It was any mother’s dread: her babies were gone and she couldn’t find them anywhere. She ran frantically from yard to yard along Fairfax Avenue, searching in vain for them—for they were just little–and if they were to survive they needed to be fed, and right away! She felt the kind of desperation that only a mother can know.
And the nightmare was about to get worse—for a white van pulled up next to her–and a moment later she was cornered, captured and taken away in the back of the van.
A few minutes later, the young mother—a year-old greyhound mix—was removed from the van and turned over to Dog Warden Judy Rettig.
Judy examined the dog, guessed that she was about a year old, and noted that she had recently given birth to a litter. She took the dog in her car and went back to Fairfax Avenue where she searched for the babies; and although the dog grew more and more agitated, her litter was nowhere to be found. Finally, Judy and the dog returned to the Animal Shelter, alone.
The new mother was not Judy’s only pressing problem however: she also had a tawny little orphaned kitten at the shelter, who weighed less than a pound and was dying of malnourishment. Desperate action was called for, so Judy decided to use the dog as a surrogate mother to literally nurse the kitten to health; and her idea worked!
Every three hours, Judy Rettig would bring the kitten to the dog and tell her, “Here’s your momma,” and the dog would feed the cat. The kitten, who was named Simba for the character from the Lion King movie, began to grow and flourish immediately. And for her willingness to help, the dog earned the name Elsie, for Elsie the Cow, the longstanding trademark of the Borden Dairy Company. Two months later, Elsie was adopted, changed her name to Ellie, and spent the rest of her years living with her new family on Jones Hill Road.
Is this kind of story unusual? Not for Judy Rettig, who once saved a 90 pound Labrador retriever by carrying it down a ladder; another day, she crawled through a storm sewer filled with rats and rushing water to free a trapped dog.
“I guess I’m just obsessed,” she says. “Anyway, I’d do it all over again in a minute without hesitation, if I could.”
But she no longer can.
Judy Rettig grew up on Richard Street. She never knew a time when there wasn’t a dog in her house. Growing up, she would bring home injured animals and nurse them back to health. “If I found a dead animal, I gave it a little funeral service.”
After college, she went to work as a supervisor for the City of West Haven; and when she learned that the city needed a dog warden, she applied for the job. “Everyone thought I was crazy. It meant a big pay cut for me, but I saw this as my calling.” Under her care, the animal shelter was rebuilt, and became a regional showplace.
Dogs of all types were brought into the shelter; some were sickly or deformed, and no one would take them home. So Judy Rettig brought them to her own home and made them part of her animal family. “At one time I had 17 dogs in the house. It’s amazing, but they all got along so very well.” Perhaps they knew how lucky they were.
Judy was out picking up a stray dog in the small hours of a summer night in 1993, when she saw a thirteen year old girl riding her bicycle along Campbell Avenue; she picked the girl up and took her home. While talking to the girl, Judy realized that there are some children who need to be given a purpose, lest their lives should go down the wrong path. Right then, she recruited Kristian Dowdell to be the first member of Kennel Kids. Today, Judy’s Kennel Kids are grown into adults: some are veterinarians, some are dog groomers, and most have at least one—sometimes several—pets!
Today, Judy Rettig lives a life of convalescence in Florida, where the climate is more agreeable to her condition. Some years ago, she contracted a disease known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, and today she can only get around by means of a wheelchair. But her faith in God gives her strength and sustains her, along with the faithful support of loved ones. “One day, I hope to get better,” she says.
“My heart will always be with West Haven,” says Judy; “I was born and raised there, it’s my town, and I will always love it.”
And caring for little critters of all types will remain her life’s purpose; for as she said, “they make me feel like I have Christmas lights strung around my heart.”
In all, Judy Rettig worked 22 years for the city. She is warmly remembered by her Kennel Kids; and she is remembered by the many families whose lives she touched; and she is especially remembered by this writer, who once brought home a dog named Ellie.