CUMBERLAND — The violent tornado that ravaged a trailer park in Chetek in 2017 brought a growing problem into sharp focus for veterinarian Angie Ruppel.
At the request of a colleague, Ruppel, who works three days a week at the Northern Lakes Veterinary Clinic in Cumberland, sprung into action, providing low-cost spay and neuter services of displaced cats.
“People in the trailer court were feeding the cats,” she said. “After the tornado came through and homes were gone, there wasn’t anybody left to feed the cats; they were homeless.”
Wendy Lindloff of Here to the Rescue in Barron live-trapped the cats and took them into her facility, where Ruppel performed spay and neuter services on her lunch break from work.
“I just kind of did it,” she said, “and I really enjoyed it.”
Ruppel, who has seen firsthand the ramifications of an uncontrolled pet population in her practice, said it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find homes for these kind of cats, as “nobody wants them” and shelters usually are full.
Feeling like she was providing a valuable service for the community by preventing these cats from reproducing, Ruppel decided she wanted to offer it on a more regular basis and more widely. She invested $1,000 in a used truck and bought a pull-behind trailer and old, insulated ice shack on Craigslist. In total, it cost her $30,000 to set up a basic, on-the-go veterinary surgical suite.
Since offering her first mobile clinic last March at Here to the Rescue, demand for her services hasn’t slowed. If anything, it has increased.
“It’s a very fulfilling job in so many ways,” she said. “People are so thankful ... and grateful. That makes it worth it.”
Ruppel, who already has sterilized thousands of northwest Wisconsin felines, said her ultimate goal is no more unwanted cats. Some humane societies have already seen the difference Purple Cat has made on the stray cat population, she said, but an even clearer picture should emerge in a couple of years.
Purple Cat is geared toward outdoor, farm, feral, stray and colony cats, along with cat owners who would not otherwise be able to afford to have their animals sterilized at a vet clinic. Clients normally bring their cats to the mobile clinic that morning and pick them up at the end of the day.
“A lot of people know that there’s a problem,” Ruppel said. “Vet clinics are doing the quality of surgery you would expect in a human hospital, and it comes at a price.”
“People want to do the right thing,” said Mo Tollman of Barron, but “people don’t have $200 a cat.”
Because Ruppel doesn’t have to pay for an expensive building or spend time educating clients, as most vets do, Purple Cat can provide simple spay and neuter surgeries at a much lower cost. While her services are intended for people with low incomes, she doesn’t do any screening of clients; no cat is ever turned away.
“I don’t want to take business away from the regular vets,” Ruppel said, and “I don’t think I am. ... I do this for a certain type of client, farm clients.”
Ruppel said she would like to see more vet clinics offer mobile spay-and-neuter services for those who need them, perhaps taking their services on the road one day a week.
“I would love to see other vets get their own trailer and just offer it. They could do it at their clinics, too,” she said. “It’s very obvious, the need for this.”
Just the fix
Ruppel, who operates Purple Cat on her two days off from the vet clinic each week, brings her trailer to several sites throughout northwest Wisconsin, primarily local humane societies between Eau Claire and Spooner. Later this winter, she’s scheduled to offer a clinic in Superior.
Ruppel said she generally will travel within an hour or 1½ hours of Cumberland for clinics. Beyond that, she charges a travel fee. Clinics must have at least 20 to 35 cats.
Many of her clients are elderly and on fixed incomes. Occasionally, she sets up a clinic at farms, where cats often reproduce rapidly, reaching into the dozens of cats in a short period. These clinics can be riskier, she said, since many times, “these are not the friendliest cats.” It’s up to the farmer to get cats trapped ahead of time, and Lindloff often assists with this effort.
“A lot of farms’ cats are friendly enough to get into a carrier,” Ruppel said.
Two certified vet technicians take turns assisting Ruppel at clinics, and she usually has another volunteer helper who talks with clients.
“I’m there to spay and neuter, and that’s it,” she said.
Groups of 10 to 15 cats are rotated through the trailer at a time. A space heater keeps the area warm in the winter, and the walls and floors are easily washable. It typically takes just seven minutes to perform a spay, she said.
Purple Cat charges $50 each for farm cats to be spayed or neutered and be vaccinated for rabies and distemper; the rate will rise to $55 in March. Ruppel also trims off a piece of the ear of outdoor cats so that, if they are trapped again, people will know they’ve already been spayed or neutered. Her rate for companion cats is $45 for males and $65 for females.
Ruppel said she doesn’t see any benefits to turning Purple Cat into a nonprofit, as she’s better able to maintain control of the enterprise as it is. Many of the nonprofits with which she works have funds already set aside to help people pay for her services. Donations are welcome, with all proceeds going to pay for surgeries.
A veterinarian since 2003 and obvious animal lover with a dog and two cats at home, Ruppel said she’s always preferred dogs, adding, “I always thought of dogs being the snugglers.”
But since starting Purple Cat, felines have begun to grow on her more, says the mother of four, who adds that one nice thing about Purple Cat is that her children enjoy going with her to work.
“I love the freedom of being able to take my kids to work with me,” she said. “I pay them a little bit to help me.”