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Lisa Ruoppolo says of 20-year-old Rosalita, “She is a survivor.” Rosallita is the eldest of 14 special needs cats cared for by Lisa. (Photo by Tom Conroy/The Source)
Many people say that a pet has helped them recover from physical or psychological trauma. Lisa Ruoppolo is returning the favor.
Through her nonprofit, the Hope Alliance for Animals, Lisa runs a shelter for special-needs cats, many of whom have been mistreated by their owners. The shelter, in Lisa’s home in Killingworth, currently boards 14 cats, with a 15th spot kept open in case of emergency.
Given the number of residents, the living area of the home is surprisingly tranquil. The cats lounge around, occasionally approaching Lisa for a little attention and affection.
But the cats’ stories, as Lisa tells them, are anything but tranquil.
Her oldest cat, Rosalita, who’s 20, suffered injuries consistent with sexual abuse. The cat also has cancer, which is currently in remission.
“She’s really a survivor,” says Lisa.
A calico named Natalia is blind. She was confined to a basement until she was taken in by a shelter that kept her in a cage.
A white cat named Tara was found with her jaw broken, probably by a human. Her face is partially paralyzed.
Lisa says she was inspired to start a home for cats—she has had previous locations in Guilford and New Haven—because she was volunteering at a shelter, “and I thought I could do it better.”
But her commitment to animals goes back to when she was a five year-old girl.
“As far as the bond between them and I,” Lisa says, “it actually came from a pretty horrible situation. When I was young, I was sexually abused by a family member, and the only one that I confided in at the time was my dog. I just felt like I couldn’t tell anyone else.
“I immediately started to feel a special bond with animals,” she says. “In many cases they’re victims, just like a person who’s abused is a victim, and then, as they recover, they become survivors.
“We have over the years had cats that were tortured, with emotional issues, physical issues, and combinations of such, so I feel like I can really relate to them and them to me.”
Lisa suffers from fibromyalgia and from neck and back pain caused by two car accidents.
“It’s basically another reason why I feel there’s a bond between them and I,” she says.
Lisa started out in 1992 doing rescue and placement, finding homes for mistreated, abandoned, or feral cats. She decided to devote herself full time to special-needs cats in 1999, after a friend asked her to help with a group of cats in a mobile home in Branford.
“The two people that were living in there had addiction issues,” Lisa says, “and they were not taking care of the animals at all, and there was interbreeding, which was causing all of these deformities and special needs, and they thought it was funny.
“We started removing the animals, a few at a time,” Lisa says, “and then all of a sudden we went one day, and they had left in the middle of the night. The people abandoned the animals in the mobile home.
“So then we had to remove the ones that were still there, which wasn’t in our initial plan to take that many at one time, because I had limited space, and she had limited space.
“That’s how I got started in the whole special-needs field,” Lisa says. “I learned an awful lot awfully quickly.”
Lisa says that many rescue organizations and shelters are unable to spend the extra time and money required for special-needs cats, so they simply euthanize them.
They often call her first, but, she says, “I have to turn cats away just about every day, which is very heartbreaking. The best I can usually tell them is that I can put the cat on a waiting list.”
Lisa already has her hands full.
“I’m up at five,” she says. “It takes about three hours to get everybody fed, get the house cleaned, and get everything done: any type of treatments, medications, fluids, whatever needs to be done.
“And then I just have a bite to eat, jump in the shower, and go to work, and then when I come home, it’s usually a minimum of another hour,” she says.
Lisa gets help from about six volunteers who perform varied chores. They help her unload supplies, which are delivered monthly, or clean up after the cats that can’t use a litter box, or spend time with traumatized cats.
Those cats, Lisa says, “just want someone to sit with them and spend time with them and talk with them and reassure them that not all humans are evil, because when they first come in, very often that’s their opinion. I can’t say I blame them, based on what a lot of them have been through.”
A great source of help is the Hope Alliance’s veterinarian, Dr. Efren Osorio of North Branford, who provides his services at a discount.
“His middle name is Angel,” Lisa says, “and he is an angel. Everyone who knows him speaks highly of him.”
Lisa says that Dr. Osorio’s predecessor, Dr. Allan Hart, was the same way: “He said to me one day, ‘If you ever don’t bring somebody in because they’re ill and you’re worried about the bill more than you’re worried about the cat, I never want you in my office again.’”
Lisa, who is 54, grew up in New Haven and, upon graduating from Richard Lee High School, she says, “I kind of wanted to go out on my own, and moved out, which was sort of unheard of in my family.”
She remained in the area, however, working mostly in drugstores. Until recently, she worked at the pharmacy in the Madison CVS. Her new job is at a specialty pharmacy in Wallingford, but Lisa’s real vocation is helping animals. That raises the question why, given her relationship with Mitzi, her family dog, she isn’t taking care of dogs.
“I have to work when I do this,” Lisa says, “because your pay is not in dollars and cents when you do this. I would love to do dog rescue, small dog rescue, but it requires you be home more: They need to go outside, they need to be walked, they need to be exercised. There’s also a noise issue.”
Lisa wishes she could do more for more cats.
“I would love to expand,” she says. “I would love to get enough money to put a sunroom on the house so they could have the feeling of being outdoors without being outdoors, because it’s too unsafe.”
(Those interested in volunteering, making donations, or fund-raising can get more information about the Hope Alliance at www.hope-alliance.org.)
Lisa believes that people can get more out of helping animals than they might expect.
She says, “I think in a very bizarre way this horrific thing that happened to me, I was able to turn it into something that is very special, and I want to help other people do the same thing.
“I want people to know that you can heal from all of that trauma, and they can help you do it, whether it’s a cat or a dog or a rabbit. I believe they have helped me,” she says. “I have no words to say how much they have helped me to heal.
“It’s very rewarding,” she says. “It’s very heartbreaking, it’s a lot of hard work, but I can’t imagine not doing it.”
To nominate a Person of the Week, contact Tom Conroy at t.conroy@Zip06.com.