Animal Control Officer: Far More Than “Dog Warden”

Back in the day, Westport had a dog warden. His job was simple: respond to complaints about roaming or barking dogs.

Today, the position is “animal control officer.” Dogs are among the duties — and, with added regulations about Compo Beach and Winslow Park, there’s more to do.

But in 2019, Westport’s animal control officer also handles — sometimes literally — cats. Plus raccoons, coyotes, foxes, swans, hawks, owls, and of course deer. Along with every other bit of wildlife that believes it has as much right as you or I to live here.

Which of course they do.

On September 1, Westport welcomed a new animal control officer. Joseph Saponare replaced Gina Gambino.

But he’s hardly “new.” Saponare spent the last 18 years as assistant animal control officer, working with and under the legendary Peter D’Amico and Art Reale.

Joseph Saponare

Nor is Saponare new to Westport. He’s as native as you get: Born on Cross Street, raised in a house his sister still lives in, and a graduate of Assumption School, Bedford Junior High and a 1965 graduate of Staples High School (with a year of home schooling, after contracting rheumatic fever).

Growing up, Saponare’s passion was not animals. It was his hot ’61 Chevy with a 348 engine. When he wasn’t racing at Dover Drag Strip, he hung out at the Crest Drive-In (at the entrance to what is now Playhouse Square).

After Staples, Saponare worked at Pepperidge Farm, then spent 10 years as a Norwalk typesetter. He had a snowplow business, bartended, was a volunteer firefighter (and president of the Vigilant Hose Company on Wilton Road), and served as president, vice president and treasurer of Sons of Italy, when that Saugatuck group put on the beloved Festival Italiano.

He also became a travel agent. Saponare Travel opened in 1983 on Church Lane, then moved to Post Road West.

After 9/11 — when travel dropped dramatically — Saponare joined the Travel Exchange in Sconset Square. He’s spent the past 15 years too as a traffic agent, working at places like Staples and Bedford.

Most important for Saponare’s new post is his 18 years as an assistant animal control officer. He loves the satisfaction of bringing injured animals to Weston’s Wildlife in Crisis, and helping those in distress.

Joe Saponare, with Quinn.

Deer have become a big part of his work. Saponare rescued a fawn that had fallen into a swimming pool. When he brought it to the woods, the mother lurked nearby.

The officer had been careful to don gloves. If the mother smelled his scent on the baby, she would abandon it.

Another time, he was called to Willowbrook Cemetery. Workers worried that a fawn would fall into a freshly dug grave. Saponare carried it to a safe place, while its mother watched intently.

A couple of hours before we spoke, Saponare was called to rescue a deer caught in a fence. Police officers and firefighters helped release it. But its leg was broken, and it had to be put down.

There was another call that morning. A dog was struck on the Sherwood Island Connector. A Good Samaritan tried to help — and was bitten.

I asked the new animal control officer if he has a message for Westporters. He’s no longer a “dog warden” — but the topic was canines.

“Be responsible,” Saponare says.

“Don’t leave your dog unattended in hot weather. And be sure to license your dog. That’s the law. It’s the only way we can tell if your dog has been vaccinated.”

17 responses to “Animal Control Officer: Far More Than “Dog Warden”

  1. Joe was an avid bowler, as I remember and he used to bowl and gab with Ricco M about bowling techniques. He might have even bowled in a few leagues.

  2. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 BA, MA, JDE

    Looks just like his father, who I believe once owned/operated a Chevron station next to the old Westbank market on Wilton Rd near FAS/SCF. My mother went to school with his father who was always a go to guy for car trouble. Neat story.

    • I remember Joe Saponare Senior at the Chevron. Always got my gas at the Chevron in the ’60s. When I got my first car he was very kind to me and treated me like a real adult. Also gave me hints about not grinding my gears when I shifted. Lovely man.

  3. Dorothy Robertshaw

    👍👏🏼❤️Fabulous article his sister is one of my BFFs I am sending it directly to her

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. Michael Calise

    Thanks Dan,
    For highlighting one of Westport’s “Good Guys” It’s people like Joe who make Westport a great place to live in.

  5. Wonderful post Dan .
    I’m showing my age with this comment .. I remember seeing his 348 Chevy quite well .. I was a young boy then and just Loved Cars .. Joe is one of those long lost Good Guys . who grew up in Westport … I also used his Travel agency a few times , way before the internet … I’m So Happy for him that he’s now our Full time Dog Warden … He’s a Good Man with a Heart of Gold ….

  6. Elizabeth Thibault

    Congrats, it’s a busy post! Are we also going to get a new assistant animal control officer?

  7. Officer Joe is such a fantastic person, and such a supporter of WASA, the volunteer advocacy group that helps out at the shelter. He is a joy to work with and always stops by to say hello if he’s in the neighborhood – Congrats, Joe!

  8. Theresa Saponare Kovacs

    Congratulations to my brother, I’m so proud of him and he so deserves this position. All that have come in contact with Joe always have such wonderful things to say about him when my friends find out he is my brother. Dan thanks so much for a great article!

  9. Joe Soap..We are lucky to have him..Congrats!!

  10. The right person for the right job, and what a relief to have him there!

  11. Mary Schmerker

    As soon as I saw the name, Saponare, I thought two things: It got to be Theresa’s brother and how much the Saponare family means to Westport. Congratulations. Wonderful choice.

  12. When I was a wee one, I remember reading a story about a “dog catcher” that was feared by children in the town because strays dogs would just disappear after being placed in his van. One day the children followed the van to the dog catcher’s house to find that all those missing dogs were being kept in the “dog catcher’s” home and large yard. Every night they would have steak and mashed potatoes for dinner. Now, Chief Animal Control Officer Saponare doesn’t take all the dogs to his house or serve them steak every night but he makes sure he is there bright and early to walk all the guests at Westport Animal Control and give them their breakfast. He makes sure they get nice long walks throughout the day and that their kennels are spotless. He also makes sure that they are eating their food – two meals a day – and getting the vet care they need to stay healthy and happy. We greatly appreciate too that Officer Saponare goes the extra mile and supports WASA in its effort to find loving, forever and safe homes for the guests of Westport Animal Control through the application and home visit process. Dan, you forgot to mention community outreach….tomorrow Officer Saponare will be making a stop by my daughter’s second grade class to speak about Westport Animal Control and the role of its Chief Animal Control Officer as part of the school’s community week. Heads up Officer Saponare….they have their questions all ready!

  13. Would love a followup with the Warden regarding deer control. Westport has a seemingly uncontrolled population of deer that contribute to road accidents, and are the root cause for a decent amount of property damage via landscape getting eaten and/or ruined. Many towns have a capture and release program, and some states & towns allow for controlled hunting to control the population. Westport appears to have an open, free-for-all “policy”. How & when do we tackle our deer population?

  14. Congratulations Joe… to a well deserved promotion. As far and deer in town we have a nice stable population. We’ve been able to manage it without hunting. There is no such thing as a humane capture and release program. The residents of Westport are able to enjoy a safe, gun free quality of life that that unfortunately other towns have been denied. Best wishes in your new position!

  15. Elizabeth Devoll

    That’s my dog Quinn in the photo!
    He saved the day!!!