Caring for cats takes more than love

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Prospect woman seeks help to pay vet bills for 45 foster cats

Debbie Mello of Prospect has taken in and cares for 45 unwanted cats. She works to find the cats good homes, but is running short of funds for her labor of love. -LARAINE WESCHLER

PROSPECT — Debbie Mello is swimming in cats, 45 to be exact.

Perched on cat furniture, draped over the backs of couches, curled up in baskets and preening on kitchen chairs, they cover every surface of her Prospect home.

For years, Mello’s home has been treated as the de facto cat shelter in town, with people dropping off their unwanted, abused or sick cats at her doorstep.

Recently, someone left two pregnant cats in a box on her front lawn. The garbage man almost threw them away before he heard them meowing, Mello said.

Mello didn’t ask for all these cats. But once there, she couldn’t leave them out to suffer on their own.

“Sometimes you have no choice,” she said.

Taking care of nearly four dozen felines isn’t cheap.

Mello makes sure all her cats are spayed or neutered and have all their proper vaccinations. Fostered cats also need testing for rabies and distemper, as well as dental care. Some of Mello’s cats have special needs. A few are blind, diabetic, have AIDS, cancer, or other medical conditions.

No matter the case, Mello has found it in her heart to care for her furry friends.

“We go full force, whatever they need,” Mello said.

Although Mello’s love for cats runs deep, her finances have run dry.

Debbie Mello cares for 45 cats in her Prospect home. -LARAINE WESCHLER

“I’ve hit my limit. I just can’t afford it any more,” Mello said.

She’s racked up $6,000 in bills at the Watertown Animal Hospital and has more pending.

Mello, 63, lives on social security and has already cashed in her life insurance and taken out a home equity loan to pay for the care of her felines.

Someone recently left her a mother cat with six sick kittens. They need to go to the emergency room, but it will cost $2,000.

“I have no more funds, nothing to take from,” she said.

Mello said she had three cats in her yard recently she couldn’t take in, and one got killed by a coyote.

Mello wasn’t always a cat lover.

Before her brother John passed away 19 years ago, she had never had a cat. When her brother died, Mello felt she had nothing to live for. That all changed when Little Girl, a kitten she got from a friend’s house, entered her life.

“She saved my life,” Mello said.

Over the years, Mello’s love for cats grew. She started working with Animals for Life, a no-kill animal shelter in Middlebury, and earned a reputation for taking cats in and caring for them.

“She’s like an angel. There’s no one with a bigger heart than Debbie. She says yes when everybody else says, ‘We can’t. We can’t,’” said Joan Mancinone, president of Straykatz.

The Wolcott-based non-profit to assist rescuers in vetting, rehabilitating and re-homing their rescued cats has been working with Mello for years to help her place her cats.

Mancinone said Mello takes excellent care of her cats and has wonderful vet references.

“She’s sharp. She knows what’s going on with all of them,” Mancinone said.

Mello said people got to know her though her work with Animals For Life. She said word spread about how she would take in cats, and pretty soon people were bringing all their unwanted cats to her.

“People don’t understand it’s not just taking them into your home. There’s a lot more too it,” Mello said.

Mello cares for all her cats. She can name each one, and recite its back story. Many were abused—one such cat used to have cigarettes put out on it.

“They hurt, they, cry, you know, they have a soul,” Mello said.

Buster, a big long-haired orange cat with startling deep green eyes, was just a kitten when Mello got him nearly 20 years ago. He once won first place at a cat show. Now he’s barely more than skin and bones, suffering from cancer. For now, he seems happy.

But soon, Mello knows, he will stop eating and she’ll have to take him to the vet to be euthanized.

She had to do that last week, with a 13-year-old tomcat. It broke her heart.

“Every cat I have, I love,” she said.

She said she tries to find good homes for her cats, but it’s a difficult task.

At a recent adoption event, only one cat and one kitten were adopted, Mello said. She said she’s found homes for five cats in the past three weeks, but she still has 17 she considers “adoptable,” cats that aren’t too old, sick or feral for people to want.

People also balk at the adoption fee of $120, but that fee doesn’t even cover their basic medical bills, Mello said. Mello said nobody even wants to foster, although she pays for food, litter and vet bills.

“People don’t have the time,” she said.

Mello said the biggest problem is that people don’t spay and neuter their cats. She said she recently got a call from a lady who has a mama cat and three kittens.

Mello had to tell her she couldn’t help.

“Why didn’t she spay the mom if she was going to let it out?” Mello asked.

It costs $60 to spay or neuter a cat with the TEAM van, a non-profit mobile clinic.

“If you can’t afford that, you shouldn’t have a cat,” she said.

To raise money to pay for the cats, Mello holds tag sales every weekend in her backyard.

Mello said sometimes people drop off donations of items, but often she can’t use them.

“It’s not that I’m not grateful,” she said. “But, I’m begging people to please make a donation to Watertown Animal Hospital.”

Anyone interested in helping Mello can donate to Mello’s Strays at the Watertown Animal Hospital, 673 Litchfield Road, Watertown, CT 06795.

Straykatz holds a monthly adoption event the third Saturday of every month at the Mountview Plaza, 727 Rubber Avenue, in Naugatuck from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The group also places cats, including Mello’s, on Petfinder.com.

Mello also tries to find her cats homes by working with the North Shore Animal League, an animal adoption organization that travels to towns with adoptable pets in a bus. Mello’s cats are available to adopt through the league the first Sunday of every month, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., in front of Pet Land Discounts on Main Street South in Southbury.