A guard sits in an elevated shack near the entrance of the Michigan Humane Society’s Detroit shelter and clinic, keeping watch. Inside, 44 staffers toil, veritable soldiers in a war against animal overpopulation and cruelty, illness and neglect.
Like real soldiers, their accommodations are sparse. The former Detroit Piston Ring Building, which has housed the facility since 1931, is crowded and windowless.
For these soldiers, the experiences are often harrowing — and heartbreaking. Any of them can tell the stories of dogs that have been shot, stabbed or fought, to death. They have seen cats that are too sick to move. They have dealt with violent owners and those who just don’t care. And in this war, the animals are the casualties.
The front lines
Each year, the Detroit branch of the Michigan Humane Society takes in more than 20,000 animals.
Most are surrendered by owners who, for a variety of reasons, can’t or don’t want to take care of their pets any longer. Some are strays picked up by the shelter’s rescue drivers, who respond to calls about sick, injured or abandoned animals, and who patrol the streets, seeking to bring animals to safety. Other animals that the Detroit branch takes in are the victims of unspeakable cruelty.
“We see a lot of problems with animal cruelty throughout the city,” admits Brendan Nolan, shelter manager, “But any time you are in a poor inner-city area, problems are exacerbated.”
For Nolan, the reasons for this are complex, ranging from lack of finances to lack of education. The results can be anything from pet emaciation to abandonment to death. And it is these consequences that the Humane Society is trying to curb.
The Michigan Humane Society is a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Southfield, which received about $6.4 million in donations last year. In addition to the Detroit operation, there are branches in Rochester and Westland, each with a shelter and a clinic. In total, the three branches took in 48,000 animals last year. The Humane Society also operates pet education centers in Rochester, Oak Park and Westland.
A morning visit to the Detroit shelter — on the I-75 service drive, just north of East Grand Boulevard — finds things are almost quiet. At 8 a.m. the parking lot is largely empty. Employees are beginning to arrive to the building, which is redolent of animal fur and cleaning supplies.
Nolan, 33, the shelter’s manager, is cheerful, soft-spoken and seemingly easygoing. It’s Nolan’s sixth year with the shelter; he started working there as a rescue driver in 1998. Now he oversees everything from animal intake to adopting animals back out to rescuing the sick or injured to euthanatizing those that can’t be saved, which constitute the majority.
Despite this wide array of duties, Nolan says his main goals are twofold: educating and serving customers. The first, he says, will help stem the tide of animal cruelty, abandonment and overpopulation that keeps his kennels full. The second will lure pet-seekers into the shelter, providing homes for animals in need.
“The goal is to get to the point where you’re not going to need a shelter anymore,” he says.
Nolan still has a long way to go.
By 10 a.m. the phone rings nonstop to the accompaniment of the animal sounds, a blend of yelps, barks, meows and the clatter of claws on linoleum. Meanwhile, there is a steady stream of people and pets passing through the facility’s front door.
Amid the bustle, June Foukes and her 12-year-old son, Andrew, St. Clair Shores residents, wait quietly for their new pet, a medium-sized, golden-brown dog that Andrew wants to name Sparky.
“He’s been wanting a dog to wrestle around with and I’ve been wanting one as a companion,” explains June Foukes, as she describes how the family selected the dog after seeing its picture and description on the Humane Society’s Web site.
Andrew’s face lights up as Sparky enters the room, led out of the kennel by Michelle Gretchen, one of the shelter’s adoption trainers. Adoption trainers like Gretchen interview and screen prospective owners before approving them for adoption. It is their job to ensure that adopters can meet their prospective pet’s financial, physical and emotional needs, hopefully creating a “perfect match” between family and animal, Gretchen says.
Gretchen gives the Foukeses a quick but detailed description of how to care for their new dog. She gives the family a bottle of pills to help treat the upper-respiratory infection that the dog has contracted from the shelter and instructs them to seek additional treatment if the illness does not clear up in a couple of days.
Just as the Foukeses are picking up their dog, a young woman is dropping off a box filled with what looks like a dozen kittens, most likely the products of an unwanted litter. The animals hardly look old enough to open their eyes as they struggle to climb over each other.
The kittens represent what the Humane Society sees as one of its biggest challenges: an overpopulation of animals. Although it takes in approximately 23,562 animals a year, the shelter only adopts out 3,871. Some of the other animals are strays that are returned to their owners. Some are turned over to other animal rescue agencies. A few are wild animals that are returned to their natural habitats.
But a staggering number of these animals still end up in the shelter’s euthanasia room. Last year shelter employees were forced to euthanatize 14,254 unwanted pets. Some of these were put to sleep because of lack of cage space, others for medical or behavioral reasons.
For Nolan, who recalls having to put 120 animals to sleep during one of his first days as an animal evaluator a few years back, this number represents “the hardest part about working here.”
Nolan says situations like these were hard for him to handle at first, but that he coped by reminding himself that he was performing a necessary task. He says the ability to do this comes not from being “immune or unfeeling” but rather from understanding that “there’s a certain role you’re playing at that point in time, however sad or difficult it might be.”
One day, for instance, an elderly woman brings her dog, a quivering poodle named Mercedes, to the front desk. Mercedes has cancer, she says, and needs to be put to sleep.
The adoption trainer Gretchen winds up accompanying Mercedes to the euthanasia room because her owner says she did not want to be there when her 17-year-old pet died. As the lethal injection to stop Mercedes’ breathing is administered, Gretchen strokes and gently talks to the dog. It is a moment of compassion amid chaos. And it is hard to watch.
Mercedes is dead within a minute.
“It’s like an amusement park with an emotional roller coaster,” says Gretchen. “It’s constantly going.”
Other hardships have recently made the roller coaster’s already-loopy track more tortuous. Shelter security was increased after nine confiscated pit bulls were stolen from the stray animal holding area last spring. Shelter officials did not offer more information about the unsolved crime but said that, unfortunately, such incidents are not unusual in shelter settings; animals are often valuable for research, for sport fighting — and occasionally for ritual slaughter.
“Fighting dogs are worth so much money,” says Cory Bothuel, one of the shelter’s rescue drivers. In fact, people routinely pay thousands of dollars for them.
That is one of the reasons the shelter does not adopt out pit bulls or pit bull mixes, choosing instead to euthanatize them or give them to an agency that specializes in placing them, says Nolan. It is also the reason a sign in the shelter’s parking lot warns patrons not to surrender their animals to anyone who is not a Humane Society employee.
If the shelter is the front line in the war against animal cruelty and neglect, the clinic that adjoins it is the MASH Unit. It is located in the back of the warehouse, past the shelter and administrative offices. To find it, just follow the sounds of warring dogs you’ll hear in the cramped waiting room.
In the clinic’s reception area, two receptionists answer phones, speak to clients and organize paperwork at a pace even more hectic than the shelter’s.
Clinic manger Carole Marbury sums up the atmosphere in three words: “It’s crazy busy.”
Marbury escapes the chaos to talk at a picnic table in a small, grassy dog-walk area behind the shelter. She wants to get outside because her allergies are bothering her, she explains. This raises an obvious question: Why would anyone with a fur allergy choose to work at the Humane Society?
Well for one thing, Marbury is a self-proclaimed animal lover. A small gold dog-bone charm hangs on a chain around her neck and she speaks with pride about her pets, two dogs that she calls her “babies.”
But more importantly Marbury says working for the clinic gives her a sense of “doing something for the community” that private sector jobs would not.
Although the Humane Society clinic operates on an appointment basis and performs the same routine surgeries and vaccinations as regular veterinary clinics, there are significant differences. First, it offers walk-in emergency care for animals facing life-threatening illnesses or injuries. Second, it offers financial aid and payment plan opportunities for people who otherwise might not be able to afford veterinary services.
“Private vets want people to pay in full,” Marbury says, “A lot of people don’t have the funds to pay in full. Our main concern is that the pet gets treated.”
To facilitate this, the clinic offers clients who can’t pay for their services the opportunity to fill out a financial disclosure form, which lists all income and expenses. Clients who fill out this form may be eligible to receive up to a 50 percent discount on their pet’s treatment as long as they agree to have their animal spayed or neutered. (To help stem the number of unwanted animals, the Michigan Humane Society requires that all animals be sterilized before adoption. Nolan says one of the keys to decreasing animal overpopulation is “to get people into places that require sterilization of their pets.”)
Clients who do not qualify for such a discount are usually offered a payment plan: Half of their bill is due up front and the other half in installments. Even with the payment plan option, Marbury says the clinic often does not receive full compensation for its services.
Head veterinarian Dr. Shirene Cece has been at the clinic for 20 years. When she started, she assumed it was going to be a temporary job. But somewhere along the way, Cece says she caught the “Humane Society bug.”
“Either you love it or you don’t,” Cece says, shrugging, seemingly still bewildered that she is one who does.
Who wouldn’t be surprised, after all, to find out that they were in love with a place that witnessed some of the worst cases of animal cruelty imaginable?
“There are days when I walk out of here and think ‘Why am I doing this?’” says Cece. But she says she knows she is providing care to pets that might not get it otherwise. That’s what keeps her coming back.
And the job has touched her life in another way as well. A few years back, Cece adopted Ajax, a horse that was turned over to the shelter after its owner was accused of animal cruelty and neglect.
Cece says the palomino was in bad shape when she first met him, but once she got him fattened up he “turned out to be a handful.”
Now she says she is convinced that he and his companion Goose, who was also adopted from the shelter, “are happy as clams” in their new home, even though they’re not always eager to be ridden.
“They’re in retirement,” she says. “I just write the board check.”
Not all endings are so happy. Animals with all types of ailments and injuries walk through the clinic doors every day. Clinic employees have seen pit bulls with their skin ripped off, probably in a fight; they’ve seen dogs that have been shot, stabbed or beaten, nearly to death, and then brought in by owners who don’t want to foot the bill for their treatment.
Some of the horrors could be prevented by something as simple as routine vaccinations. Recently a woman brought in her diseased dog, wrapped in a garbage bag to prevent the diarrhea from leaking onto the floor.
A clinic receptionist explains that the dog probably has parvo virus, a disease most puppies are vaccinated against. It can be deadly to animals.
“Normally you can smell the parvo dogs,” the receptionist says knowingly. “They smell like they’re dying.”
Another man sits in the corner of the waiting room with a large dog. At first, the animal looks healthy, if a bit downtrodden, with no visible open wounds or signs of illness. Then you notice the lump.
It is the size of a large melon and hangs from the dog’s neck, just below his head. Cece says the bulge is a seroma, a fluid-filled mass that can form on the site of a wound. This one has reached a size where it must be surgically removed. And the owner is reluctant to pay for the procedure.
“See, we’re the bad guys because we ask for payment,” she says, frustrated.
Later Cece escapes to the surgery room, where Dr. Patricia Madsen is cutting away some of the extra skin on the eyelids of a large Rottweiler that had seemed a terror in the waiting room, but is now, thankfully, unconscious. The procedure for Rottweillers is routine she says, but many people can’t afford to get it done.
“He might be a nicer dog once these are fixed,” Madsen muses.
Madsen estimates that 20 to 30 surgeries are performed at the clinic on a daily basis. Many of these are spay and neuter procedures on animals that are about to be adopted, but others are more complicated.
When Madsen has finished sewing up the Rottweiler’s eyelids, she turns to Chaos, a dog who fell out of a moving truck several months ago and is just now having the pins removed from two legs.
“No other [clinic] would help us without a lot of money up front,” recalls Chaos’ owner, Bryan Bekote of Oak Park. “Here they treated us with compassion and kindness.”
This is the reaction the clinic employees strive for. Bekote says Chaos’ legs don’t bother her anymore, especially when “she gets excited and just busts out running.”
On this day, Chaos’ recovery represents one small victory in one very big war.
The most visible forces of the Humane Society, the Green Berets in the war on animal cruelty, have “Cruelty Investigation Unit” imprinted on the sides of their van and the backs of their vests; they are minor celebrities in their own right, stars of Animal Planet’s “Animal Cops” programs on cable television.
The show is one of two “Animal Cops” series (the other one is based out of Miami). It follows the Detroit unit in the course of the investigation and prosecution process. Since the show began airing in 2002, calls to the cruelty investigation department have risen at least 20 percent, according to Nancy Gunnigle, Michigan Humane Society community relations specialist.
Despite their newfound fame, the investigators are not free of the cramped conditions that characterize the Humane Society’s Detroit facility. Five of them occupy a small office on the shelter’s second floor, where they answer calls reporting cases of suspected animal abuse and neglect.
Their official jurisdiction is the city of Detroit, but investigators are sometimes called to provide backup to nearby cities and suburbs without their own investigation departments, says Gunnigle.
Last year, the investigators received 4,432 complaints of animal mistreatment, resulting in the confiscation of more than 1,000 animals. Investigators generally cannot confiscate animals without a warrant, but they are often able to talk owners into surrendering their animals to the shelters, explains Deborah MacDonald, head investigator.
“A lot of times we’re just out here to educate people,” says MacDonald. “A lot of people realize they can’t provide the care their animals have to have so they just surrender them” to the unit.
MacDonald and her partner Mark Ramos let an observer ride along — and wear the requisite bulletproof vest, which proves a little disconcerting — as they make calls on a sunny but cool August morning in their white Suburban.
At the first site, a residence on the city’s southwest side where a neighbor has complained of a dog left chained outside with no water or shelter, MacDonald and Ramos pause to acknowledge a man waving to them from a truck on their right side.
“We get that all day long — people driving around, waving and hollering at us,” says Ramos. He and MacDonald both admit to having people ask for their autographs and receiving fan mail. They say they don’t mind the attention as long as it helps them in their rescue efforts.
Although the show details the most compelling of the investigators’ cases — the ones with handcuffs and court dates — much of the work is mundane. MacDonald and Ramos say much of their job involves minor, and often unintentional, instances of neglect.
Such instances make up the first three of the investigators’ stops this day. These involve residences where people have complained that their neighbors’ pets are lacking water or shelter. None of the residents answer their doors, so MacDonald and Ramos leave cards indicating that a complaint has been made. At one home where the complaint seems to have been without merit, they simply leave a business card. They say they will be back to check on the circumstances later.
The next two residences are abandoned. This makes them a prime spot for dog fighting, an underground sport that has gained recent popularity in Detroit. Although it is a felony in Michigan, punishable with both jail time and fines, MacDonald and Ramos say the lucrative industry is hard to stop, especially because most fights take place at secret locations that are vacated soon after the brawl’s conclusion.
This looks to be the case of the two homes we visit on the city’s West Side. Both have yards filled with broken glass, pieces of wood and other debris. Looking through a window at one of the houses, Ramos says he sees a spot of blood on the wall.
But there are no dogs in sight.
“It’s a waiting game,” Ramos says. “Eventually we’ll catch up to them. They think we’re gone. …”
“I don’t mind being patient,” MacDonald says.
The long haul
Patience seems to be one of the Humane Society’s key weapons in its ongoing war. Humane Society employees wait for more shelter space and better working conditions. They wait for their favorite animals to get adopted. And they wait for people to realize that animals are family members, not to be abused or forgotten.
“I’m just waiting for a light to go on,” says Cece.
And until it does, they soldier on.
They do this by concentrating on the happy endings, on the animals they send home to loving families. Thank-you cards from grateful owners decorate a bulletin board in the clinic’s reception area. Shelter employees keep a running tab of the number of the animals adopted out each month on a white board in the reception area.
“The people who stay here really understand and believe in the mission,” says Nolan. “They have to have a certain level of commitment because we’re not going to pay the wages they might get in a private sector job.”
Starting salaries at the shelter are $8.75 an hour.
And employees agree that the shelter’s conditions aren’t the greatest. Portions of the building date back to the 1800s and it has not been expanded since the 1950s. Cats often wriggle their way into the space above the facility’s ceiling and have to be trapped.
But there is reason to believe that help is on the way. The Humane Society’s Westland shelter is currently undergoing significant renovations and Gunnigle says the Society is looking for three to four acres of land with freeway access in the city on which it can build a new facility to replace the aging Detroit shelter.
Nolan and his employees say that they’re excited about the prospect of a new base but are willing to wait for the right location. They aren’t leaving Detroit, they say. They’re needed here.
“Our commitment is to stay in the city,” says Nolan. “That’s not going to change.”
The Michigan Humane Society is online at michiganhumane.org.Katie Walton is a Metro Times editorial intern and a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org