North Stonington -- Melissa Siwinski is a hero to cats. Just ask Brutus or Snowball or Wolfie or Max. If the felines could talk, they might tell you how Siwinski, now a senior at Wheeler High School, saved their lives.
Brutus needed surgery last year to correct a urinary problem, but his owner wanted to put him to sleep instead of paying $300 for the operation. Siwinski, who works at the Gales Ferry Animal Hospital, where Brutus was treated, couldn't stand the thought of it.
“He was the sweetest thing, and I almost cried every time I looked at him,” she said. “The poor cat, all he needed was surgery, and I just thought it would be such a waste to put him to sleep.”
So Siwinski offered to adopt Brutus and pay for the surgery. A veterinarian prescribed some antibiotics for the cat, and Siwinski took him home. The blockage in his urethra cleared up, and he never needed the surgery. He has lived happily since then with Siwinski and her family — and their nine other cats — on Route 184.
Melissa, 18, lives with her parents, Lorna and Robert, and her younger brother, Shane. She will graduate from Wheeler on June 17 and enroll in August at the University of Vermont, where she plans to major in zoology and minor in wildlife biology. She expects to spend her sophomore year in a zoology program at the University of Western Australia, where she also hopes to attend graduate school and prepare for a career of helping animals.
The decision came easily to the young woman who has shown a keen interest and deep compassion for animals, especially cats, since she was a little girl. She used to spend hours looking through the volumes of the Zoobooks series that her grandfather gave her. Now, years later, her bedroom is decorated with animal posters, and she has created oil paintings of her favorite, the tiger.
“I guess she gets it from me,” Lorna Siwinski said of her daughter. “We both love animals and we both love cats. And we're both as bad as the other when it comes to bringing animals home. I never thought Melissa would have the stomach for some of the traumatic injuries she's had to deal with at the animal hospital, but she gets right in there with the doctors and helps out.”
Siwinski has worked for nearly two years at the Gales Ferry Animal Hospital as a receptionist and kennel hand. Her responsibilities have included cleaning cages, feeding and grooming the animals, taking blood samples and administering medicine, helping the veterinarians with examinations and helping pet owners when they come to the clinic.
Her reliability and her petite frame have earned her the nickname “The Littlest Veterinarian” from her co-workers, according to Dr. Kathleen Tangari.
“Melissa would make an excellent candidate for a veterinarian,” Tangari said. “She's a fast learner, she's smart, and she also has a real knack for talking to people. It's important to be good with animals, but it's also very important to be good with clients because that's where you get all your information. The animals can't tell you what's going on.”
The experience Siwinski has acquired at the clinic has made her something of an expert on animals at Wheeler. She also has learned a thing or two from constantly watching the Animal Planet television network. Friends and teachers often ask her for advice on how to help sick pets. “I have to remind them that I haven't gone to school for this yet,” she said. “I only know the basics.”
Knowing the basics, however, has helped her nurse several cats, including Brutus, back to health. She and her mother brought home Snowball, who is deaf, after they found him abandoned. They rescued Spitz and Wolfie after finding the brother and sister kittens lying near a stone wall on their property, their eyes still unopened. Wolfie's eyes were infected.
Max came home last year on the Fourth of July. Someone had brought the cat to the animal hospital after finding him on the highway with his paws and whiskers burned. The doctors concluded he had probably crawled into a car engine and later fallen out. “He was so mean,” Siwinski remembered. “He'd hiss at you and try to bite you, but he came around. I got attached to him.”
Siwinski hasn't been able to save every animal in need, however. Last summer, someone left a box of kittens at the front door of the animal hospital. She wasn't able to bring them home. She gets upset when she hears of people abandoning their pets or even killing them. “It makes me sick,” she said. “People should just bring them to the Humane Society. There are plenty of other ways to handle it than just terminating the animals or letting them suffer. People should have more responsibility than that.”