On Fridays in Montpelier, Baby Huey shows up at around 9:45 a.m. and lumbers down Main Street to an awaiting row of vacant parking spots in front of city hall. He cozies in between the bus stop, with its bench and Plexiglas shelter, to the south and the fire station’s concrete apron to the north. The five parking meters there have been covered by city employees; for the next four hours or so, this will be Baby Huey’s domain.
It will be the domain as well of the bustling human, canine, and feline entourage drawn to this location each week, for Baby Huey is the vehicular embodiment of the Mitzvah Fund, a pro bono veterinary service created in Worcester in 2012 by vet technician Deb Glottmann and Dr. Connie Riggs. Huey is a truck, 34 feet long, similar in size and shape to an RV or a city bus, with a covered interior behind the cab.
Glottmann calls it Baby Huey because, ungainly and presenting logistical and mechanical challenges for her at every turn, it reminds her of the outsized, outlandish, duckling cartoon character of that name from the 1950s.
“Baby Huey is the biggest man-baby of all man-babies,” Glottmann swears. “Every day, things have to go his way.”
Yet she knows Huey is a godsend, a deus ex machina that entered their lives last February and now lends legitimacy, identity, and well-provisioned operations space to the Mitzvah Fund, which for a while had been a concept without a stable home.
Its two-tone blue walls and doors are festooned with images of dogs and cats, a list of sponsors who help make its good works possible, and slogans that capture the altruism of an organization that provides professional veterinary care for the pets of those least likely to be able to pay for it. In fact, they’re not even asked to.
“It takes nothing away from a human to be kind to an animal,” reads a quote on Huey’s side panel from actor Joaquin Phoenix. “Kindness is not an act; it’s a lifestyle,” reads another, from author and animal-rights activist Anthony Douglas Williams.
And prominently, a modern, somewhat secularized but inspiring definition of the Hebrew word itself: “Mitzvah — A kindness or worthy deed performed selflessly.”
The fund’s logo is presented on both sides of the truck: an oval surrounding the image of a paw nestled in a human hand.
Glottmann and Riggs, in practice together at a clinic at Connie Riggs’s home in Worcester a decade ago, conceived of a veterinary service that would disallow money to be a barrier to the care of animals whose owners struggled financially but loved them as deeply as wealthier people loved theirs. They had seen how foregoing medical and dental maintenance, not out of neglect but poverty, inevitably requires interventions that are even more unaffordable. They couldn’t easily adopt such a form of practice, for veterinarians have to make a living, too, but both were troubled by how, in their view, veterinary practice has evolved in Vermont and elsewhere. It results in disadvantaged people winding up with disadvantaged pets.
Deb Glottmann’s love of animals was manifest even before her family emigrated from Bogotá, Columbia, when she was five years old. She remembers caring for baby chicks, then sadly leaving them behind when her father, Saul Glottmann, decided to get his wife and children safely away from the guerrilla violence that plagued the country. They resettled in Florida, where Saul built a successful real estate business. Deb attended schools there, kept a Bee-bee parrot, and walked the neighbors’ dogs. But a more formative experience awaited when Saul surprised her by enrolling her in a boarding school in Connecticut with a stable full of horses. It sealed the deal. Deb moved on to the animal science program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“It was a pre-veterinary course, including radiology, phlebotomy, nutrition … I wanted to do the technical stuff under the tutelage of vets so I could do a lot of the stuff they do,” she explains, “but I didn’t want to make the big decisions.”
Attempting to clarify, she says, “I love to be in surgery, but I don’t want to do surgery.”
She earned her degree in 1983, and set off on an apparently conventional career in animal medicine. She’s been a sales rep for a veterinary drug distributor, a vet-hospital administrator for practices in New Jersey and Indiana, and served on the Board of Veterinary Economics. In 2000 a headhunter recruited her to become the chief administrator of a successful animal hospital in Vermont. She eventually left that practice, but not the state. For a while she worked weekends at Burlington Emergency & Veterinary Services, which local folks know as the region’s go-to provider of emergency and specialty care. When your dog or cat needs to go to BEVS it’s a sobering moment. And a costly one, too.
Glottmann’s career has given her insight into (at least) two things: one is that, even with a supposedly office job in the field of veterinary medicine, “you’re putting down your pen to put in a catheter, to take an X-ray.” Expertise is too scant to be wasted.
Her second lesson pertains to the state of veterinary medicine today. Large, well-established practices have an inordinate amount of overhead, in buildings, staff, insurance, and equipment. One result is that vet techs and other employees are not as well-compensated as Glottmann and Riggs believe they should be. Another result is that veterinary care has grown prohibitively expensive for many Vermonters. And then there’s specialization. Like other medical fields, veterinary medicine has been sliced into segments with their own narrow expertise. That’s good if you need such a specialist; bad if you can’t afford them. It leaves a bad taste in Glottmann’s mouth.
All creatures …
That state of affairs is a far cry from what Connie Riggs envisioned as a child on Long Island, New York, already contemplating a career in animal medicine. Her earliest jobs, as a teenager, were with animal hospitals around her hometown of Huntington.
“But I wanted to live like James Herriot — to be a vet in a small town,” she reminisces. (Herriot, a British veterinarian and author, practiced in the Yorkshire Dales. His life and writings were captured in the 1975 movie “All Creatures Great and Small”). “I would rather have been in a barn full of animals than a mall full of teenagers,” she says.
After earning her doctorate at Texas A&M University, followed by an internship in small-animal medicine and surgery at the University of Illinois, she moved to Vermont with her family in 1991 and settled in Worcester. Her first job in veterinary medicine came the following year, when she joined the staff of a practice that employed several vets, where she eventually became a part-owner. She left that practice after 10 years, and caught on at a different animal hospital that specialized in alternative medicine.
Finally, in 2006, Riggs tried for the Herriot ideal, opening Worcester Veterinary Care in a Yorkshire-like community whose population, by the 2020 census, amounted to 964 people. Like Sisyphus, she pushed that boulder uphill for 10 years before closing the practice, spent and disillusioned, in 2016.
“I was trying to be a full-service hospital, like this little M*A*S*H unit trying to provide everything to everybody, out in rural Vermont,” she recalls, “and it’s not possible to live that kind of model in the twenty-first century.”
But all was not for naught in those Worcester years. For she had teamed up with Glottmann, who also saw her ideal in what Riggs was trying to capture at the Worcester clinic. Their dedication to animals and people, more even than to their livelihood, became the petri dish for the Mitzvah Fund.
“When we had the Worcester practice,” Glottmann says, “we had some really great clients who always wanted to donate to help us help others. It started with a couple of good people bringing us strays, or other people’s animals who couldn’t afford lab work or [veterinary care]. We were trying to do things differently — to be less expensive but also make a living. It’s a balance Connie and I struggle with a lot.”
They began taking donations. Sometimes people were galvanized by a particular incident, as when a local dog got hit by a car and needed extensive care. “We had everything from people dropping off a couple dollars to little kids dropping off a quarter,” Glottmann recounts. “Somebody slipped a thousand dollars under our door — in cash!”
In 2012 Glottmann formalized this sharing of resources by incorporating the Mitzvah Fund, a 501(c)(3) named in memory of her father, Saul Glottmann’s, life lesson for his children: that people should go out of their way to care for one another. Deb and Connie Riggs merely expanded upon Saul’s definition of “people” to include our furred and feathered companions..
Chad Hollister, leader of the popular Chad Hollister Band, and his wife, artist Katie O’Rourke, were recipients of, and benefactors to, the burgeoning animal-care fund. Sometime around 2010 one of their cats developed an unusual hip malady. This was hard on the heels of having euthanized their elderly dog, Teik. Their children were small and emotions were raw for the Hollister/O’Rourke family.
“We loved Luke so much,” says Hollister, “but surgery would have been at least a few thousand dollars. We were, ‘Good lord! It’s a cat!’ But they had developed this fund and Deb said they’d be happy to help out and do this surgery.
“And they did. And I said ‘I want to replenish it so somebody else can have that,’ so we did a benefit at the Worcester Town Hall for the Mitzvah Fund.”
It raised $3,000, Glottman recalls.
“We love Deb and Connie so much,” Hollister continues. “And to think of what Deb has done for our animal community by creating the Mitzvah Fund, it’s beyond belief.”
(Luke, however, ventured out one night and had a fatal encounter with a fisher.)
There were countless similar stories during the Worcester years. Riggs remembers a young man who was studying wildlife conservation in college, when his dog developed a gall bladder condition that required multiple surgeries.
“He was going to drop out of school and use his tuition money to pay for it,” says Riggs. “The Mitzvah Fund stepped in to cover the surgery so he could continue on and not miss a year of school.”
Looking back, Glottmann says, “Some of the greatest people I’ve ever known were people I met in that practice and are still in our lives today. When we helped people with the Mitzvah Fund it would come back to us tenfold.”
The Mitzvah Fund outlasted Worcester Veterinary Care, for, unable to sustain the practice while also attending to personal family matters, Riggs folded the practice in 2016.
But the Mitzvah Fund still existed. So Glottmann and Riggs sought other opportunities to use it. Dan and Jody Kelly, who owned Stonecliff Veterinary Surgical Center just off State Street in Montpelier, offered their facility on Fridays and Saturdays, so that became Mitzvah’s very part-time center of operations for a few years.
And then came February of 2022, when Baby Huey materialized.
As Huey nestles against the curb on this lovely July Friday morning, Deb Glottmann at the wheel, a well-choreographed routine unfolds. Two volunteers show up: Carol Johnson, a retired teacher from East Montpelier, and Abby Bruce, who once owned Ruby’s Run, a popular pet-boarding business that she sold to the Central Vermont Humane Society in 2008. Connie Riggs arrives, and they set out a few chairs and a folding table on the sidewalk, displaying brochures and application forms.
Glottmann and Riggs prepare the van’s interior for the morning’s appointments. Although space is tight, there’s room for separate surgical and dental “suites.” The last owner was an orthopedic surgeon in Minnesota. Some of the medical equipment was adaptable for dogs and cats, but Glottmann has also invested in technology more suitable for quadrupeds. There are full-body and dental X-rays, a dental scaler, two anesthesia machines, and other exotic paraphernalia. There are also several small cages, a water heater, and 40-gallon water tank, “and a humongous generator,” says Glottmann, “so we can be downtown taking X-rays and doing everything we would do if we were plugged in. You just figure out what you need to do and how you can do it on the road.”
Or parked in Montpelier.
Typically, though, the Friday sessions are for intakes, preliminary examinations, and interviews with potential clients. Some minor procedures can be performed. If medical or dental surgery is needed they schedule it for upcoming Tuesdays and Thursdays, when they’ll perform it inside the van in Glottmann’s driveway just outside Montpelier’s city limits. Occasionally she’ll take the animal home with her when things shut down on Friday; more often she, or a volunteer such as Johnson or Bruce, will pick the pet up shortly before the surgery and deliver it to Glottmann’s house. (Riggs, hoping — finally — to live a quiet rural lifestyle in Vermont, tries to limit her work to three days a week.)
Just as they’ve been modifying their mobile medical unit, Glottmann and Riggs have realized they need to moderate their ambitions for the Mitzvah Fund. The onslaught of COVID-19 revealed the crucial roles so many people play in supporting an interconnected, interdependent society, and all are deserving of aid and relief. In gratitude, Glottmann and Riggs tried to extend their services to first responders, firefighters, paramedics, veterans, people with disabilities …
“Slowly but surely we’re learning what we can and can’t do,” Glottmann admits. “We have to place limits, and that’s hard for any caregiver to do. By necessity we’ve narrowed it down to low-income seniors, low-income veterans, and unhoused people.”
There are other boundaries, too. Mitzvah can’t be available for emergency services, and cannot take on lifelong medical care for animals. Their goal is — must be — simply to get basic care to animals that haven’t had access to it, to address immediate issues such as dental disease that can lead to serious internal infections, to perform basic surgeries, and to help disadvantaged owners learn how best to care for their beloved companions. Sometimes Riggs and Glottmann spend hours consulting with social workers who not only confirm applicants’ income and housing status but often prepare them (and Mitzvah volunteers) for dealing with clients who are wary of social interaction.
“You come to realize that every animal comes with a human being,” says Riggs. “Some of these people are phenomenal pet owners. These animals are like a lifeline for them.”
Dave Sip appears to have none of these social inhibitions. He’s a gregarious fellow, a Marine Corps veteran who explains that he was homeless for a time in Boston and recently received a military award for helping other homeless vets in that area. That recognition attracted the attention of a sympathetic fellow-vet, who helped Dave fulfill a longtime ambition of moving to Vermont. He receives Veteran Disability Compensation, and, though spry, uses a cane.
Today, Sip is here to talk about Millie, his energetic slate-gray yearling, part pitbull (he believes) and part cane corso. He had filled out an application form the previous week and the volunteers had sent him home with a gentle leader to drape around Millie’s muzzle, hoping to contain her enthusiasm. Sip and Dr. Riggs sit down on a nearby granite bench to talk about Millie. What’s her diet like? Does she drink a lot of water? Has she been sneezing? Does she have toys? How would he describe her behavior? Is she afraid of loud noises? Sip has questions of his own: What should I use for ticks and fleas?
Watching from her seat nearby, Carol Johnson whispers, “Connie is so gifted at these conversations. She’s very patient and thorough. Deb and Connie have to be two of the most compassionate people about animals that I’ve ever known.”
It’s a typical Friday-morning scene nowadays on the city hall sidewalk: the blue Mitzvah Fund truck parked serenely at the curb; Johnson and Abby Bruce sitting on folding chairs by the information table, Bruce with little furry Brownie on her lap as she tries to sneak gabapentin pills into his mouth; a gentleman snuggling his cat against his shoulder, waiting quietly for his turn; Connie Riggs and Dave Sip chatting on the bench about Millie as she tugs with curiosity upon her leash; passersby pausing at the table to read the Mitzvah Fund literature; a few people studying their cellphones as they wait for the next bus to arrive. And Deb Glottmann, dressed in scrubs with her COVID mask across her face, standing in Huey’s open doorway, surveying the scene she has created.
Truly, it’s all captured in the Mitzvah Fund logo: the paw in a human hand, fellow creatures comforting, loving, and sustaining each other, making life bearable – even happy – in a world that is not always kind.