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Animals removed from Muskegon facility where 'wolf dog' attacked child, officials say

The Detroit News

Conservation officers on Friday removed foxes and other animals from a Muskegon rehabilitation facility that authorities believe is involved in illegally breeding and housing animals without a license.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources served a search warrant at the Howling Timbers animal sanctuary after conservation Officer Anna Cullen received a tip that "a young child lost an arm after being attacked by a dog" at the site in July, representatives said in a statement.

Officers from Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office assisted the DNR in a search warrant Friday morning at Howling Timbers. Six red fox, three coyotes, four eastern box turtles and two fawns were transferred to separate animal shelters.

A bite report filed through Kent County Animal Control confirmed a 2-year-old child stuck an arm into a cage on July 23 and a dog latched onto it, according to the release.

The child's grandmother, Brenda Pearson, owns Howling Timbers and is under investigation for operating the facility without required permits, the DNR said.

According to its website, Howling Timbers is a nonprofit sanctuary on 34 acres dedicated "to wolves, wolf dogs, and exotic animals that have been neglected, abused, abandoned or relinquished by their previous owner."

In 2010, the DNR revoked the owner's wildlife rehabilitation permit following criminal violations including failing to submit permit records, notify authorities about an escaped bear or properly care for animals.

The owner has applied for licenses "but doesn’t follow through with the inspection process — she’s failed to complete all of her applications,” Cullen said.

Reached Friday, Pearson said she has a shelter license under the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and had been awaiting word from the DNR on the status of a wildlife rehabilitation permit.

The DNR inspected the site in July, shortly before the incident with her granddaughter, and raised no concerns, Pearson said.

Pearson said officers returned for a surprise inspection last month and told her there was a miscommunication regarding the wildlife rehab permit, so she couldn't take in any new animals.

Meanwhile, Pearson questions whether the wolf dog attacked her granddaughter. She said she found no bite marks and wonders if a chain around the animal severed the child's arm.

The DNR and the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office removed several animals from Howling Timbers Friday morning

During Friday’s search, officers removed six red foxes, three coyotes, four eastern box turtles and two fawns, state officials reported.

Other non-native wildlife remain on-site, including 47 illegal wolf dogs. The crossbreeds are illegal in Michigan without proper permits, state authorities said.

“The DNR is currently investigating the unlicensed facility,” said Steven Burton, assistant chief of the department's Law Enforcement Division. “We want to make sure that anyone who comes into contact with these animals at this facility is safe, and that all of the animals at the facility are being cared for properly.”

To operate legally, the facility would need to meet all safety and care provisions before permits are issued from at least one agency such as the DNR, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Muskegon County or the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, officials said.

"We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of anyone who may encounter any animal at Howling Timbers, including the health and safety of all the animals at the facility," Cullen said.

Pearson questioned the DNR's actions on Friday," she said.

"We only found out today we’re not licensed for wildlife (rehabilitation)," Pearson said, adding that Howling Timbers has had wolf dogs for 27 years without issue.

A Howling Timbers post on Facebook said no dogs were bred intentionally. "It is not uncommon for them to come to us pregnant, both knowingly and non," the posting said, in response to a question from someone who asked if the facility was breeding the animals. A lenghty statement on the page after the DNR search in part attempted to explain Howling Timbers' status as a wolf dog shelter.

"... Wolf dogs are not non-native species," she said. "They aren't native anywhere. They are considered a domestic animal. Secondly, they are not being illegally kept at Howling Timbers. The law changed to make them illegal to the public in 2000. We have housed them for 27 years. Until last year we were licensed as a shelter and that was considered the proper license."