When Jimmy Gonzalez was the chief animal control officer for Bridgeport, he witnessed the seemingly endless problems associated with the area’s surplus of unwanted dogs and cats.
“Bridgeport has the largest animal shelter in Connecticut, and people were bringing in tons and tons of animals,” he recalled. “But I found out it was really just a revolving door. Animals were coming in and hopefully they were going out. But a lot of them were getting euthanized. And after so many years, I felt, this sucks.”
Gonzalez had hoped that local animal rescue groups would alleviate the overcrowding at the shelter, but he learned that many of them offered good intentions rather than solid solutions.
“You have to understand that most of them are out of their basement, most of them don’t have budgets and most of them will take an animal that is really not adoptable,” he added. “It was just not working.”
Gonzalez teamed with Melissa Kuian, an animal adoption coordinator at the shelter, in an effort to provide a viable difference. In 2008, they created the nonprofit A Hand for a Paw, which sought to provide mobile humane resources to underserved Bridgeport area neighborhoods.
“While we were at the shelter, people would come in and say, ‘Oh, I have to get rid of my animal,’” Kuian said. “And we would ask why, and they would say, ‘We couldn’t afford the food or the spaying/neutering and vaccines.’”
Responding to that feedback, Gonzalez and Kuian’s nonprofit helped families obtain affordable vaccines, microchipping and professional assistance for their four-legged companions; they also set up a pet food pantry. But financing the nonprofit required fundraising outreach; the duo quickly found that animal advocacy T-shirts were popular sale items. But supply costs limited the nonprofit’s revenue.
“When we were selling T-shirts and we would run out of medium or large, we would call the supplier company and say that we need to get a couple of mediums or larges,” Gonzalez said. “And we were told that we would have to order a minimum of 100. The problem is that you never made that much money because you’d have to pay the (T-shirt) company.”
In 2010, using $10,000 in savings, Gonzalez and Kuian purchased equipment to print their own T-shirt designs. Visiting a manufacturer in New Jersey, they soon realized their planned investment would not be nearly enough to cover the cost of equipment needed for their enterprise.
“We were ready to walk out,” said Gonzalez, “when a gentleman walked in who purchased an entire set just recently, but he got a contract with the military and he was shifting over to automated machines, so he traded in what he had.” The manufacturer’s salesman offered to sell the trade-ins to the Bridgeport partners for $7,000. “So, we lucked out,” Gonzalez said.
Using his graphic design skills, Gonzalez created a line of animal advocacy T-shirts — including a “Got Pits?” design to celebrate the much-maligned pit bulls — and started selling them in dog grooming salons, tattoo parlors and at animal adoption events.
By the spring of 2015, Gonzalez and Kuian left their jobs at the Bridgeport shelter and set up Vox Eorum — Latin for “their voice” — to concentrate full time on the creation of animal advocacy merchandise that also includes hoodies, tote bags and stickers.
“We decided to start doing it for other companies,” Kuian said. “We knew a lot of other rescue groups and they were like, ‘Oh, we like those shirts.’”
While running Vox Eorum, a for-profit enterprise, Gonzalez and Kuian in early 2016 launched BYOB — Build Your Own Brand. The business initially focused on creating merchandise for other area rescue groups. The partners were surprised to find that some potential clients needed significant help in other areas of operation besides fundraising items.
“It wasn’t just apparel,” Gonzalez said. “People were coming in saying they were nonprofit but they were not 401(c)3 (registered as a nonprofit) and they did not have a logo for their organization. A lot of people don’t know how to get a logo or the www-dot-com registration. …These rescuers or rehabbers or whatever they are, they are good at what they do and that’s all they have time to do.”
Last spring, Kuian’s mother opened a Stratford retail store, Animal Artisans, that has become the central location for the sale of merchandise from Vox Eorum, rescue groups working with BYOB and independent animal-focused artists. And after listening to a friend’s guest appearance on a local comedy podcast, Gonzalez and Kuian created their own online talk show with Vox Eorum Radio.
Since launching their merchandise production business, Gonzalez and Kuian have sold 16,000 items, they said. But their schedule required them to step down from the leadership role at A Hand for a Paw, which they passed to a new executive team.
Their next project together took shape last fall when Gonzalez proposed marriage to Kuian. For now, a wedding will wait while the engaged couple focuses on the work that engages them.