Saving Detroit’s animals

Dec 10, 2013

Unless you are reading this in Monaco, you know it has been prematurely cold and bitter in much of our state. Yesterday I went to check on one class of poor Detroiter who can’t complain.

They do, however, have one spokesperson: Jennifer Rowell, one of my personal heroes. Jen runs the Michigan Humane Society’s shelter in Detroit, which is located in a century-old machine shop along I-75 as you approach Midtown.

Every year, about 12,000 animals, mostly dogs and cats, come through its doors. That’s probably more than the humane society’s other two shelters in suburbia combined.

Remarkably, many find new homes. Not necessarily in the lap of luxury. When I stopped by yesterday, the lobby was full of people there to get free food and straw for their animals.

The society helps nearly 2,000 low-income families keep their pets alive. There is an income limitation, and they try to prevent abuse, but Jen is more worried about hungry or freezing dogs. As for the straw -- this is not weather in which any animal should sleep outside, but she knows that some people come from what she calls “a different culture."

The Michigan Humane Society is a private, non-profit institution, and, on the surface, shielded from Detroit’s bankruptcy. But Jennifer Rowell is deeply worried about what might happen if people suffer serious cuts to their pensions.

There are people who can barely feed themselves and their animals now. There is also cruelty of a kind that tends to get worse when times get bad. Rowell, a native of North Carolina, has worked in this shelter for 14 years, and has run it for 10.

They do miracles here. They were getting ready to amputate the back leg of one winning little dog, when I was there; incredibly, Jen thinks that he won’t have trouble finding a home. But there are animals too far gone, physically or psychologically, to have any chance at survival.

They have a team of animal cops who do what they can to rescue them, but it is often too late. I could not do Jennifer Rowell’s job, because I would be in jail for homicide.

Yet there are a lot of good news stories here too. Perhaps the best thing this branch of the humane society does is try to educate people about how to take care of their pets, and the consequences of their actions if they give them up.

Recently, they put some money into remodeling much of this building to make it more efficient, to provide space for people to consult with doctors and shelter workers, all of whom are underpaid and deeply dedicated.

If there are truly innocent victims of Detroit’s financial crisis, they are here. If you feel inclined to help, they need food and toys for the animals, and people who will foster a dog or a cat for a few weeks or volunteer to take them for walks.

Incredibly, yesterday morning, there were people lined up to do just that. I once asked Jen if she’d rather run a suburban shelter than this one. I think she said never in a million years.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.