She’s the talk of the Island. They’re musing about her in the coffee line at Alley’s and she is the subject of after-class rumblings at the Yoga Barn. Passengers discuss her on the ferry. Your sister heard about her at a bar — in Brooklyn. Lately it is hard to find someone who is not involved, at least conversationally, in the search for Olive, the missing black Lab.
Ordinarily it would be rare for something that happened on New Year’s Eve to still be news in March, but Olive’s one-way sprint into the woods that day remains relevant. Is she a symbol of warm life triumphing through the cold freeze of winter, of hope surpassing all reasonable odds, of a community coming together? To the dog-loving community of the Vineyard, she is all these things and more.
But to Chris Fischer of Chilmark, she is the two-year-old Labrador he raised from a pup, a happy dog with a lot of energy who likes to sleep in the middle of the bed with her head on the pillow. “Olive taught me what it is like to really love an animal and it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had,” Mr. Fischer said.
On New Year’s Eve, the weather called for snow, and Mr. Fischer did not want to be out on the roads. The Beetlebung Farm manager decided he would try to persuade his girlfriend to stay home. But the plans to ring in the new year with a cozy night by the fire turned into something altogether different.
At about 1 p.m. that day, Chris let Olive and her brother, Frankie, out of the Fischers’ Abel’s Hill house. As they often did, the young black Labs romped about and into the woods that rim the homestead. Mr. Fischer was used to that. But when Frankie came back alone, he knew something was wrong and immediately went to look for her.
He called everyone he could think of to keep a lookout for Olive. Mr. Fischer then got in his car and drove all over Chilmark, “checking every road, house, and beach we could,” he recalled. While the rest of the Island rang in the New Year on a cold, dark and windy night, he roamed Lucy Vincent Beach searching for his lost companion. He knew she was out there somewhere in the night. “At one point I was walking by the shore toward Quansoo and a Canada goose was walking in the opposite direction. We both looked at each other as we passed by and kept on walking,” he recalled.
The next day he awoke and repeated the cycle, a routine he would repeat for two weeks until one early morning in Aquinnah when he slightly fell apart. “I knew I was losing it when I got up with the sun,” he said. “I drove to Aquinnah, parked at Philbin Beach and walked around the cliffs toward Lobsterville Beach as waves crashed at my feet. My girlfriend ended up picking me up at Lobsterville, soaking wet.”
He decided to ask for help from the Island. “We began to advertise in the paper, put up posters and distribute flyers on people’s cars. That is when the community really reacted to our cause and we were flooded with phone calls and lots and lots of volunteers,” Mr. Fischer said.
Among those volunteers were Sally Apy and Kerry Scott. “They call us Team Olive,” Ms. Scott said recently from behind her desk in the attic of her canine-centric store, Good Dog Goods in Oak Bluffs. This carpeted attic, where two purebreds nap contentedly in crates, raising their heads only if someone gets too close to the stockpiled dog biscuits, serves as Team Olive headquarters. Together, Ms. Apy and Ms. Scott update the roughly 360 members of the Find Olive the Black Lab Facebook page, organize search parties, field e-mails and calls from people who may or may not have spotted Olive.
“I had one lady call me crying when it was raining,” Ms. Apy said. “We all think of our own dogs, naturally. It’s our worst nightmare. I told her, don’t worry. Olive’s smarter than most people. She’s somewhere warm and dry.”
Ms. Scott agreed. “Think of all the empty barns and houses this time of year!” she said, throwing her hands up. “She could be in any of them! They’re countless!”
Eight days after Olive went missing the Fischers enlisted Sam Connelly, a Baltimore-based dog tracker with a trusty search dog named Salsa. Ms. Connelly has a theory. “I think she shot off like a rocket heading south on that beach,” she said in a telephone interview. “And when she came back up, she was in the next town over and had no idea how to get home.”
Mr. Fischer explained: “Sam thinks she came up from the beach around the Oyster Watcha and Long Point area.” Nearly all the reported sightings of Olive have been in the area of the state forest and airport. There was one reported sighting on a bike lane across from the high school. The reports indicate that Olive has lost a noticeable amount of weight. Her brown rolled-leather collar, said a woman who believes she saw her about 20 feet away off Oak Lane in West Tisbury, now hangs loosely from her neck.
When hope begins to wane, there are plenty who rush in with optimism. “She has a lot of things on her side,” said Ms. Connelly. “She is young, a Lab, and on an Island. When they get her eating at a feeding station, and I will come back up to trap her,” the tracker said. “I got a very strong scent,” she added. “I definitely believe she’s alive.”
Is there really hope that Olive could still be alive?
“Well, there’s been no body found,” said Joan Jenkinson, the respected animal control officer in West Tisbury who is known for her practical, down-to-earth animal wisdom. “I didn’t know that a dog could go feral that fast, but I’m not a professional dog tracker and this woman is. I just didn’t know a loved dog, a dog from a home could turn feral and not come near anyone.”
But she also said: “There have been sightings of black Labs, skinny, scared, no one can catch her, but no one is saying it’s for sure Olive. Now black Labs are the most popular breed on Island. Definitely in my town — some of them licensed, some not. I’m not saying she’s definitely not alive, or that she’s not living in the state forest.”
Mrs. Jenkinson has participated in the search. “I spent a long time looking for this dog, oh yes. In the beginning I checked every house, every pool I could. And poor Chris Fischer. I just love him and he has done everything he can. From the igloos to the food to the game cameras all over the forest. You would think the dog would lie down on the sheet of his and wait for him to come back. That’s what rabbit hunting dogs do, the hunters lay their coats down for them if they get lost, the dogs are there in the morning. This dog has been missing for months, God help her, it’s been so rainy and snowy, cold and windy, I pray to God she is alright and comes home safe. I’m hopeful, but if it was my dog I wouldn’t think that she was still alive. I would think that something else had happened to her. Never had one stolen in 21 years. Everyone has pitched in, people call me all the time when they think they see her. I still get seven calls a week, two months later. I’ve never seen a search of this length or this intensity. The owner usually gives up or someone finds a body. She could have fallen through the ice but that doesn’t happen as often people think it does. Maybe six in 21 years. I want her home safe. I want to believe she is okay.”
As for Mr. Fischer, he will keep looking. And if he does not find Olive, he has found something else along the way. “This has reinforced my love for the Island,” he said. “The winter can be isolating, especially living up-Island. Not this winter. I am amazed and grateful how people have come together to help.”