Nantucket Safe Harbor for Animals | Nantucket | MA
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Paws, Claws, & Tennis Balls

• by Sarah Teach •

Nantucket Safe Harbor for Animals | Nantucket | MAMichelle Perkins and Scott Leonard are animal people, though they’d probably prefer to add a distinction: “non-human” animals. The past 16 years of their 25 as a couple have been spent in their home on bucolic Millbrook Road. Leonard is a handyman who can build everything from fine patios to owl boxes for Nantucket’s nesting barn owls. Perkins serves as operations manager at our on-island animal shelter, Nantucket Safe Harbor for Animals. Right now, it’s 6 a.m., and it’s time for the household’s morning routine. There are saber-toothed mouths asking to be fed and paws that are itching for a good romp in the outdoors. A gray tabby stretches her bullseye-patterned forearms and offers up a few purrs as her humans brew some coffee. Her ginger brother torpedoes straight through the kitchen, far too busy for chitchat. He has eyes only for the patrons of the backyard bird- and bunny-feeding stations. The canine of the group, a tiny black rescue mutt, is also ogling the avian visitors from out on the “pet-io.” This elaborate outdoor enclosure, which Leonard built directly onto their back porch, provides many of the benefits of an outdoor life without the dangers. A door flap allows everyone to come and go as they please. Finally, the gigantic black alpha cat slinks in and plops down in the center of the kitchen, as if to say, “Welcome to the jungle. Now feed me.”

For Perkins and Leonard, life has always involved animals. Leonard –  whose shaggy blonde hair makes him look every bit the native Californian that he is – hails back to his childhood. His earnest blue eyes dance as he says, “My grandmother always had horses. This one little filly would play with me just like a dog. I’d chase her; then she’d chase me. My mother was also very into being respectful of animals, but she still allowed me to hunt and fish. Looking back, she was enabling me to cut my own path and discover for myself if I agreed with her.” The smile drops from Leonard’s face as he continues. “When I was 14, I was out hunting and killed a black bird. Shot it with a pistol. It took four shots,” he says, strained by the memory of the creature’s suffering. “When it finally died, I looked down at it and thought, ‘Now why did I do that? I don’t think I want to do this anymore.’ And when I was 19, I stopped fishing for the same reason.” Perkins grew up in rural New Zealand, where nature reigns sovereign. “I spent all my time outside, building forts and huts in the forest,” she says. “When you’re in the wild like that and if you are observant, you notice all the creatures around you. It gives you a respect for them.” Leonard adds, “A lot of people have a great connection with nature. We just decided to take ours in another direction. That is, devoting our lives to helping animals as best we can.”

Before landing on Nantucket and advocating for animals, both Leonard and Perkins trotted the globe. Leonard, a runner, left his home in California in 1985 to take advantage of the track opportunities afforded by New Zealand. In ’87, he was working at a running shoe store Down Under when a beautiful newspaper ad sales girl named Michelle Perkins came in to drum up some business. There was an instant attraction. Though it was only a few months before Leonard’s visa would expire, that was quite enough time to fall for one another. Perkins decided to explore the United States with her handsome new American boyfriend, and accompanied him back to California. Soon, the restless pair sought more adventure, and journeyed to London where they would be near Perkins’ doctor sister. Leonard got a job counseling delinquent teens at a halfway house, and Perkins found work as a lifeguard. “We were just cruising,” says Leonard of their wanderings. One day, while reading a British ex-pat publication, Perkins saw an ad for a chambermaid position on an island in Massachusetts. Leonard had previously spent time as a law enforcement ranger on Cape Cod, and encouraged his girlfriend to check out the area. “I wanted to do something different that year,” says Perkins. And without knowing a soul on the island, she took a leap and came to Nantucket for the summer of 1990. “It was a good adventure,” she says. “Scott came to visit me. But we moved back to New Zealand when the season ended.” Perkins returned to teaching, which had been her first career. This time, instead of instructing 13-year-olds in general studies, she was giving English courses to adults. Both enjoyed volunteering at the New Zealand SPCA. But eight years passed, and the travel bug started to itch once more. Perkins heard from an old friend she had made during her season on Nantucket. “You don’t want a summer cleaning job, do you?” the friend asked. “Why not?” Perkins said, and off they went to Nantucket. She says, “Scott drove a taxi, and I cleaned. That was when we came here and never left.”

Today, the couple is quite pleased to have settled on this island. Nantucket affords ample opportunities for both of them to do what they love most: work with animals. Together with Leonard’s sister, they run the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program, a nonprofit that provides education about local and global marine mammal issues. “If you want to get involved with marine mammals,” says Leonard, “go on a whale watching trip or seal cruise with Blair over at Shearwater Excursions. The first step to helping marine mammals is to just learn about them. And that’s why Nantucket is perfect for people who are interested in animals; everything you want to see is right here. We get all these exotic birds, too. Birds flying over who are lost at sea look down and say, ‘Oh my god! I’m going there!’ It’s a defined, small ecosystem that you can observe every day. And since we’ve preserved half of Nantucket, the wildlife is abundant.”

Perkins and Leonard also volunteer their time at CATTRAP Nantucket, a local nonprofit that performs TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) on the island’s sizeable feral cat population. The couple’s love for cats began on a dark November morning in 2008. Leonard noticed a tiny black kitten in the yard, and decided to borrow a humane trap from CATTRAP. He intended to hand the caught kitten over to CATTRAP for TNR and adoption. But when Leonard’s eyes met the tiny green ones that sailed in a sea of black fur, he opted to take the little guy inside. Perkins recalls getting home from work that day and finding her husband with a smile on his face and a black kitten snoozing on his shoulder. “When I saw that,” she says, “I thought, ‘well, guess that’s it.’” Today, it seems that the wily Mr. Black knew exactly what he was doing on the day he wormed his way into a home. An orange-furred friend for Mr. Black arrived the next Halloween, prompting the name Goblin. Little Miss Westerwick (trapped on Westerwick Drive in Madaket) soon rounded out the trio with her feminine touch. The cats enjoy daily, leashed walks in the forest and lazy days on the “pet-io.”

A one-eyed rescue dog is the family’s most recent addition. Nicknamed BD for Black Diamond, the energetic little mutt arrived on Nantucket with a shipment of dogs from Mississippi. Perkins says, “He didn’t get adopted with the group he came with, so he spent a lot of time in the shelter office with me. Then a second shipment of dogs from Mississippi came up, and he didn’t get adopted with them, either. Several families took him home for trials, but each time, he was returned. He just broke my heart.” The seven-month-old puppy had been harshly mistreated in Mississippi, which is possibly how his eye was  injured. Perkins continues, “His original owner was going to shoot him unless the Mississippi Mutts rescue team took him. Sure, that could have been an empty threat, but in Mississippi, it’s not an infrequent occurrence. So Scott started taking BD on outings to the beach and to Tupancy Links.” Leonard takes it from there: “We saw him not as a jumpy, bitey dog, but a dog that needed exercise, love and security. Having BD has been challenging but also amazing.” Perkins gushes as she says, “He is such an astute dog; he notices everything with his one eye!” She giggles and adds, “I call him Mad Eye, like the professor in Harry Potter. He just has such an enthusiasm for his new life.” Now that BD is settled into his forever home, he is considerably calmer than when he arrived on-island last November.

Despite an abiding love for creatures, Perkins admits, “I spent a number of years with my head buried in the sand. I always knew there were countless depressing animal situations out there, but I just felt so overwhelmed by everything that needed help. It seemed like I couldn’t even make a dent in it, so why try to do anything? It was easier that way. I was doing little things, but I wasn’t actively involved. I certainly wasn’t abusing animals. But my panaceum, my cure turned out to be just starting in small ways, like giving money to organizations whose missions I believed in. That turned into donating my time and energy rather than money. And after I began to help in these small ways, all the anxiety fell away. Today, I know that I am doing the very best that I can to help animals, and that allows me to sleep at night.” Leonard adds, “I think the tremendous amount of animal issues is a barrier to a lot of people in helping out the way they want to. It is definitely overwhelming when you realize how much support is needed for everything from feral cats to seals to the environment itself.” He agrees with his wife: “As soon as you start doing anything at all, that flooded feeling subsides.”

Although the majority of their free time is devoted to bettering the lives of animals, Perkins and Leonard do not fancy themselves as living an alternative lifestyle. “Maybe if we were living off the grid in a earth house on Waiheke Island in New Zealand and drew our water from a well, I would say we lived an alternative lifestyle,” says Perkins. “But our footprint is bigger than I’d like it to be. We’re one of the best houses in the neighborhood as far as energy efficiency, but I drive a Jeep that gets 15 miles to the gallon. I wish I could afford a Prius, but I can’t. What we can do is live as consciously as we are able. And Nantucket is the perfect place to do that. Here, you can fairly easily lessen your footprint.” Leonard adds, “A vegetarian diet is one example of living consciously.” Perkins and Leonard are vegetarians, but Leonard  confesses, “To this day, whenever I smell meat cooking, my mouth waters. But to me, my taste buds are not worth that animal’s life. Even if you’re not an animal person, you still want to help make the world a place where your children and grandchildren can live without being compromised. Taking care of the  environment that they will have to live in is a big part of that.”

Perkins, Leonard, and their three cats and one dog are all quite happy in their island jungle. Perkins says, “When I am walking our animals, I very often think of the contrast between my life and that of someone who lives in a city. They are walking over concrete and pavement; I’m walking on the soil or in the sand. We are very fortunate to live here on Nantucket.”