New animal care ideas make Detroit shelter cat’s meow

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — For more than 80 years, the Michigan Humane Society worked in quarters that made it difficult to keep up with demand: the thousands of animals that passed through the doors every year.

The 15,000-square-foot former factory was not initially designed for all the sheltering, surrenders and animal abuse cases at the state’s oldest and largest welfare organization. That meant staff had to limit everything from scheduling medical procedures to educational visits.

Two blocks has changed all that. Since March, the society has moved to embrace 21st-century sheltering approaches with new surroundings. The Dresner Foundation Animal Care Campus is about 35,000 square feet with dedicated separate dog and cat rehabilitation areas as well as an expanded veterinary center, surgical suites, even space for training and education.

“The experience is just so different when you walk in the door,” said Jennifer Rowell, the adoption center director. “It’s way more conducive, it’s peaceful, it’s tranquil — it’s a much happier experience than what we were able to provide just because of our building limitations.”

In a nod to its cleaner, brighter space for four-legged creatures, the now-cutting-edge center — which can house about 250 — helped lure a major animal welfare meeting to the Motor City.

The Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ 2016 Management Conference, slated to draw about 250 industry officials from across the country, runs through Friday.

The annual gathering’s off-site event is scheduled for Thursday at the new facility, said Jim Tedford, the nonprofit’s president/CEO.

“One of the things that we have learned from our members is that they love being able to tour the latest and greatest facilities,” Tedford said. “So if we can go to a community where there’s a new innovative facility that we can take advantage of, then that’s a huge bonus for our members. For us, that’s probably the biggest single attractant for members being able to attend a conference: not only do they get to learn at the conference, but they get to learn from their colleagues. They love to see what everybody else is up to.”

The new campus on the Chrysler Service Drive is named after the Dresner Foundation, which provided a $3.5 million gift toward the $15.5 million cost, officials said. Groundbreaking was in 2014.

With space tight at the previous animal care center, Rowell said, “if you had to walk down the hallway and you were carrying a dog, there couldn’t be anyone else in the hallway in order for you to make your way down.”

Before, one entrance served those who were dropping off pets or adopting. “In terms of congestion, potential disease, it wasn’t ideal,” said Ryan McTigue, the agency’s public relations coordinator. Now, multiple entrances ease that worry.

At the Dresner building, pet seekers find more light, windows and room. Cats have extra vertical steps to crawl across in “condos,” dogs roam in a designated outdoor play area, and soundproofing eliminates the chance either species is agitated by the other, she said.

“When somebody comes in to adopt, they’re seeing an animal that is definitely more relaxed than they were at our former facility, that has probably been able to be exercised a little bit more because we have space for that,” Rowell said. “It’s so nice to walk in and see animals napping in the middle of the day, which is what they would be doing in your home.”

The modern layout impressed first-time visitor Devone Garmo of Detroit, who browsed there for a companion cat Wednesday afternoon.

“The building is beautiful,” he said as felines meowed nearby. “The other one was a little older and worn down.”

The more peaceful environment means less stress, which nets faster recovery for neglected or abused animals and swifter adoption times, society officials said.

Another bonus: Workers are happier.

“If the staff is healthier, then the animals can be healthier,” Rowell said. “This was so crucial for us to be able to move forward and start doing more progressive treatments, more progressive rehabilitation and being able to accomplish them with a little more efficiency.”

The overhaul dovetails with a trend nationwide, Tedford said. In recent years, more groups have pursued “facilities that are designed to almost be kind of the epicenter of the community when it comes to all things related to animals and animal welfare. They’re built certainly with the comfort and health and well-being of the animals in mind, but also with the comfort and education of the community in mind, as well.”

The effort seems to be paying off. So far, Dresner has seen more adoptions, notching 500-plus since its opening, society officials said. The numbers from April through May were about 100 above the total for the same time in 2015, McTigue said.

On Wednesday, Wayne State University student Payton Julian left with a domestic short-hair cat. “It looks like the animals are taken care of very well,” she said.