Close to Home

A t North Haven cat and dog rescue The Animal Haven, workers and volunteers do what they can to help the residents feel at home. On occasion, the animals have taken that hospitality a little too far.

Shelter staff and volunteers enjoy recounting the antics of Spartacus (or “Spartie,” pictured eighth), a 7-month-old, black-and-white, long-haired domestic cat—currently available for adoption—whose loss of one badly infected eye hasn’t dampened his appetite for mischief. His favorite nighttime gambit is to remove the push pins from one of Animal Haven’s bulletin boards, leaving a jumble of paper messages on the floor for the staff to sort out in the morning.

Still, he hasn’t topped the canine comedy trio of Penelope, Nicholas and Saul who, years ago, managed to flood the shelter. “They were buddies, and in the old days, the doors of our dog runs didn’t always stay closed,” says Chris Gagne, co-president of Animal Haven’s board of directors. “One morning, our board president at the time arrived to find water pouring out the front door.” Upon stepping inside, she realized that the source of the flood was the bathroom—and when she opened that door, the three dogs came tumbling out. Apparently, during the night they’d wandered out of their cages, became trapped in the bathroom, and somehow managed to turn on the faucet in a sink that was already clogged. “They each looked at this woman like, ‘Hey, it wasn’t my fault,’” Gagne says, laughing.

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Animal Haven’s accommodations seem more secure now, and have changed more than once since the rescue’s establishment in 1948. Originally operated out of a small garage on a 7-acre plot of land donated by local animal lover Sophie Black, its first official shelter was built in 1957, then razed, rebuilt and reopened in 2003. But across more than six decades of operation, its mission has remained consistent, and admirable: to provide safe, caring, humane—and, hopefully, temporary—refuge for homeless adoptable pets, and to place those animals in quality adoptive homes. Any cat or dog not fortunate enough to find a forever family lives out his or her natural life at the shelter.

“We are no-kill, which means our goal is to never, ever put an animal to sleep,” says shelter manager Toni Cadete (pictured third, left, with Michelle DeRosa, AH’s animal care coordinator). “Euthanasia has its place in [the case of] catastrophic illness, but not because of space or even antisocial behavior.”

That being said, even this rescue has its limits. Animal Haven’s current shelter can accommodate 19 dogs, who are penned in individual indoor-shared outdoor runs with floors that are heated during colder months. There are also 33 cat cages, although the rescue’s feline capacity is more flexible: if necessary, space can be made for up to 90. Most of the adult cats roam freely in the main cage room and additional windowed rooms, which have beds to curl up in and levels to climb and scratch. Plans are underway to add a screened-in outdoor porch, or “catio.” Only cats who are very young, sick or need careful socialization are kept confined, though healthy kittens and juveniles are kept in groups.

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Most animals that come to the shelter are surrendered by owners who can no longer keep them, for reasons ranging from problems with allergies to a move outside the U.S. Surrenders must be up-to-date on their vaccinations and spayed/neutered (if old enough). Cats must have tested negative for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia (FeLV). Says Cadete, “There are still those we find left in boxes on our doorstep, sometimes in their own excrement, after we’ve been closed for a couple of days.”

Animal Haven will not pick up stray cats—though Cadete says the rescue will help people in the community find them homes—nor will they take in dogs with a history of biting or those randomly left on the rescue’s property, who are automatically sent to the municipal shelter at North Haven Animal Control. But they’ve also assisted NHAC, as well as municipal shelters in East and West Haven, by accepting animal transfers. Recently, they assisted another rescue by taking in four dogs found in a Waterbury hoarding case. Perhaps the organization’s most controversial restriction is its longstanding “no pit bulls” policy, even though this much-maligned dog breed has plenty of enthusiasts, including Cadete. “But if we had a rule that we could accept any pittie, we’d be overrun with them,” she says. In a sign that this prohibition may be on the run, the shelter currently has some pit mixes in the mix.

When Animal Haven’s staffers say that their mission is to place their animals in quality adoptive homes, they’re quite serious on the “quality” part. Those wishing to adopt are carefully vetted through a written application and personal interviews. “Anything pertinent to finding the right home is explored,” Cadette says. “Are there children in the family? Other pets? If they’re adopting a dog, we have that dog meet the family—including any other dogs—in one of our outdoor enclosures.” Despite the hurdles, Animal Haven enjoys an annual adoption rate of roughly 85 percent.

No pet goes to its new home without being spayed or neutered, which is just one of the rescue’s considerable operating costs. “We spend $8,000 to $9,000 a month on vet bills,” Gagne says. As a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the rescue receives no municipal and government funds. But a robust corps of volunteers is more than equal to the task of fundraising, utilizing a number of strategies to bring in donations: applying for grants, selling community memberships ($25 to $100 a year), hosting events like an annual holiday crafts fair and partnering with local businesses.

Volunteers also assist the small paid staff with myriad daily tasks—walking dogs, cuddling cats, cleaning cages, doing laundry—and compose the rescue’s board of directors, which sets operating policies. The board recently appointed a medical director, Dr. Michael Suhie of Cheshire Animal Hospital, and are consulting with Design Learned Inc. of Norwich, an engineering company specializing in animal care facilities. “They’re giving us ideas for better housing our animals,” Gagne says.

After all, until these cats and dogs find adoptive families to love them, The Animal Haven is like home.

The Animal Haven
89 Mill Rd, North Haven (map)
Tues-Wed, Fri, Sun noon-3pm; Thurs 5-7pm; Sat noon-5pm
(203) 239-2641
Note: closed the first Wednesday of each month.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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