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Rescuing Animals In Distress Is Sabitas Founder’s Life Work

Millie is a Cocker Spaniel from a puppy mill in Kansas, with golden-tan fur and one eye. Paco is a chocolate-brown Chesapeake Bay Retriever whose owner in Pennsylvania couldn't keep him. Frasier is a Catahoula, white with caramel-colored spots, born in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

All three wound up in Connecticut, where they had the good fortune to meet Diane Sherriffs and win her heart. All are 11 years old now and live with Sherriffs in her Glastonbury home. But these three lucky dogs are just a fraction of the thousands of animals that have passed through Sherriff's life over the past four decades.

"I feel sometimes I'm the one really being rescued," Sherriffs said. "I feel therapy and salvation in my life."

Sherriffs is an institution in animal-rescue circles throughout Connecticut and outside; she has had requests from New York, Arkansas and other states to find new homes for animals. Sherriffs has decades of experience taking in dogs and cats, taking them to vets, getting them spayed and neutered and finding them homes.

Her clients are rescued, evacuated, surrendered, homeless, sometimes feral, sometimes abused, sometimes neglected in a home owned by hoarders. Sometimes they are "improperly socialized" and Sherriffs must re-train them to live among people before adopting them out.

Frasier had to be re-trained, having been evacuated to Florida as a newborn with thousands of Louisiana dogs and cats whose neighborhoods were underwater. "He was just so traumatized. You'd never know it today," Sherriffs said, petting the gentle dog. "Now he's a therapy dog. People come to my home to adopt kittens and cats and when someone is unwell or has a health issue, he gravitates to that person. His instinct is amazing."

Pam Knoecklein, director of the Protectors of Animals spay-and-neuter clinic in East Hartford, especially admires Sherriffs' devotion to spaying and neutering. "She helps animal-welfare groups do their job, getting animals in quickly for spaying and neutering, especially if they have a home waiting," Knoecklein said. "She's such a strong advocate of spaying and neutering and that's really what it's all about."

According to the Humane Society of the United States, spaying and neutering, the only 100 percent effective method of pet birth control, reduces the incidence of animal homelessness and euthanasia, lengthens animals' lives, curbs unruly behavior and reduces costs of pet ownership.

Sherriffs' animal work is not only volunteer; it costs her money. She always has had full-time jobs to pay her bills and to pay for her rescues. 

"It's mostly out of pocket, but sometimes I get contributions," she said. And, she added, she gets "really creative" with loans and a home equity line of credit. "I'll probably never have that paid off."

Taking care of others is all Sherriffs ever wanted to do. Sherriffs named her rescue organization, Sabitas, for her grandmother, Sabita, who was an important influence. "She was thoughtful, careful, kind," she said. "As a child I brought all these stray cats home. All through high school I had about 10 litters of kittens."

Sherriffs, 61, was born in Glastonbury and raised in South Windsor. After graduating from South Windsor High, she went to Manchester Community College, studying public service administration. "I was hoping to go into social work," she said. She was lured away by a job at the East Hartford Police Department, where she worked in communications. She later worked as a manager of a medical practice and for 15 years , she owned Hair Odyssey on Main Street in Glastonbury. Today, she works as a caregiver for several people.

She was married once, briefly and long ago, she said. The true love of her life is animals.

She has worked with Protectors of Animals, Our Companions and later Sabitas. "Wherever I've worked, I've had a network, adopting, referring, a wonderful circle of people," she said. "I felt I was so blessed, all because of the animals."

Usually her clients have been dogs and cats, but other animals on occasion: a bird, a squirrel, a chameleon she gave to Lutz Children's Museum in Manchester. "I felt like I was doing social work, what I originally intended to be doing," she said. "I was going in a whole different direction, from people to animals."

In 2000, she tackled an especially difficult task. The owner of a condo complex near the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester asked if Sherriffs could clear out homeless cats from the vicinity. Many had been abandoned by their owners. "The woods behind [the complex] were the perfect place for animals to take refuge," she said. The kitties were foraging in dumpsters and had become feral. The job of rounding up 100 cats and 150 kittens took her three years.

Cathy Kodes, who works for the town of Glastonbury's animal control, said Sherriffs has an almost uncanny rapport with felines. "We've had these cats that are nobody's lap cat and nobody's house cat, but when she came in they all came running," Kodes said. "These are not cats you could pet. But in some cool way they knew she was their caretaker."

Recently, Sherriffs lost the use of a structure where she had housed cats awaiting homes, so she scaled back her work. She hopes to raise enough to build a carriage house in her yard and resume large-scale work. Until then, she is doing pet grooming, sitting and walking. "I'm trying to develop it as a full-time job," she said.

Among her customers are Charles and Laurene Bissell of Glastonbury. They turned to Sherriffs when they wanted to adopt some cats and again when they needed someone to watch them. "Diane has a gift. She is filled with love for animals. She has an incredible amount of patience," Laurene Bissell said. "She is a unique, humble person who is really trying to do good things."

Even on a scaled-back schedule, animals in distress are still Sherriffs' life and always will be. "I couldn't stop. How would I ever?" she said. "Even if I wanted to, I don't know how I could."

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