Connecticut Animal Welfare Groups Passionately Protect Animals
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TEAM (Tait’s Every Animal Matters)
Westbrook, (888) FOR-TEAM (everyanimalmatters.org)
The 34 felines aboard TEAM’s mobile van, stationed on this day at the New Haven Animal Shelter—26 females and eight males—have no idea what’s in store for them. Stacked in carriers and ordered by number, they’ve been brought here by their owners for routine spay or neuter surgery, an appointment that includes a brief physical exam, ear mite treatment and nail-trim (if needed) and vaccinations (if requested). The fee: $80, a fraction of what owners would pay for these services at a veterinarian’s office.
But many of these cats don’t even have their own vets, and TEAM’s ministrations may be the only medical care they ever receive. Senior surgeon Dr. Art Heller—a veterinarian who works with the clinic three days a week—works with careful efficiency as his assistants prep each patient: administering anesthesia, giving vaccines, shaving the female cats’ bellies, awakening the animals when the surgery is over. It’s not unusual to hear an angry screech or see a pitched battle as the techs try to extricate frightened cats from their carriers. “These women have the tough job,” Heller says, smiling. Still, his work, especially with the females, is done with what seems to be remarkable delicacy—the incisions are very small, blood loss is minute and the surgery is carefully finished off with dissolving stitches and a touch of surgical glue. (Male cats have it easier: Neutering is an external procedure requiring no incision.)
Of the 160,000 procedures TEAM has done since hitting the road 16 years ago, Heller has performed more than 50,000. His average surgery time per cat is eight minutes. Upon awakening, his patients feel very little surgical discomfort. “It’s mainly the anesthesia hangover that makes them feel crummy,” he says, which is why TEAM has the animals stay in the van for a couple of hours post-surgery before they go home.
Not all surgeries are routine. While the ideal age for a spay/neuter procedure is three or four months, there are plenty of cats who don’t undergo it until years later, which puts them at higher risk for complications. Some, due to underlying health problems, can’t tolerate anesthesia, a problem usually only discovered when it’s too late. “I’ve lost a handful of patients over the years,” Heller admits. (And he means a handful—less than 10.) Then, there are the female cats that are brought in pregnant, even close to full-term; most of the owners in these cases, he says, are completely unaware of the fact. TEAM’s official policy is to euthanize the unborn kittens unless the owner objects. “If it were solely up to me, I wouldn’t do it,” Heller says, sighing. “But I’m not in the position to make moral judgments. People are irresponsible. If each of these cats has five kittens, that’s five more cats who may not get proper care either.”
In the early 1980s John Caltabiano, a Westbrook veterinarian with his own mobile practice in southeastern Connecticut, was painfully aware of the problem of animal homelessness. He established a nonprofit organization called All-Animal Adoption, which put potential adopters in touch with people who had pets available for adoption—but due to lack of funds, the initiative soon fell apart. A decade or so later, however, he received a surprising gift: An attorney for the estate of Vernon A. Tait—a New Haven businessman and animal lover—called with a bequest for All-Animal Adoption. This enabled Caltabiano to reestablish his nonprofit under a new name, the Vernon A. Tait All-Animal Adoption, Preservation and Rescue Fund (Tait’s Every Animal Matters, or TEAM, for short).
Caltabiano was unsure at first what TEAM’s focus should be. For answers, he set up a toll-free phone line for people to call with questions and concerns. “He was inundated with calls from people with too many cats or kittens, who complained about neighbors poisoning cats, you name it,” says Donna Sicuranza, a friend who at the time worked in journalism and public relations. “There didn’t seem to be any end to the numbers of unwanted litters.” Thus was born TEAM’s central mission: providing affordable and accessible feline spay/neuter services as a way of breaking the cycle of unwanted reproduction, but also promoting feline health (cats who are altered live longer, have fewer physical problems and are better behaved). In 1997, Caltabiano and Sicuranza partnered to put Connecticut’s first mobile spay/neuter clinic on the road, offering services for $25 per cat. “John’s theory was, ‘If we bring it, they will come,’” says Sicuranza.
Since then, more than the fee has grown. TEAM now operates two vans, which run every Monday through Friday and alternate Saturdays, visiting over 30 communities statewide and performing, on average, 35 surgeries a day. “We visit New Haven, Fairfield County and greater Hartford several times a month, and park at a number of animal shelters as well as Petco stores,” says Sicuranza, now the organization’s executive director (Caltabiano passed away in 2009). “Most of our staff has been with us for over 10 years.” In addition to Heller, TEAM employs vets Dr. Kim Rio of Berlin and Dr. Valerie Poettgen of Canterbury.