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Published: 12/10/2004

Rochester shelter is an Ellis Island for animals

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. - Jan Cantle has coped with snakes and swans, your odd peacock, potbellied pigs, and legions of iguanas.

But she won't ever forget the armadillo. "Someone in Westland was keeping it in a drawer and it tunneled out," so eventually it was brought, as are thousands of illegal or discarded exotic pets, to the Michigan Humane Society's wildlife department in this northern Detroit suburb.

It is safe to say that when she was a little girl in England, Jan, who now manages the humane society's Rochester Hills shelter, never imagined that she would be dealing with the problems of a southwestern mammal who was far away from his native soil. But she was resourceful.

She found a sanctuary in Oklahoma that would agree to take the 'dillo, who by that time everyone was calling Chuck. Finding an airline that would take him was a trifle harder, but one finally surfaced. Armadillos, however, have to fly in a specially made carrier of a precise size. So they found someone to build one. Then all that mattered was Chuck's ticket - $200 or so, and he was off.

"That's one story that has a happy ending," she laughed with a lilting British accent. Too many other stories don't.

For in this throwaway society, too many people regard animals as disposable. If Easter is the season people buy pet bunny rabbits, this is the season they dump them off at the humane society.

"We keep all the ones we have space for," she said. Thirteen came in one recent day. Jennifer Sullivan, a young woman who gave up a real salary and a potential career in TV production to work for the humane society as an evaluator, became a foster parent to a mother rabbit and four babies, taking them home to her small apartment so they wouldn't have to be destroyed.

Welcome to Michigan's Ellis Island for animals. Tragically, their efforts amount to barely a drop in the bucket. Contrary to what most people believe, the Michigan Humane Society, which serves perhaps 100,000 animals annually on a shoestring budget of $10 million, doesn't get a dime of tax dollars. Instead it "depends 100 percent on the support of individuals as well as businesses," said Cal Morgan, the society's executive director.

"Without this support, we would not be able to continue our cruelty investigation and rescue services or animal sheltering operations," he said. Not to mention the humane education programs of veterinary services, he added.

Nor do they really operate statewide. People can and do bring in animals, particularly injured wild animals, from as far away as Traverse City or Monroe. Some dogs even came in as a result of the Florida hurricanes. But their anti-cruelty "animal cops," who are featured regularly on TVs Animal Planet, only venture into Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck.

They have three major shelters, in Detroit, Rochester Hills, and Westland, where they serve perhaps 100,000 animals a year. But that's just a drop in the ocean, noted Amy Johnson, the society's volunteer coordinator and community relations specialist. The state is being overrun with colonies of feral (wild) cats.

"The estimates are that there are as many feral cats as house cats in the country," Ms. Johnson said. Many are sick and ill-nourished. Even their kittens cannot be domesticated in any real sense. When they come to the shelter, they have to be put down, as do any and all pit bulls.

For some, there is a happy ending. Nearly all the puppies and kittens considered adoptable go home with someone, minus their ability to reproduce. In the last few years, there seem to be fewer unwanted puppies being born, though the lives of many are nasty, brutish, and short in the grim streets of Detroit, where large sums are bet in secret, illegal exhibitions where pit bull terriers fight to the death.

But the Michigan Humane Society, which is in the process of building a new shelter in Westland, needs all the help it can get. Log on to www.Michiganhumane.org and get a load of what they need, and how you can help (or call: 248-852-7420). One way is by not keeping, or encouraging others to keep, so-called exotic animals. Every year, they have to dispose of many unwanted baby alligators, who have no business in Michigan.

As for Chuck the armadillo some time later, Jan Cantle got a picture from Oklahoma. Not of Chuck, but of a hole he had dug for himself. Not a hole in a dresser drawer, or in a cage, but in his natural climate. And every time she thinks of that, it makes her happy.

Elephant update: Remember Wanda and Winky, the elephants the Detroit Zoo wanted to send to a sanctuary, a move opposed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which wanted to send them to Columbus? Detroit won, and the pachyderms will live out their old age in a sanctuary in California.



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