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Niagara County SPCA and local veterans join forces

BY: Community Papers of WNY Staff | November 25, 2013

The Niagara County SPCA is pairing with local Veterans’ groups and representatives from Niagara University to bring healing to veterans within the community and animals within the community animal shelter.

The shelter recently launched a program that has been in the works for more than a year now.

It started with an employee from the SPCA who had a personal interest in soldiers returning from deployment with PTSD.

Animal Rescue and Cruelty Dispatcher Lauren Zaninovich wanted to offer help in an unconventional way to solders returning home from war in the area.

With the many other programs forming at the shelter, the idea was placed on the back burner until it was sparked again by a volunteer from the Niagara County SPCA who works at the Niagara Falls Reserve Base in the 914th Air Lift Wing.

Sgt. Frank Coseglia made the proper connections between the Air Base and the shelter and months later a program was born.

“I‘ve been in the Air Force for over 10 years and have been involved with the shelter for that past two years and have seen the needs of both the veterans coming back from deployment and the animals at the SPCA,” Coseglia said. “Both are causes I believe strongly in.”

Dog Tags Niagara is in its infancy with three volunteer veterans who come in regularly for their dose of canine “therapy” and dish out a little therapy as well.

Joe Ruszala, co-founder of Paws and Patriots, Erie County SPCA’s Veteran Program and co-founder of Veteran’s program Courage to Heal which pairs service dogs with veterans, has been instrumental in jump starting the program at the Niagara County SPCA.

Ruszala worked with now Executive Director Amy Lewis of the Niagara County SPCA where he helped to initiate Paws and Patriots in Erie County back in 2010.

“This program has tremendous potential,” Ruszala said. “We are pairing the Pit Bulls of the canine world with the Pit Bulls of the human world. Like the dog, veterans are stigmatized and sometimes have a bad rap. They come back from deployment with difficulty integrating back into society and often get themselves into trouble. The dog on the Dog Tags Niagara logo is a Pit Bull and symbolizes their similarities.”

One local veteran Frank Morabito of Lockport believes strongly in the ability of animals to heal humans.

Morabito joined the US Army in 2006 and then entered the 82nd Airborne Division in 2007 where he was in an Arial Recovery Team in Afghanistan. After six years in the Army he left active duty in March 2012.

Upon his return, despite coming home to his wife Megan and family, something seemed to be missing; there seemed to be a void in his life.

Morabito transferred to the National Guard shortly after his move and he and his wife were expecting a son. It was a few months later when he realized what was missing in his life: a dog named Otto.

Morabito went to the Niagara County SPCA in October 2012. His options were many. There were dogs in virtually every kennel including a litter of adorable puppies. Instead of going for the puppy in the window, Morabito had his mind set on a very goofy Pit Bull mix named Victor.

Things were a little rocky when Morabito and his wife and their miniature Dachshund first met Victor. Staff at the shelter was a bit nervous introducing Victor to the tiny Dachshund because of the incredible size difference.

What was worse- it seemed like the Morabito family dog was even more terrified to meet Victor than the staff was to introduce them.

Everyone involved held their breath for the introduction. They were relieved to discover there was absolutely no need for nerves that day.

Victor all but turned himself inside out to befriend the tiny dog that quaked from between his owner’s ankles. Victor did have his issues to overcome however; he had a strange fear of concrete when Frank first took him home.

Victor tipped toed around avoiding concrete as if maneuvering around a minefield. With a little help, Victor who is now Otto overcame his fear of sidewalks and has become a Certified Therapy Dog.

Otto has helped Frank through many of his difficulties since returning home and will have the opportunity to help many others now that he is a therapy dog.

“Yes, my family is great and has also been there with me through my ups and downs, but there is just something about having Otto’s affectionate presence nearby,” said Morabito. “ He is not only my dog, my wife and 8 month old son Domenic love him as well. He is always there when I or anyone else needs him or even if we don’t.”

Anyone interested in additional information on the Dog Tags Niagara program may call the shelter at 731-4368 and leave a message for Toni or Susan.

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