Image by Julie Bidwell
There are countless pampered pets who find living in Connecticut heavenly, but for the thousands of domestic animals who are abused, neglected and abandoned every year, it’s a living hell. Thankfully, there are Good Samaritans in our state who’ve established rescues, shelters, fostering projects and other services to aid animals in need of loving homes. We celebrate a handful of them on the following pages—but also know that these ventures are limited in what they can do given restrictions of size, budget and manpower.
On the other hand, there is plenty that you can do to help. Many shelters and rescues welcome dedicated volunteers willing to spare a few hours a week, whether your talent be fundraising, cage cleaning, pet grooming or simply making an animal feel special. If you’re short on time, other kinds of donations are also needed. Most of the rescues and volunteer organizations discussed here are 501(c)3 nonprofits totally dependent on funds from the public to stay afloat. They can also use everything from food donations to old newspapers and paper towels (look for the “wish lists” on their websites).
Above all, if you have pets, get them spayed or neutered. It’s the obvious way to prevent the creation of new generations of unwanted animals and improve your own pet’s health and well-being (ask any expert about that, from your vet to the ASPCA). And if you’re currently looking for a pet, seriously consider adopting from a shelter or rescue. We’d triple-dog-dare you to find an animal anywhere else who’s more eager to love you back.
TWO OF A KIND
We’ve all heard horror stories about municipal animal shelters. Unlike private rescues, city shelters are obligated to accept every stray within city limits, so they typically wind up overcrowded and understaffed. As a result, the majority of shelter animals are routinely euthanized within days of their arrival. The Humane Society of the United States estimates the number of cats and dogs killed in U.S. shelters each year at 4 million.
But the relationship that exists between The Robin I. Kroogman New Haven Animal Shelter and its community partners—particularly The Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter (FOTNHAS), an 80-strong nonprofit volunteer organization established in 1994—has helped set a more progressive standard for the Elm City. The state’s second-largest municipal shelter, with more than 60 dog kennels and space to house 30 cats, Robin I. Kroogman (a division of the New Haven Police Department, overseen by Animal Control Officer Stephani Johnson) welcomes roughly thousand cats and dogs each year. Of these, 75 percent are adopted out to the shelter’s more than 3,000 visitors.
Animals are euthanized only when their quality of life is irreversibly compromised through illness, injury or an aggressive temperament that makes them unadoptable. “It wouldn’t be ‘humane’ of us to keep an animal alive whose only option is to spend the rest of its life at the shelter,” says Debbie Wan, vice president of FOTNHAS’s executive board. None are ever euthanized for lack of shelter space, or simply because they’ve gone unadopted for a long period of time. One striking case is the story of Midnight, a 4-year-old Australian shepherd, and his buddy Shadow, a 3-year-old Kelpie, both characteristically active herding dogs who animal control officers found locked together in a 3-by-3-foot coat closet in 2009, covered in feces and urine. They remained at the shelter for nearly two years since both staff and volunteers believed that they’d be happiest if they found a loving home together. Alas, in all that time, no one came forward who wanted both.
Longtime tenancy carries potential risks, even for adoptable dogs. The stresses of confinement can drive them “kennel crazy,” resulting in lost weight and aggressive behavior. “They need really strong, resilient personalities to handle the situation,” Wan says. Helping the animals “hang tough” and improving their chances of adoption is a key goal of FOTNHAS. Volunteers socialize the shelter animals during visiting hours (Monday through Saturday, 12:30 to 4:30): walking the dogs and playing with them in the outdoor dog runs, cuddling and grooming the cats. They also show the animals to potential adopters, both at the shelter and at adoption events, which take place twice monthly (through most of the year) in collaboration with the mobile adoption unit of the North Shore Animal League, a no-kill rescue based in Port Washington, N.Y. And every animal gets a posting on Petfinder.com—the Internet’s best-known adoption search engine—as well as a video on YouTube. Those with signs of kennel craziness get extra attention. If they’re not adopted, every effort is made to place them in foster care at a volunteer’s home or with an outside rescue organization, “somewhere quiet with fewer animals,” says Wan.
Another critical role of FOTNHAS is fundraising, through initiatives ranging from bake sales and kennel sponsorships to gala events like “Makin’ Woofie,” which next takes place Feb. 19 at the New Haven Lawn Club. The lion’s share of funds raised pays for medical care the shelter animals would not otherwise receive, including X-rays, heartworm tests and even corrective surgeries, which currently run over $50,000 a year. (Every adopted animal is spayed or neutered before joining its new family, a cost that’s included in the shelter’s $80 adoption fee.)
Such close involvement with the animals inevitably leads to “rooting interests.” Says Wan, “We all have favorites we fall in love with, even though you’re supposed to work with every animal.” That brings us back to everyone’s onetime favorites Midnight and Shadow. Last June, they finally found their forever home—together—with Jason Smith, a computer specialist from Oxford. He learned about them, he says, from a co-worker and FOTNHAS volunteer who knew of his fondness for the “super-sweet” disposition of a similar breed, the border collie. “When I talked to her about how I’d like two dogs,” says Smith, “she told me, ‘I have the perfect pair.’” Indeed, the moment he read their story on Petfinder, he was sold: “I knew these were the dogs for me.”
Time has only confirmed the rightness of his decision. Among other talents, Midnight and Shadow often show off their herding skills (on each other) for Smith, and have turned out to be the ideal dual alarm clock: “At 7 a.m. they’re at my bedside, waking me up,” he says. “Thanks to these guys, I get to smile every day, because each day one of them will act cuter than I thought was possible. When I adopted them, I told everybody at the shelter, ‘Thanks for taking care of them until I got here.’ And we all cried.”
For more info on the New Haven Animal Shelter, call (203) 946-8110; for more info on FOTNHAS, visit findafriendforlife.org.
LIVING THE HIGH LIFE AT LAST
After meeting Captain—a 3-year-old, tan-and-white colored American pit bull terrier with a fetchingly freckled muzzle—I must report that he’s, unfortunately, extremely aggressive . . . toward apple pies. “I baked one recently just before we went out, and left it on the counter to cool,” says owner Regina Rupp. “When we returned, it was gone. And then Captain was sick for two days.”
Otherwise, he’s what dog lovers typically call a “mush.” As I watched him work on his chew bone, made extra-tempting with a schmear of peanut butter, he reminded me of Ferdinand, the little bull who preferred sitting under a tree smelling flowers to snorting and butting heads with other bulls. Since August, when Captain came to Norwich to live with Karl and Regina Rupp, he’s led a very active life: hiking hills, fording streams, sunbathing on beaches. He loves rope toys, car rides, chasing balls and cavorting with the neighborhood poodle, but is not fond of baths—or, as it turns out, hostility. “He really doesn’t like tension and can’t stand it when he hears people fighting,” Regina says.
Oddly enough, during his year-and-a-half-long stay at Meriden Animal Control, he was at one point regarded as unadoptable—and when the Rupps tried to adopt him, they had to overcome a certain prejudice as well: the bad reputation military families (Karl is in the Navy) have for abandoning pets when their service requires them to relocate.
Meriden Animal Control (MAC) is a small municipal dog shelter (capacity 32) that’s had image problems of its own; town residents still talk about a time when dogs were sent to “death row” if not claimed quickly enough. That’s been eliminated under current animal control officer Bryan Kline, who, along with kennel attendant Matthew Zakrzewski and administrative volunteer Amanda Bowen, is determined to get as many dogs as possible adopted into loving homes. While the shelter’s population of 80 percent pit bulls can be a hard sell, Internet social networking sites like Facebook and Petfinder.com have been a godsend: “It’s how most of our adoptions take place,” Kline says.
Still, at first nothing worked for Captain, who was picked up as a stray: The consensus was that he was adapting a little too well to shelter life. “My guess is that his original family kept him outside, that he never really became a companion pet,” says Bowen. “He was emotionally shut down—it was like he didn’t know what he was missing.” His behaviors were interpreted as antisocial. He’d bark threateningly at other dogs when they passed his kennel. When Bowen tried to transfer him to a rescue, she was rebuffed. “I was told he should be put down,” she says.
But when she started taking pictures of him for Facebook, she saw a different, gentler dog. “I asked, ‘Has anyone ever really tested this dog for aggression?’” she says. “They hadn’t.” When she brought him outside and let him interact directly with other dogs, “he was ridiculously laid-back; he didn’t show any anger even when they bit at his face.”
Finally, he got the chance to go to an adoption event in Ledyard as a guest of the nonprofit Waterford rescue, CT Animal House, where he caught the Rupps’ attention. “Karl was immediately smitten,” Regina says. “At first I wasn’t sure, because he’s really strong, and he’d never been leash-trained as a puppy. But we spent hours with him, and he was so sweet, we just fell in love. I felt like he chose us, too. When other people walked up to his kennel at the event, he’d bark as if to say, ‘No—I’ve found my family.’”
The couple put in an application to adopt Captain, thinking he’d easily be theirs. But Animal House president Chris Lamb, a part-time animal-control officer, denied it based on Karl’s status as an enlisted man. “She’s had to rehome too many dogs from military families,” Bowen says. “What makes this story great is that the Rupps didn’t give up.” They barraged Bowen with emails and made several trips to see Captain in Meriden. Their dedication won her over—along with the news that Karl intends to retire from the Navy once his Norwich stint ends. “Captain has an incredible life now,” Bowen says.
Regina Rupp is just as happy it all worked out. “I’m glad we kept fighting for him,” she says.
For more info on MAC, call (203) 235-4179.
With the soaring popularity of domestic rabbits as pets over the last 10 years—they’re now No. 3, after cats and dogs—has come an alarming increase in bunny abuse, neglect and abandonment, making them the third-largest group of victims as well. Part of the reason for this is that they’re often thoughtlessly acquired: Everyone knows a child who was given an adorable baby bunny for Easter, only to lose interest when the pet hit puberty. On the other end of the scale are rabbit hoarders, who start with two bunnies and wind up with dozens they can’t properly care for.
This brings us to the golden rule of any pet ownership: spaying and neutering. Altered rabbits can be great pets—gentle personalities that are playful, can be readily trained to use a litter box and might even cuddle up with their owners on the couch for an evening of Bugs Bunny cartoons. But too many owners fail to take on this responsibility, for understandable reasons. “Rabbits need to see vets who treat exotic animals,” says Linda Thibault, director of the nonprofit Norwalk rabbit rescue Hop-A-Long Hollow. “It’s $80 to simply walk through the door of an exotics vet around here. So when someone learns it’ll cost $400 to alter their pet, it doesn’t get done.” Many of these animals end up on the street, at the mercy of a dangerous, unfamiliar world.
Many of the 70 or so bunnies at the Hollow are the survivors of such casual cruelty. Marbles was found on a Norwalk street in a cage with an ill-fitting top marked “Free.” Says Thibault, “Any dog who walked by would have had a picnic.” Leono, an Angora mix, arrived as the result of a cooperative effort undertaken last year by several rescues, after a male and female rabbit left in the parking lot of Stratford’s 99 Restaurant produced 16 offspring (although a number of the babies were collected, some were carried off by hawks). Another youngster, Ivy, developed life-threatening abscesses while part of a hoard rescued in New Hampshire—from a woman who acquired 76 rabbits off Craigslist, then left them to fend for themselves in an outdoor shed.
Thus, Thibault’s standards for adopting out Hollow rabbits are stringent. The first thing potential owners must provide is a vet reference. “If there are dogs in the family, I want to know if they’re up-to-date on their shots,” she says. “I want to know that when the family cat needed $1,000 worth of treatment, he got it, rather than being put down. Vets are surprisingly honest, so that’s my first line of defense.” No rabbit, even a baby, goes out the door without being spayed or neutered first: “I don’t trust anyone to follow through on their own.” Even a family with the best intentions may not be suitable. “Rabbits are high-strung, and susceptible to stress illnesses,” she explains. “They won’t do well in a home with young kids if they scream and carry on.” (She notes that most, however, can get along perfectly well with family cats and dogs.)
While some single rabbits are available for adoption (at $75), Thibault prefers that they be adopted in bonded pairs ($150). She regularly performs bonding among the Hollow population—a process that turns a spayed female and neutered male into platonic buddies. It’s achieved by putting the chosen duo in extra-close quarters for about a week and supervising with care, to be sure they don’t fight. “The biggest tip-off to success is that they start grooming each other,” she says. Because rabbits are social creatures, bonded bunnies are happy bunnies, longer-lived and less likely to get sick. “Like humans, they prefer the company of their own kind—unlike us, they stay together for life.”
Pet rabbit numbers may be way up, but rabbit rescues are not. Thibault finds that the biggest frustration of running Hop-A-Long Hollow is its limited size. Housed in the garage and spare bedroom of her lifelong home, it’s unable to accommodate the numerous frantic pet owners who call her, wanting to surrender their rabbits. “Sadly, because there are so few other options available, a lot of animals will continue to be turned loose,” she says, though she will help people list their bunnies on Petfinder.com. “That’s where 95 percent of my homes come from, and they’re good ones.”
For more info on Hop-A-Long Hollow, call (203) 247-4661 or visit hopalonghollow.org.
LIVES NOT WASTED
I feared I’d find Out to Pasture FARM & RESCUE depressing. After all, it’s a nonprofit rescue/rehabilitation center/hospice that’s dedicated to animals who are debilitated in some way—paralyzed, damaged by birth defects, abused, diagnosed as terminally ill—and who, if not for the Pasture, would have nowhere else to go. But my misgivings disappear the moment founder Carrie Haggart opens the door and I hear a cacophony of excited barks and feel the swirl of quadrupeds at my feet, bright-eyed and eager for attention. This place is full of life.
The stories are sad, just the same: There’s Chawla, a 14-year-old dog born with no front legs, who’s been here since she was a pup of eight weeks; Babe, an aged and arthritic horse whose owner could no longer keep her; Dobelle, a dog found abandoned in a California shopping mall parking lot with a broken back; and one of Haggart’s oldest pets, Ilean, a bird thought to be doomed in his youth by liver disease (30 years later, he’s still here). As I sit down, I’ve got Treggor—a blind cat rescued from a feral colony in Berlin—purring at my right and feel the rescue’s No. 1 “greeter” Gangren, a dog with an amputated front leg, nudging me from the left.
With nearly 80 animals in her care—many referred by other rescues and animal lovers all over the country—Haggart’s got her work cut out for her. There are nearly 80 different diets and medication schedules to manage, and most of the animals are either incontinent or unable to empty their bowels or bladders without help, which means diaper changes several times daily. Her newest arrival, Uberlein, a 4-month-old orange-and-white kitten found lying in a ditch at the side of a road in Somers, is just one week post-surgery for shattered hips and bladder damage, and yet as feisty and playful as the rest. Two animal hospitals refused to operate, convinced he was too far gone. Finally, Windsor’s New England Veterinary Center & Cancer Care accepted the challenge.
“The others told us he’d have no quality of life and should be put down,” Haggart says. “And I understand that could still happen tomorrow or next week. But he’s a 4-month-old kitten; how can you deny him a chance?”
Animal rescue is a longstanding Haggart family tradition. As a child in Newington, Carrie watched her mother rescue dogs about to be put down by the local Humane Society: “She’d collect them all and find them homes,” she says. “There wasn’t a family in town that didn’t have a pet.” Mom’s influence rubbed off early. “We had a pet shop near us, and I’d take home the fish who were dying of ick and floating sideways,” she says. “I wanted to cure them all.”
Running her own rescue became her life’s goal, all through earning an assistant veterinarian’s degree at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., and a 15-year stint running her own Newington grooming shop. During that time she became best friends with her eventual husband, Kevin—the older brother of a childhood friend—who owned the electrician’s shop next door. He wanted to marry her, but Carrie, previously divorced, was leery of ruining a good thing. “He proposed three times,” she says. “Finally, he told me, ‘If you marry me, I will build you your dream house, you can have your rescue and I will still be your best friend.’”
The house came first, in 1996—a Victorian-style manse on an 11-acre plot of land that Carrie already owned. The following year, the couple was married by a justice of the peace on its back porch “with the animals all around us,” Haggart says. Graced with 51 windows and equipped with doors, light fixtures and ceiling treatments recycled from buildings that had been torn down, it’s scrupulously clean. “I don’t ever want my husband to come home and say, ‘This house is gross; it smells really bad,’” Haggart says. “I mean, I know we have some smell—how could you not?—but to me, it’s not offensive.” It’s not. But I have to wonder whether managing the needs of so many disabled animals by herself doesn’t, at times, become oppressive.
“At the end of the day, I’ll go out on my back porch, breathe the country air and have a cocktail,” she says. “That’s all the escape I need. Because really, the rescue is my mental break, my idea of heaven.” The only time she questions what she’s doing is when it’s time to say goodbye to one of her charges. “My vet hands me the Kleenex box, and we cry, and I say, ‘I can’t do this; I’ll never do it again,” she says. She looks at Uberlein. “But then the phone will ring, and it’s something like this. . . .”
For more info on Out to Pasture Farm & Rescue, call (860) 742-7115 or visit outtopasture.org.
A HAVEN FOR THE HOMELESS
Like Scarlett O’Hara, BonnieJeanne Gorden knows what it takes to love a place called Tara. She’s run her own Tara Farm in Coventry as a rescue for 29 years, not just for animals but people, too. The second floor of her house has long been devoted to transient boarders—“lost souls and disabled people,” she says—who simply need a place to go. In past years she’s taken in runaway teenagers, recovering addicts, even parolees on probation. “But now, the animals need me far too much,” she says. “So, the people I rent to these days are more independent.”
Actually, the animals are pretty resilient themselves. Of the 141 she’s currently caretaking—cats, dogs, horses, ponies, potbellied pigs, llamas, chickens—many are adoptable. Beautiful equines from Appaloosas and pintos to ponies are listed on Petfinder.com; a number of the horses that have passed through have gone on to become “best in show” award-winners. A colony of 30 FIV-positive (feline immunodeficiency virus) and FeLV (feline leukemia virus) cats resides here, most of whom would also love a forever home. Gorden has a special affinity for chow chows, a canine breed whose owner- and household-protective nature has led to their being mislabeled as vicious. “When an animal is labeled a ‘rescue,’ people automatically think something is terribly wrong with them,” she says. “Our vets advise us as to what animals require special care and should remain here.”
One such is a goat named Vee, whose survival fits her victorious name. Brought to the farm in 2009, she was near death, having been shackled tightly to the ground and virtually abandoned by her previous owners. Open sores had developed on her chest, stomach and legs, and a rope that had gotten wrapped around her right hind leg had cut off circulation to the point that hoof and skin had fallen off, leaving the bone exposed. When the leg developed an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, part of it had to be amputated. A big believer in holistic medicine (animals on the farm often receive chiropractic, acupuncture and massage services), Gorden had Tara’s masseuse perform Reiki on Vee throughout the surgical process: “Goats are not the easiest animals to put under anesthesia,” she says. “But Vee was amazing—after waking, she got right up and stood on the leg.” Two years on, she’s successfully adapted to using her leg as it is (having rejected an attempt to fit her with a prosthetic). “She sees the vet every couple of months to make sure it’s not developing any infections or sores,” adds Gorden.
Gorden first acquired the property that became Tara Farm in 1978—after it had been condemned—and spent several years working three jobs (as riding teacher, machinist and bar waitress) to make the money to clean it up. Now her 54-acre spread allows the animals to explore in all directions, but a few years ago—“when the economy really tanked,” she says—even that space began to seem too small. “We were trying to help people, but we found we started getting animals back that we had adopted out five or seven years earlier,” Gorden says. “We were becoming dangerously overwhelmed.”
Finally, she was forced to establish limits on the animal population in order to concentrate on needed improvements to the rescue’s facilities. One recent development is a “cat cottage,” which allows the Tara Farm felines to come and go at will through a cat door, but is also equipped with cages for those who need medical treatment (prior to this, the cats resided in the farmhouse basement). Also in the works is a new horse barn with separate, sterile veterinary quarters. “We’re in desperate need of that,” Gorden says.
As with other rescues, everything about Tara Farm is hugely expensive (food alone costs $350 to $400 a week) and labor-intensive. But Gorden is nothing if not resourceful in finding volunteers to help with chores—she’s been a 4-H leader for 32 years and is willing to help people sentenced to community service work off their hours—and coming up with all sorts of fund-raising strategies (giving pony rides at birthday parties, running an annual hunter pace competition, even collecting recyclable bottles and cans).
She’s also learned the importance of getting a break now and then. “If I don’t get away, I’m going to burn out,” she says. Luckily, she has a brother in Maine she visits from time to time—and he arranged a spa visit for her last Thanksgiving. “He makes sure I’m taken care of.”
For more info on Tara Farm Rescue, call (860) 742-2215 or visit tarafarmrescue.org.
Prior to November 2011, no one imagined that The Last Post, a private cat sanctuary in Falls Village, would ever be touched by tragedy. Established in the early 1980s on 37 acres close by the Housatonic River, the Post offers its roughly 200 resident felines the upscale life, beginning with airy day rooms where they socialize, sleep (in baby cribs on linens that are freshened daily) and eat (including a different flavor of wet food every day). Outfitted with floor-to-ceiling windows, absorption-resistant flooring and elevated beams for prowling, these digs also provide their residents independent access to a 100-foot outdoor deck where they can lie in the sun or take off to explore five safely-fenced-in acres of the rescue’s grounds.
Amenities include a jungle gym, designed and built by Alcoa Howmet; Thanksgiving dinner, when turkey is carved and served on glass plates; and, yes, story time. “I read ‘Mother Goose’ to them and they love it,” says Susan Gregan, the Post’s business manager, who oversees daily operations along with her husband, Richard, a veterinarian turned state animal-control officer. “I just sit down in a rocker in one of the day rooms and they congregate.”
It took an uncontrollable fluke of nature to disrupt this idyllic scene. The premature snowstorm that blew through Connecticut last October left the Post, serviced by Connecticut Light & Power, without electricity for more than 11 days. Thirty cats temporarily housed in one of the property’s two 60-year-old cottages perished on the seventh day, Nov. 4, when fire broke out due to a malfunction of the building’s heating system caused by the outage. Both cottages burned to the ground, destroying all of the Post’s extra cat bedding and its maintenance shed as well. Though some of these losses have been replaced, an air of melancholy lingers. “It’s still hard for the staff to talk about,” Gregan says.
The Last Post was the brainchild of longtime WOR radio personality and animal-rights activist Pegeen Fitzgerald. Her dream was to create a sanctuary where cats who had lost their owners could live out their natural lives free of the stress and fear caused by abandonment or crowded, cramped municipal shelters. She envisioned a place where owners faced with having to give up their beloved pets could bring them, secure in the knowledge that they would continue to receive comprehensive, loving care.
Nearly 30 years on, the sanctuary continues to provide that peace of mind. Pets aren’t “surrendered,” but bequeathed through a legal agreement, most often expressed in the owners’ wills (although some are brought here for other reasons—for example, a family member develops debilitating allergies). Such arrangements aren’t cheap: Owners pay $3,000 to $6,000 to turn over each cat. But when one considers that the lifetime care the Post provides—including full medical treatment—averages out to a cost of $11,500 per animal, and that its overall operating expenses for 2010 approached $500,000, these fees start to look like a bargain.
Owners who bequeath their cats with the stipulation that they can be readopted pay fees at the lower end of the scale. Potential new owners are required to bring references. “We charge $100 to adopt a cat,” Gregan says. “We used to charge $250, but it’s not our goal to keep adoptable pets here. A good home is better than the best orphanage—and we are the best orphanage.”
For more info on The Last Post, call (860) 824-0831 or visit thelastpostonline.org.