It all started when Valerie Lagana, at age 3, was given a mutt called Yeller, who became her constant companion for the next 22 years.
By Janice Llanes Fabry
It all started when Valerie Lagana, at age 3, was given a mutt called Yeller, who became her constant companion for the next 22 years. As a college student she wrote a children’s book about him called “Best Friends,” which she treasures to this day because he was such a wonderful dog.
A tried-and-true local girl, Valerie grew up in Mamaroneck and attended Rye Neck Schools. When she married her high school sweetheart, Lorenzo Lagana, they moved to Port Chester, and now live in Rye. She works in the family business, Rockridge Deli and Florist, a fixture in Rye for almost 40 years.
“I’ve been around so long that my in-laws treat me like their daughter,” said Valerie about Gemma and Rocco Lagana.
Lorenzo, Valerie, and their children, Laurence and Vanessa, now 15 and 12, had a rich family life with only one thing missing, a family dog. The discovery of a 4-pound Chihuahua that needed rescuing not only rectified that, but also reawakened the animal lover in Valerie.
“I prefer larger breeds, but my husband grew up with Chihuahuas, so I thought I’d give it a chance. When I saw him, my heart melted. He nestled into me and it’s as if he knew he was finally safe,” she recalled. She named him Chance. Since then, the family acquired Pepper and Skipper, two more Chihuahuas that needed a home.
Little did Valerie know her pet rescue days were just beginning.
A few years ago, when Laurence needed to fulfill a community service requirement for Confirmation, she took the kids to Pets Alive Westchester in Elmsford. Valerie and Vanessa were smitten and got involved in the organization’s wish list program.
To date, Vanessa, who was featured in The Rye Record in 2011, has raised $4,000, providing the shelter’s homeless pets with Kuranda beds. Every Friday night, mother and daughter head to Pets Alive to walk the dogs and play with them and the cats. A few years ago, Valerie began rescuing cats.
“Cats showed up at Rockridge and we started to feed them, but then we realized that they were multiplying!” That’s when Valerie started trapping cats with a humane box trap and transporting them to Pet Rescue in Larchmont. The organization provides free spay-neuter services, rabies shots, and emergency care.
After rescuing 11 cats living outside Rockridge, Valerie is now a full-fledged, round-the-clock volunteer in the shelter’s trap-neuter-return (TNR) program. Their mission is to find homes for stray cats that had been pets until they were abandoned, and to prevent feral colonies from reproducing. (Cats, which are part of a managed TNR program, have the tip of their left ear clipped while still under anesthesia to identify them and safeguard them if ever re-trapped.)
As Valerie explained, a feral cat, which has never had any human contact, is not likely to ever enjoy living indoors and is better off outside as long as there is a food source. Consequently, after they are neutered, they should be returned to the exact location where they were found.
“These cats can never be socialized, but we feed the Rockridge cats every day at the same time. Some even walk in the house and eat the dogs’ food,” she said. “One managed to get away without being neutered, but we found homes for her four kittens through our customers. I have a good network here.”
Of course, before finding them homes, she spends hours socializing the kittens. Her sister-in-law, Brigit McGuigan, shared: “Every time Valerie hands kittens over to their new owners, she cries.”
Besides lending a sympathetic ear, Brigit helps Valerie with the cat handling. Ironically, the intrepid animal rescuer is not so fearless when it comes to carrying feral cats. “I have no problem going in a pen with a pit bull, but somehow I’m afraid of claws and hissing,” acknowledged Valerie.
Her trepidation, however, has not held her back. Recently, Valerie rescued 25 near the Palisades Mall. “My heart broke when I saw them all in an empty parking lot,” she admitted.
After trapping them one by one, Valerie followed the TNR protocol, making many trips back and forth. Her routine includes bringing cats home, feeding them, dropping them off at Pet Rescue the next morning for their spaying/neutering and vaccinations, picking them up in the afternoon, and keeping them overnight because they’re groggy. The next morning, she dropped this particular “clowder” off exactly where she found them at the Palisades lot, where she met a woman who provides fresh food and water daily.
Saving cats and dogs has become Valerie’s mission in life. Whether rescuing cats in neighboring communities or vacationing in Florida and volunteering, however temporary, at a shelter there, she’s in it for the long haul.
I’m very passionate about this because there are thousands of feral cats everywhere,” she said. “When I feel overwhelmed, I think of this saying and it makes it all worthwhile: ‘Saving one animal will not change the world, but for that one animal, the world will forever be changed.’”
October 16 is National Feral Cat Day, held to raise awareness, promote Trap-Neuter-Return, and recognize the millions of compassionate Americans who care for them.