Foote would go to any length to save an animal and the tales are legion, right up to the time just before her death when she was out on South Beach in the winter rescuing an injured seagull, the hem of her long coat crusted with ice. She was also wise enough to enlist the help of others in order to advance her cause; in 1947, thirteen years after she built her shelter and faced with ongoing difficulties in finding veterinarians, Kitty Foote appealed to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was based in Boston and owned the Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, to take over the shelter here. The society agreed.

That did not spell the end of the involvement of Islanders in animal welfare. Over the last five decades they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to build an infrastructure for the shelter. There have been capital campaigns led by celebrities, from Katharine Cornell to Walter Cronkite. There have been controversies, from an ousted shelter manager to discord over a program to provide low-cost neutering for dogs and cats. There have been quirky moments — in 1949 the shelter was the beneficiary of the estate of Pam, the only dog to have an Island bank account, and in 1959 the shelter took in an injured fawn who was nicknamed Bambi and became an Island celebrity in its own right.

Kitty Foote died in 1955 and left her property to the MSPCA.

And now the MSPCA has announced it will close the shelter May 1, due to the dire financial straits of the mother institution.

The wide network of animal welfare activists on the Vineyard has already begun to rally around a new cause — keeping the shelter open, even if it means running it themselves.

They will hopefully prevail, and meanwhile, the MSPCA in Boston has much to answer for here on the Island, where so much money has been donated over the years to their charitable cause. Has the society breached its public trust? It may be a matter for the Massachusetts Attorney General to investigate.