Santa Claws: Lisa Ruoppola

Lisa Mary Ruoppolo can't decide: Cat person or dog person?

Her heart is big enough to be both.

That's because when the animal lover was abused as a child, it was Lisa's dog she feels helped her get through the experience.

Today, she's paying the favor forward, with the shelter she founded in 1992 for special needs cats, Hope Alliance, Inc., a Sanctuary for Special Needs Felines. Lisa runs the non-profit shelter out of her home.

Lisa and a handful of volunteers care for 19 cats with neurological disorders, physical deformities, diseases, and issues that are the result of physical abuse, many of which are a death sentence in shelters because they make the cats impossible to adopt.

Funded through sponsorships and private donations (many of which come from Lisa herself), the Hope Alliance initially rescued all types of cats, but everything changed nine years ago when Lisa was called to a filthy mobile home in which 42 cats and kittens had been found.

Lisa calls the scene "one of the most horrific I've scene," and describes cats suffering from inbreeding, bacteria, brain damage, and lack of care. "It was horrible.

"I adopted a few out and realized the kind of care they needed was very specialized," Lisa says. "I made a decision that I was going to provide care for them for the rest of their lives. From that came the realization there are a lot of other cats out there in the same situation. Private shelters don't know what to do with them and they're among the first to be euthanized."

Located in Morris Cove on the East Haven town line, the Hope Alliance has helped hundreds of cats since then, including three from the mobile home who still live with Lisa: Pop Pop, Anthony, and Caramel Corn.

Pop Pop is the "love of my life" and is "as stubborn as they come," Lisa says of the cat who has brain damage, a bad heart, arthritis, and several deformities. "He still wants to do everything the others do and he'll succeed."

The sickest cat from the mobile home, Opal, lived only a year, but made an impact on Lisa, who wears two opal rings in remembrance.

Always an animal lover, Lisa says she "feels like she has a special bond with animals" that started in childhood.

Abused by a family member at the age of four, Lisa says "the only person I confided in was Mitzi, my dog." Her abuser threatened to kill Lisa if she told her secret, so when Mitzi died, Lisa found a new pet to confide in-Brandy, an abuse survivor from the Humane Society who remained with Lisa for 19 years.

"Out of this horrific thing came something good because I was a victim and became a survivor. Many of the cats have been victimized by people," says Lisa, who is currently caring for abused animals that include a survivor of sexual abuse and a cat that had its tail set on fire.

"When she first came, she would sit on a chair and just lean forward. Every day, I came to her and eventually she came around and went from victim to survivor."

Lisa says that because of her own physical issues (she suffers from fibromyalgia, migraines, and chronic pain after being rear-ended twice), she can empathize with the animals in her care.

Tara Sofia of North Branford, who with her husband Sabatino Sofia adopted four cats from Lisa over the last five years, says Lisa is a hero.

"Day after day, despite being in constant discomfort, she continues on in her calling to care for the neediest of the needy," Tara says. "Nearly every shelter, either private or municipal, will put cats with disabilities to sleep very quickly. Lisa definitely deserves recognition for her dedication and perseverance. "

"I can't give up because they don't give up," Lisa says.

Sabatino says the couple's cats, which all suffer from neurological problems, are wonderful pets: "It's amazing. They are all so incredibly affectionate," he says. "I would encourage people to adopt these animals. It seems that, because of the hardship they've suffered, they are actually more affectionate."

Lisa, who's capped the shelter's capacity at 24 animals in order to keep it viable, says "the hard part is going home and looking at all these emails and looking at all these faces and knowing that you can't help them all.

"I know that I'm able to maintain this level of care by having boundaries and a maximum number," Lisa says, adding that she reserves two spaces for emergencies, especially during the cold months.

"I would love to do special needs dog rescue as well," Lisa says, explaining she doesn't have the space right now that requires. "My ultimate dream would be to have a place for both."

Since she has a full-time job in addition to caring for all the cats, Lisa's life can get busy. She gets up every morning at 4:45 a.m. to feed and medicate the cats, and each animal requires special care that can include nighttime checks, feedings, medicine, and more. Neither Lisa nor any of the volunteers earn a wage or salary through the shelter, so donations go straight to the animal's needs.

However, Lisa isn't quite perfect.

"I am a huge Mets fan, no matter how terrible they may be! That is one requirement for any kitty to live here-they must be a Mets fan, too!"

For more info, contact 203-466-2185 or hopealliance@hotmailcom or visit www.hope-alliance.org or find the group on Facebook.

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