Branford Compassion Club Turns 20!

Sally E. Bahner PhotoTwenty years after its founding by Eunice Lasala, Friskie Wheeler, and Ann Marie Lorello, the Branford Compassion Club has grown from a group of dedicated volunteers feeding feral colonies to a full service brick and mortar adoption facility.

That facility, officially the Branford Compassion Club Feline Rescue and Adoption Center, now has a full-time shelter manager, Pat Cotton, who oversees the daily care and vetting of all the felines who set paws through the doors. Since opening more than six years ago, close to 1,500 felines have found their forever homes, and approximately 2,000 total since 2008. Cotton is backed up by a team of 50 to 60 volunteers who cover all shifts within the shelter. Another 30 or so help with non-shelter related work such as publicity and fundraising.

It all comes at a cost. Each cat brought into the shelter receives a complete veterinary work up, including vaccinations, spaying and neutering, testing, dental work if needed, treatment for any medical conditions, and socialization if needed. All of that care adds up to a whopping $10,000 a month.

“We take better and better care of the cats,” said Cotton.

Most of the cats are able to roam freely through the shelter. Nursing moms are sequestered as are cats recovering from medical procedures or with special needs. A safe, enclosed “catio” at the back of the shelter looks out on the lawn and trees.

Sally E. Bahner Photo“People don’t realize how many cats we have when they see the empty cages,” said Cotton, who was feeding “Happy,” a weeks-old “bottle baby” that had been abandoned. She explained that he had already gone through several of his nine lives, having survived abandonment and a nasty upper respiratory inflection. She added that Happy reflected his personality as a sweet kitten who enjoys attention.

Cotton said the shelter is financially responsible for about 100 cats – 59 at the shelter and 34 in foster care. Gracie was one of the most challenging adoptions; she was the longest resident at the shelter. And Cricket is Cotton’s personal favorite. She fostered him for eight months. Click here to read the story.

BCC also assists with intakes from other shelters as space allows, often taking in the overflows from hoarding situations. There’s still a network of foster caregivers – 13 now – who care for moms (who more often than not may be feral) and kittens and occasionally, adults.

Boots was from a shelter in Bristol.

“People wonder why foster cats are given up,” said Cotton, who started volunteering with BCC around 2000. She said that a “foster fail” means there’s one less person able to foster a cat in the future.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoMany volunteers have been with BCC since its beginning including Lasala, who encouraged Cotton to get involved. “Eunice asked me to come to a meeting… that was my downfall,” she said, laughing.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoLeslie Johnston (pictured) is secretary; she also serves on the board and schedules the volunteers.  She became involved seven years ago when the organization had space at All Pets Club and adoptions through Meow & Company, a store located in Guilford. She met Mary Mellows and saw information about BCC’s “bare bones” open house and “the rest is history.”

Mellows, former president, has been with BCC for nine years. Cotton said she was the driving force behind getting the shelter off the ground.

A few of the longtime volunteers include Marilyn Kennedy (pictured), Susan Barnes, Karen Rutman, Norcott Pemberton, Peg Johnson, Krista Hanniford, Brenda Eldridge, and Donna Doherty. Cheryl Wilcox, an attorney and animal rights advocate, offers legal advice in hoarding situations. Cotton stressed that more volunteers – “reliable and able bodied” – are always needed.

BCC volunteers also care for a network of about a dozen community cat colonies. Cotton said Pat Carr is responsible for five of those colonies. Charlene Vessichio also cares for several colonies in Branford and New Haven.

Cats in those colonies are cast-offs, left behind by their human caregivers. Often they’re not spayed or neutered and the kittens that result are unsocialized if they’re not rescued. A big part of BCC’s work is trapping those cats, spaying, neutering and vaccinating them (a process known as TNR – Trap, Neuter, Release), and returning them to the colonies, if they’re unable to be socialized. Kittens are fostered, socialized, and adopted into loving homes. Over the years, many of the colonies have been eliminated through attrition or the numbers are greatly reduced.

Those colonies also require a lot of care. The sturdy, insulated huts, which provide shelter for the cats, need to be cleaned out and stuffed with fresh hay, and the cats need to be fed daily. Just because they are feral, that doesn’t mean they aren’t dependent on humans. If you’re ever around a colony during feeding time, you’ll see that dependence even though these cats are unlikely to sleep on your bed at night.

Importance of Fundraising

BCC is lucky to have access to Pet Shield Veterinary Hospital right next door, but access doesn’t equate to free care. Add to that the cost of basics such as litter and food, cleaning supplies, and bedding, and you can see why Cotton says fundraising is a huge part of her work.

Two major fundraisers each year, plus regular food drives and donations help keep a roof over these felines’ heads. On any given Saturday, people are milling around the facility and food donations are piling up in the foyer. The shelter is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

BCC’s 20th anniversary gala, Swing Cats Cocktail Party, held at the Pine Orchard Club, netted about $7,000. The event had a 1940s theme, complete swing music performed by The Survivors, and appropriate attire, great silent auction items, and food. Ballroom dancers Lou Mongillo and Sally Frielle provided all the right moves. Here is volunteer Donna Doherty at the gala. 

Sally E. Bahner PhotoCotton (with her husband, Fred) donned ‘40s-style palazzo pants and was coiffed in Victory rolls.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoBut the star of the evening was Happy, whose appearance was made necessary by his need for regular bottle feeding. True to his personality, the tiny black kitten was content as he was passed from admirer to admirer.

Looking ahead, BCC is organizing its annual Animal Awareness Day in October. The Branford green will be filled with vendors, music, and people and their pets. The highlight of the day is a Blessing of the Animals by local clergy.

In addition, Branford Compassion Club was part of the Great Give, a 36-hour online giving event to support non-profits, which netted $7,000.

And the late Joan Corcoran, a devoted member, bequeathed a generous portion of her estate to BCC, which has helped to sustain it.

Looking Back

Lasala said that the idea for the Branford Compassion Club, which was named by the late Friskie Wheeler, evolved as she, Wheeler, and Ann Marie Lorello were feeding feral colonies through the town. Their paths crossed, and they started helping out each other. More people joined the effort, including Dr. John Copabianco of TEAM, the mobile spay/neuter clinic, and within two years, BCC attained its non-profit status.

From there, they turned their efforts toward building a shelter in town. Lasala said they talked with then First Selectman Unk DaRos, who told them to bring him the facts and figures needed to make it happen. They did that – and more – then embarked on a fundraising campaign with a goal of $120,000; they ended up raising $150,000. Lasala said that except for a $10,000 donation from Dan Cosgrove (for whom the shelter was subsequently named) and $5,000 from New Haven Savings Bank, all of the donations were in amounts less than $100. Earl Carlin was selected as the shelter’s architect.

Lasala lauded the efforts of Bill O’Brien, who chaired the campaign. “I give him complete credit,” said Lasala. “He knows how to raise money.” She noted that a thermometer on the Branford green recorded the campaign’s progress, which was also reported regularly in the Branford Review.

For a while, there was some overlap between the animal shelter and the Compassion Club, which used space in All Pets Club to help place cats. Their own feline-exclusive shelter seemed to be a pipe dream, given the expense, until six years ago when Dr. Gerald Fischbach offered them space at a reduced rate next to his veterinary hospital, Pet Shield, on Foxon Road in North Branford.  Click here to read the story.

Again, volunteers came through to paint and furnish the new digs, and make it a home – temporary, it is hoped – to dozens of felines.

June is Adopt a Cat Month. It’s a nationwide annual event that encourages people to adopt a cat (or two) from their local shelter. Serendipitously, it falls on Branford Compassion Club’s 20th anniversary. Looking for a feline friend? You know where to go! 

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