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Our Animals, Ourselves



Detroit, thanks to human folly over many years and on many levels, is in grave danger of having its two most important governments essentially collapse. The city is running a huge deficit, and it’s hard to see how the gap can be closed without dangerously crippling essential services. The schools are worse.

Yet what haunts me today is what an impressive woman named Jennifer Rowell told me last week about the collars people put on their puppies. Rowell, a 27-year-old from North Carolina, is the co-manager of the Michigan Humane Society’s Detroit shelter. You’ve probably seen it, sitting on the west side of the I-75 service drive, just before I-94. They’ve been saving lives and ending suffering in that century-old cement-block building since Herbert Hoover was president.

They see it all in there; the neglect and the cruelty and the poor elderly woman crying her eyes out because nothing can be done for her dying 17-year-old cat. They don’t have enough money and staff to do what needs to be done, but they do it anyway. There are those who think worrying about animals is silly and frivolous when the city’s schools are collapsing. And they’re wrong.

Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.” What I know is that all the animals are part of us. Though I’ve never written about them here before, I have lived with companion animals all of my life. I have a collie whose idea of abuse and neglect is when he has to wait until 6 a.m. for his first walk, and a squad of guinea pigs who squeak indignantly when they don’t get their romaine lettuce on schedule.

That’s exactly how I want them to live their entire lives. We’re not fully human unless we associate with and try to understand other living things. Most people instinctively know this, even if they can’t put it into words. Yet some don’t, and their cruelty knows no boundaries. Jeffrey Dahmer tortured and murdered animals before he tortured, murdered and ate his fellow humans. Someone ought to have seen that as a clear warning.

Yet what I learned from visiting the Michigan Humane Society is that the animals’ greatest problem, by far, is the same as for many of the humans who live in Detroit — ignorance and neglect. I was fully prepared to see the pit bull I saw, ear chewed off in a fight, awaiting euthanasia.

Amy Johnson, a former student of mine who’s now a community relations specialist for the Humane Society, told me that you can easily win as much as $60,000 in Detroit by betting on which pit bull will tear another one to pieces. That’s as repellent to me, and to most so-called civilized human beings, as any torture chamber would be. What really affected me, however, was what Rowell told me about the collars.

“We see so many embedded collars here,” she said. “People don’t mean to hurt the animal, but they get a puppy and put a little collar on it, and they feed it and give it water, and then they forget about it.

“Then one day, there’s some kind of a funky smell, and they bring it in. In some cases, the collar has cut through the dog’s neck, and the trachea is exposed.”

That image haunted me all day, as did that of the bulldog. While I was there somebody “dropped off” (abandoned) an emaciated white female bulldog, possibly a purebred, and her entire litter of cuddly, three-week-old puppies. They put her in a cage while they examined the puppies, and the sadness and fear and longing on that dog’s face will be with me forever.

What would happen to them? “We’ll try to find a foster family,” Rowell said. They have some good people who will do that. The good news is that the puppies showed no signs of pit bull ancestry, so they may all find homes.

“Mostly, people just don’t know any better,” Rowell told me. One day, a very small boy came in with a very small puppy. “I thought he wanted to surrender it. But what he wanted to know was how he should take care of his puppy.”

Rowell didn’t have half an hour to spare, but she made half an hour. “If I made a difference, it was worth it. Sometimes, you talk to people, and you can just see the light bulb go off in their head.”

Sometimes not. The Michigan Humane Society does what it can. Contrary to what many people think, they don’t get a dime of government funding, nor do they have statewide jurisdiction. Besides Detroit, MHS has shelters in Westland and Rochester Hills. They all operate on a shoestring.

You can bring an animal to them from anywhere — indeed, they took some dogs displaced by the Florida hurricanes. But they can only go pick up animals in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck, and then only if they’re sick or have been abused. Yes, they do have a squad of “animal cops,” and a cable TV show has been built around them. But they’re understaffed and overworked.

Some don’t like that the Michigan Humane Society puts animals to sleep. Yes, indeed they do; animals who can have no quality of life that’s not a living misery or dangerous, or both.

Jennifer Sullivan, another former student and a close friend, could have had a career in TV production, or as a professional musician. Instead, she evaluates animals for the Humane Society for less money than she could make at Target. Yes, she has to put some to sleep and, yes, it tears her up. “What keeps you going is knowing that it is the best thing for them,” she told me.

What would be better is if so many were not born. MHS insists that any animal that’s adopted be sterilized. “Actually, we are making progress with dogs — there aren’t nearly as many unwanted puppies as there used to be. But there’s an enormous cat problem.”

What few realize is that Detroit — including its suburbs — is home to thousands of feral (wild) cats. They cannot be domesticated. Most of their lives are nasty, brutish, diseased and short. The problem, like all of Detroit’s problems, is so much one of education and raising sensitivity levels. I can’t help but think that someone who’s better educated about animals will treat children better too, and might even vote more intelligently.

You can give the Michigan Humane Society a tax-free donation; check out the Web site at Or you could call one of the three shelters (Detroit’s is 313-872-3400) and see what’s on their “wish list” that they most need. They always need food and pet toys and supplies. You could volunteer to foster an animal for a while (they are bizarrely overflowing with rabbits) or come in and help clean cages or walk dogs. You’d be making a positive difference. Can you now say you do that every day?


Elephant Update: Remember Wanda and Winky, the elephants that Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan wanted to send to a sanctuary to live out their remaining years? The American Zoo and Aquarium Association vetoed that, wanting to send them to another concrete prison in Ohio.

Happily, the public got aroused, Kagan kept the pressure on in a truly diplomatic, low-key fashion, and last week a solution was found that enabled the bureaucrats to save face and the elephants to head for happier days in California.

If only we could put Kagan in charge of getting us out of Iraq.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to

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