Helping pet owners through troubled times

One area’s efforts to keep pets in their homes

As if it isn’t bad enough that people are losing their jobs and homes, Branford (Connecticut)

Branford Animal Shelter Director Laura Burban with Lacey.

Branford Animal Shelter Director Laura Burban with Lacey.

Animal Shelter Director Laura Burban sees a big increase in the number of people who must give up their pets due to the recession. Relinquishments have doubled from last year and she’s determined to help people keep their pets.

A Pet Pantry, which enables residents to pick up food for their pets, is already located at the Volunteer Services Center’s clothing bank on Harrison Avenue, but it’s not an ideal set-up. Burban is on a mission to find a location that’s accessible to residents and provides more storage. She says that approximately 100 people are in need, but more have been turned away.

“It often comes down to feeding the kids or feeding the cat,” she says.

But to help people who want to keep their furry family members, Burban is reaching out to other town facilities. She says the pantry needs to be on a large scale to help residents. Since the shelter, which is located at 749 East Main St., and also serves North Branford and Northford, can accept food only for its residents, the Pet Pantry must be off-site. Citing space problems most of the town departments have already said no.

Burban is thinking of approaching some local churches. She hopes someone will come forward once the word gets out.

“I’ll feel my way through it,” she says. Burban plans on making in-person visits. That way people can put a face to the need.

Meanwhile, “Help Willy’s Friends” will be accepting donations for the Pet Pantry. “Help Willy’s Friends” is a non-profit organization based in Durham that collects, food, supplies and funds for local animal shelters.

There’s also a pet pantry at the East Haven Animal Shelter, located at 183 Commerce St., but Animal Control Officer Kristina Ruszczyk reports that few people have taken advantage of it, despite the fact that information is posted on the shelter’s web site. She believes, sadly, that people just prefer to give up their animals.

“People think cats can live off the land and abandon them when they move,” she says.

Along with helping residents through the recession, local shelters do go out of their way to rehabilitate abused animals and provide the best matches for pets and prospective pet parents. They also offer low-cost spay and neutering, since the last thing people with financial difficulties need is a litter of kittens to feed and place in homes.

People are devastated when relinquishing their pets; Burban tries to be reassuring and encourages them to visit at the shelter. However, animals are often just dropped outside the shelter, off hours. The poor economy has caused a high number of relinquishments; 282 animals have been impounded this year, double the number from last year.

Adoptable pets from both the Branford and East Haven shelters can be found on, which conducted a recent survey of shelters and how the economy is impacting them. The survey found that 84 percent of its shelters and rescue groups (totaling more than 12,500) are caring for more pets because of the economy. Of those animal shelters, 74 percent reported an increase in surrendered and abandoned animals since the same period last years. The survey also reported that 37 percent of shelters and rescue groups experienced a decrease in pet adoptions in the past year.

The Branford shelter tries to keep pairs together and that’s 99 percent successful, says Burban. Three pairs are available right now: Asja and Blaze, Fifi and Bella, and Rusty and Honey. Burban says the duos do take a bit longer to adopt, three to four months rather than the typical month, however, she believes it’s important to keep the emotional and physical welfare of the pet in mind.

Apart and aside from the economy, Burban says people usually surrender dogs because of behavior problems; the dogs are not trained, but moreover, the owner is not trained. She says dogs need six things: Food, shelter, medical care, love, training and discipline, with the emphasis on the last two.

“We pick up animals that are not cared for,” says Burban, a native of New Jersey, who has lived in Branford about 10 years.

When Burban found three Shihtzus dumped at the shelter by a backyard breeder, she was heartbroken and infuriated.

They were unsocialized. After their mats, which were soaked in urine and feces, were cut off, the dogs weighed 3 pounds and could barely walk.
Burban was angry because they had to endure pain twice – the initial pain of the living situation, then the pain of being shaved down to the skin.

“They shouldn’t have been put through that pain,” says Burban.
What’s worse is that their owner couldn’t be prosecuted because the dogs were dumped.

The story has a happy ending. Burban reports that within a week, the dogs had gained confidence and were running around with their tails up, like typical Shihtzus. And they were adopted by veterinarians,

Burban says the shelter has good foot traffic, and good volunteers (about 20) to help with visiting, socializing and shelter maintenance. She is proud of the shelter’s good track record for adoptions.

Burban will be doing fund-raising for the shelter for supplies and donations that will cover veterinary services and special care accounts for hospitalized pet owners.

“We set standards for other shelters to follow,” she says. “We go beyond the basics.”

To that end, Burban does adoption counseling, helping people pick the right pet for their family. The application process makes people wait a week to avoid impulse adoptions.

“Animals can’t speak for themselves, so they rely on the ACO (Animal Control Officer),” says Burban.

Ironically, ACOs receive no training. Burban is working with a colleague in California to develop a program to give the profession a much-needed boost.

“You need someone with an educated background,” she says. “It’s a profession that involves dealing with people and creatures.” Burban previously ran a pet care business and worked in real estate before becoming the shelter’s director.

Also on staff are two full-time ACOs, Wendy Joyce and Pam Medlyn, and a part-time assistant ACO, Eve VanderWarker.

In East Haven Ruszczyk shares responsibilities with Owen Little. Various volunteer also help out.

Although neither shelter can be classified as “no kill,” only very aggressive or seriously ill pets are euthanized. Homes are even found for older pets such as a 14-year-old Sheltie adopted out by Ruszczyk. And “King,” a a longtime resident, was on the verge of being adopted Thursday. She says she has seen a lot of purebred dogs being surrendered. Since there is no law against roaming cats, they’re not allowed to pick up strays.

Ruszczyk says her shelter offers help with spay/neuter and vaccinations. People have sought out information about the low-cost Compassionate Care Animal Center (860-380-0415) and TEAM (888-367-8326), which offers low-cost spay/neuter and vaccinations for cats through its mobile van.

“People really take advantage of TEAM,” says Ruszczyk. “It’s like gold!” Approximately 38 to 40 cats are spayed when it’s in town.

The East Haven shelter is raising funds through a “Buy-a-Brick” campaign. For $50, people can have a brick engraved in honor of their pet. The bricks will be used in a walkway around the shelter. The shelter will also take part in the first annual Durham Pet Fair, May 17, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the grounds of the Durham Veterinary Hospital, 178 Parmelee Hill Road, Durham. “Help Willy’s Friends” is one of the sponsors.

Mary Mellows, president of the Branford Compassion Club, which rescues, rehabilitates and places cats and kittens, has seen an increase phone calls from people needing to surrender pets. She says she has calls pending for a 15-year-old cat, a 10-year–old cat, as well as three 12-year-old cats from an older person.

What she finds different this year is that she see cats relinquished by people whose loved ones have died, and they can’t take the pet due to finances.

She’s also receiving calls from people who are finding friendly cats with collars.

Cat owners are also calling looking for food, she says.

Mellows says because cats are physically smaller, they’re not as visible and people believe “no one will care as much.”

Depending on the age of the cat, she says they are placed in foster homes or referred to the Branford Animal Shelter or Animal Haven in North Haven.
Mellows finds it upsetting that people are often adamant about adopting kittens when there are so many nice older cats that need homes.

The Branford Compassion Club will be represented at the Pet Fair in Durham. The organization will also sponsor an indoor tag sale May 30 at the American Legion in Branford.

Despite the fact that Guilford has a new shelter located at the Guilford Public Safety Complex on Route 77, only stray dogs are picked up. The shelter does not accept relinquished pets or cats. Madison has the same policy.

The take-home message? If you have a pet and are experiencing financial hardship, help is available.

Call or stop by the pet pantries for food. Work with your veterinarian on costs; ask about installment payments. Look into area rabies clinics and discounted opportunities for spay/neuter. If you have to move, try to take the time to find a pet-friendly apartment. Ask if a friend or relative can foster your pet rather than give it up. After all, there’s no doubt that the love of a pet lowers one’s stress level.

If you’re looking to adopt, go to the shelter first. There are lots of wonderful dogs and cats just waiting for a furr-ever home and staff on hand to help you find the purr-fect one.

Editor’s note: An edited version of this article appears on


About ExclusivelyCats
Sally Bahner is an expert in all aspects of cat care: Writer, consultant, speaker, instructor.

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