Connecticut Humane Society building ‘dream’ facility with array of services to help keep pet families together
By Alison Cross, Hartford Courant,2023-09-30
When Nichole Pizzoferrato of Wethersfield noticed an unfamiliar growth of fur on her dog Ovie’s neck, mother’s intuition told her something was not right — a vet at the Connecticut Humane Society confirmed that the lump was a mast cell tumor.
Pizzoferrato had used CHS’ veterinary services for seven years, a resource that Pizzoferrato said offered financial and emotional peace of mind — especially when her pack of pooches unexpectedly ballooned from one to five. But without CHS’ intervention in this key moment, Pizzoferrato said she doesn’t know what situation Ovie would be in today.
“I don’t know if I had to wait longer, would it have spread more, would it have gotten bigger, would we be in a different place?” Pizzoferrato said. “They really worked with me and helped out a lot and I don’t know where we would be if we weren’t able to get that service.”
Providing low-fee veterinary care is just one of the ways CHS works to better the lives of animals and prevent shelter surrenders. The organization’s latest undertaking is an expansion of this vision.
The Connecticut Humane Society broke ground this month on a new campus in Wilton. The soon-to-be-built facility is not a shelter but an “Animal Resource Center” with a mission to keep pet families together and help rescued animals find their “fur”ever homes.
Nestled on 18 acres of land on 863-875 Danbury Road, the $16.3 million, 15,000-square-foot complex will feature an adoption center, pet food pantry, humane education and behavioral training programs, an agility course, outdoor trails, enrichment play pens, and a screened in “catio.”
But perhaps one of its most valuable assets is the resource center’s low-fee, community veterinary clinic.
“People are just a paycheck or two away from having to make a decision to surrender their pet because they can’t get their dog or cat vaccinated,” James Bias, executive director of CHS said. “(We’re) bringing that community medicine to that part of the state (where) if you take a map and you start doing pushpins, you’re going to see private practitioners all over the place, but many of them are just out of reach of your average working person.”
With this barrier to access in mind, Barbara Naugle, CHS director of development, said that the new facility started as a dream at board retreat eight years ago.
“They looked at numbers and stories and functions and resources, and pretty much all concluded, unanimously, that we were being short-sighted by not providing more veterinary resources for the community,” Naugle said.
For many residents in Connecticut, unbudgeted veterinary expenses are a challenge, Naugle explained.
A 2023 report from the Federal Reserve found that 63% of U.S. adults can cover a surprise $400 bill. Only 46% can handle a bill of $2,000 or more.
On average, the cost of an unexpected veterinary procedure, like a broken bone, an ingested object or cancer treatments, ranges from $2,700 to $4,100 nationally, according to pet insurance claims from 2017 to 2021.
“Households in America can’t afford an unexpected $1,000 bill, and if those are homes with pets, it’s the pets that are going without,” Naugle said. “It’s not the fault of the owners. It’s not the fault of veterinarians. It’s just the reality of the world in which we live.”
When CHS opened its Newington Facility 25 years ago, Naugle said the veterinary services originally served impoverished families — pet owners on disability, unemployment or other strenuous financial circumstances. But over time, Naugle said CHS has expanded its mission as more working and middle-class residents struggle to make ends meet.
“For a young couple with two kids, they have a mortgage, they have two cars they’re leasing, they have a big cable bill, they have four cell phones, the electric bill — also huge in Connecticut — and then their dog tears his cruciate ligament, where does that family find $8,000?” Naugle said. “People need access to veterinary medicine, and they need access to low-fee care.”
In addition to offering prices that are 20% to 30% less than private clinics, CHS and the new Wilton facility, provides veterinary services on a sliding fee scale. Depending on each case and circumstance, Naugle explained that while some pet owners pay $70 each month for seven years, others pay just $7 if that is all they can afford.
Bias said the addition of medical services in Wilton will lessen the strain on CHS’ Fox Memorial Clinic, allowing the Newington facility to take on more patients in the Greater Hartford area. The Wilton shelter will also open up space and opportunities for animals to move around CHS locations.
“It’s not just that little dome in that part of the state,” Bias said. “It’s more of a holistic approach as opposed to just a little silo of ability in Wilton.”
With an expected opening date set for the fall of 2024, the Wilton Animal Resource Center could not come at a more critical time for Fairfield County, as Bias described the region’s current facility as operating “on life support.”
“The facility that we have in Westport right now is 75 years old,” Bias said. “It has had a lot of lipstick put on it over the years to make it look and function, but it has outlived its usable life.”
The new facility also comes at a critical time for the state’s shelter system as it faces new strain.
But Bias said the numbers fail to paint a complete picture — decreased staff, a decline in adoption, and a policy shift towards ensuring that animals reach positive outcomes instead of immediately pushing them into new homes has filled shelters to capacity.
In 2022 Connecticut shelters took in 8,155 animals, a 25% decrease from the five-year high of 10,834 intakes, according to the Shelter Animals Count data. But over the same period, adoptions dropped 33%.
“When we hear these national stories about shelters that are bursting at the seams, it’s not because intake numbers are coming in (at) huge numbers, (it’s because) we’re keeping them longer,” Bias said.
Bias said the CHS “bottleneck” is fueled by an influx of pets with high medical or behavioral needs that municipal shelters lack the resources to address.
“The mix of complex issues is much higher than what it was four years ago,” Bias said. “We tend to say yes to more of those transfers because we know their outcome if they stay where they’re at is probably not a positive outcome. It means that they might have to be euthanized.”
As a result, Bias said pets stay with CHS longer as they receive the care they need.
Over the years, few of these high-needs animals end up in staff offices for on-site fostering. Bias said his office has become home to mainly “misunderstood cats” who need a more personal setting to work through behavioral issues or litter pan problems before they get adopted.
“Almost every day there is an animal in my office that has special issues,” Bias said. “Our organization is kind of wired to do things not just in a traditional ‘four walls and a roof.’ … We’re seeing more and more of that happen, not just at Connecticut Humane Society, but other shelters using creative ways to result in positive outcomes.”
Another sizable portion of shelter space is occupied by surrendered pets.
Last year, 30% of the animals in Connecticut shelters were recorded as strays. Just over 20% were relinquished by their owner, according to Shelter Animals Count data.
Bias said CHS has moved away from the “old model of: ‘Your pet’s not working out, surrender it. We’ll find a home for it.’”
Bias said CHS works towards reducing the likelihood of surrender situations by offering educational programs to “give people the training wheels they need when they acquire a new pet,” and work through house training, mouthiness issues or other behavioral challenges with their current animals.
“Who better to know and care for that pet than the family who has it right now?” Bias said.
“We’re trying to get ahead of it,” Bias added. “Quite often when people are ready to surrender a pet, that’s not the best time to try to educate. I had somebody equate it to marriage counseling and a divorce attorney’s lobby. Usually by the time you’re ready to surrender a pet, you’re kind of at your wits’ end and you’re ready to disconnect. So we try to do things to keep that pet-human bond strong so that when times get tough, the dog chews the shoes, the cat pees on the pillow in the bed, they’re (ready to) deal with those issues versus just getting frustrated and surrendering their pet.”
The Animal Resource Center will provide programming geared toward keeping pets in their home, but the facility will also address another driver of pet surrenders — food insecurity.
Naugle said pet food insecurity is a major issue among CHS clients. She said that oftentimes, pet owners will try to supplement their pet food with human food, but that can lead to unhealthy outcomes.
“Pets are living in poverty all over the state and sometimes it’s in obviously distressed neighborhoods but sometimes it’s the folks around the corner from you and me,” Naugle said. “The owners are embarrassed to ask for help, but that’s why we’re here.”
The pet food pantry at the Wilton center will provide Fairfield County residents with traditional, dietary-specific and prescription pet food. But unlike the pantries at other CHS locations, Naugle said this pantry will be indoors, making it easier for staff and program participants to access on extremely hot or cold days.
Naugle said local shelters and animal control also benefit from the same programs.
“(When) we have too much food for the pets in our pet food pantry program and in the shelter … we distribute it out to animal control officers and smaller shelter partners around the state. We also work with the same partners to provide veterinary care for the pets in their care. If they can’t afford it in their animal control budget or in their small shelter budget, they can call us,” Naugle said. “As long as we’ve got doctors fully staffed and we’ve got appointments open, we can take care of whatever those other shelters need.”
So far, Naugle said that CHS has raised $13.8 million to turn the Wilton facility into a reality, but they still need $2.5 million to cover the remaining costs.
She explained that fundraising efforts have brought CHS closer to the community.
Naugle said that one child in Fairfield County gave 70 cents, other donors made “huge gifts” towards the facility. She said it has been a wonderful experience to watch the state rally around the project.
“It’s been really wonderful to talk with individuals about pets that have changed their lives and the whys behind why they are giving. And it usually comes back to one or two or three pets that have just been remarkable to have loved them when no one else was loving them. And they want to do this in memory of those pets, but also want to do it so people 20 years from now can have that same experience of a pet love,” Naugle said.
Naugle is no stranger to that special kind of love that a pet provides. She credits her passion for animal welfare to a cocker spaniel named Lottie that her family adopted 15 years ago when her original owner had to rehome her at age 5.
“Instantly, that dog just made a right turn in the house and just became my dog,” Naugle said. “She just nuzzled up to me and fixed things inside of me I didn’t even know were broken. So when I had a chance to come to Connecticut Humane to do fundraising, I thought, oh my gosh, if I can make that experience that I had with my cocker something for other people in the state of Connecticut, I just thought there would be nothing like it.”
“I do it because of how a pet has changed my life,” Naugle said. “And hopefully, I’m paying it forward for the next 50 years of pets (that) will be coming through this Animal Resource Center.”