On new crowdfunding site, vets vet pets so owners don’t sweat over debt

Margaret Mazzella sat in Saybrook Veterinary Hospital, becoming emotional as she wondered how she was going to come up with $2,000 to pay for knee surgery for Cece, her 6-year-old Portuguese water dog.

The day before, Cece had been running in her Niantic yard, like she normally does, when she slipped. Cece couldn't put weight on her back leg, so the Mazzellas took her to the vet.

They found out she needed knee surgery to remove a damaged ligament and insert a false ligament, and without surgery, the muscles in her leg would atrophy.

When Dr. Suzy Magruder recommended crowdfunding for the surgery, Margaret Mazzella felt too embarrassed. But she changed her mind.

"I can't be embarrassed about this," Margaret Mazzella said. "It's not like I'm asking for handouts but, you know, I can't see Cece being in pain or walking with this limp that she has, and I just have to do something about it."

Enter Waggle.

Waggle is the crowdfunding platform that Essex resident Steve Mornelli launched in March to help people raise money for their pets' surgeries — and to have the medical and economic needs vetted through vets.

Mornelli brings Gracie, his Yorkie-cocker-poodle mix, to Magruder, who he approached about Waggle a few months ago. She kept it in the back of her mind, and then Cece's case came up.

Tom Mazzella gives Cece, a 6-year-old Portuguese water dog, a carrot as a treat while in the kitchen of their Niantic home Friday, July 20, 2018. Cece needs knee surgery and Tom Mazzella and his wife, Margaret, are raising money for the surgery on the crowdfunding platform Waggle. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Magruder submitted information on Cece's medical condition to Waggle, while Margaret Mazzella wrote about Cece's background and submitted photos. The campaign launched on waggle.org on June 29, and Eli's Fund stepped in to offer matching contributions.

Cece's surgery is scheduled for July 30. As of Tuesday, the campaign had raised $860 of its $2,000 goal.

The financial difficulties facing the Mazzellas are inextricably tied to how Cece came into their care. In 2012, their son flew in Cece from a breeder in Michigan, as a gift for his daughter.

In March 2013, the day before Cece's first birthday, the Mazzellas' son died in a car accident.

The Mazzellas adopted Cece. Margaret Mazzella was in her late 60s and working as a hairdresser but found she couldn't give 100 percent to her clients after her son's death, so she stopped working. Construction business has been slow for her husband, Tom.

"I was so surprised to know that there was help out there," Margaret Mazzella said of Waggle. "I'm just amazed. I'm in awe. I feel blessed that I was able to talk to someone about this."

A passion for combatting economic euthanasia

Cece, a 6-year-old Portuguese water dog, is seen Friday, July 20, 2018, in one of her favorite spots in the house, between the kitchen island and the stools, with one of her many stuffed animals. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Mornelli founded Waggle because, while working in financial services on Wall Street and in London, he got tired of the corporate world and wanted to pursue a passion.

That passion was combatting "economic euthanasia," when a cash-strapped pet owner decides to let an ailing pet go.

The founding of Waggle also came from Mornelli's frustration with crowdfunding platforms he saw as "rampant with fraud and abuse."

"Oftentimes (donors) don't have a lot of money and they're giving to these causes that are meaningful to them, and to see it taken away for bad actors was a big concern for me," Mornelli said. "And also there's no feedback method on a lot of these large sites."

Prior to the launch of Waggle, he spent about a year reaching out to animal hospitals to hear their concerns. He now has partnered with about 50 veterinarians and nonprofits, including VCA Shoreline Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center in Shelton, Pieper Memorial Veterinary Center in Middletown and the Veterinary Cancer Center in Norwalk.

One of the people he contacted was Joanne Watkins, hospital manager of VCA Shoreline, and she now sits on his board of advisers.

"The fees to go through an emergency room, just like humans, is very expensive," Watkins said, "so when Steve told me about Waggle, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is totally awesome.'"

Cece, a 6-year-old Portuguese water dog, needs knee surgery. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

She said VCA Shoreline has referred eight to 10 cases to Waggle, ranging from pregnancy issues to foreign body airway obstruction. More often than not, clients don't have pet insurance.

Sometimes, Mornelli said, financial need may be determined if a pet owner tries to run a debit card and there are insufficient funds in the person's account. He said the determination is really a "boots-on-the-ground assessment" from veterinarians.

Watkins said she leaves decisions on referrals to Waggle up to her doctors, and that it's based on both financial need and the prognosis for the pet.

Mornelli estimates that about $20,000 has been raised thus far for about 50 pets, which extend beyond Connecticut to New York, Texas, California and Canada.

Some cases have been fully funded, meaning they hit $2,000, the limit a single campaign can raise on Waggle.

And that's just while Waggle has been beta testing the site. Mornelli expects those numbers to "rise precipitously" in September, when he starts marketing on a national level more aggressively. This will include outreach to national-level pet influencers and creating more success videos.

Also by September, he is going to allow animal rescue organizations and shelters to post, after they've been vetted by Waggle. The platform requires them to first go through an animal hospital.

Mornelli also plans to allow pet guardians to post directly but they have to upload treatment cost information from their hospital.

The platform currently is just for dogs and cats but Mornelli is looking to expand to horses in 2019 or 2020.

Waggle makes money in part through an 8 percent fee tacked on to donations, though 3 percent of that goes to the credit card companies, he said. Donors can leave an additional tip to help with operations, and Waggle has corporate sponsors.

The company is structured as both a for-profit B Corp and a nonprofit, the Waggle Foundation.

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