Hazel Park councilwoman loses 7 pets in house fire

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Alissa Sullivan with foster dog Buddy, which her neighbor adopted.

An animal advocate who cares for others' pets lost her own four dogs and three foster cats in a fire in December, and now she says she'll use her loss to try to prevent similar heartbreak.

Alissa Sullivan left her Hazel Park home around 5 p.m. on Dec. 19 to run errands, ready for Christmas, with gifts under the tree for each dog and Christmas cards featuring all four.

As she pulled into the parking lot of Trader Joe's in Royal Oak at 8 p.m., her neighbor messaged her on Facebook and said her house was on fire, she said. 

By the time she returned to her house, in the 43000 block of Hoover, the Fire Department had hoses in her home. Neighbors had gathered around the outside, desperate to see her dogs safely removed from the flames. 

"I tried to run in, and I was screaming, 'Get my dogs,' " said Sullivan, a Hazel Park councilwoman. "I called my mom first and then I called the city manager to have him call the chief and make sure they knew I had dogs. It seemed like the only thing I could do, but it didn't help."

The four dogs and three cats she was fostering died in what is being deemed an electrical fire in the kitchen. The blaze quickly spread, consuming everything in her home. 

Alissa Sullivan's Christmas card featuring Hippo, grey, Nisroc, white, along with Boxer mix Kizmet and Bowey, an English bulldog mix.

The oldest dog, a pit bull-mix, was Hippo, 12. Bowey, 6, was an English bulldog mix; Nisroc, an American bulldog-mix,was 9; and her mother's boxer-mix, Kizmet, 5, all perished.

"I don’t think people realize it can literally happen to anyone, and it’s important to reiterate that everyone has come to help me out on the ... hardest day of my life," said Sullivan, 41. "It's humbling but devastating. There's no bigger word."

Sullivan has been volunteering, fostering and advocating for animals for 20 years. Three of her dogs were rescued from southwest Detroit after Sullivan received surrenders from owners while she was volunteering with Chained Inc., a nonprofit Detroit dog rescue. She's a professional pet sitter and pet foster, who had taken in the three cats from a local shelter while they waited for permanent homes. 

She had each dog about four years, she said, and each had a story.

Kizmet was rescued as a puppy in southwest Detroit from a field, she said. Nisroc "lived on a chain for five years before I rescued him and Bowie was kept in a garage for the first year of her life with no windows. Hippo was turned in as a stray to Dearborn Animal Shelter ..." and whom she initially fostered. 

The house is a total loss. Her insurance company placed her in temporary housing, but without her pets, nothing will feel like home, she said.

"Everything else is replaceable," Sullivan said. "All I could think of was my pets. I live alone and I don't have kids. My pets are my family. I had Christmas presents wrapped up for them that they didn't get to open," she said through tears. 

Even her venture into politics was related to animals. Sullivan stepped into the public arena two years ago after Hazel Park passed legislation banning pit-bull breeds. The legislation was repealed before she was elected. 

"They were against pit bulls' bully breed or any type of dog they consider a pit bull ... how they look, which has nothing to do with their temperament. ... I got involved because I was mad. I ran for office because I felt that I could help my community to become safer and grow."

Friends, recognizing the loss was devastating to their friend who is dedicated to animals,rallied on Facebook and started a GoFundMe account, which raised nearly $30,000 in six days. 

A friend of Sullivan's, Tammy Pereira, organized the GoFundMe, writing: "I have personally worked with Alissa and she has taken care of my dogs. She is a wonderful person and we need your help to support her during these tough times."

Sabrina O'Brien from Hazel Park said she's known Sullivan for eight months and is the only person she trusts her dog with. 

"Her pets were her babies. I know how much she loves my dog, so I can only imagine how she felt," said O'Brien. "She is one of those people who you can just tell are good people and love animals." 

"My mom helped me realize how much I lost. I only have a hoodie, the jeans I had on, the undergarments and my jeep because I was in it," she said. "That realization was demoralizing almost. I help people all the time and now I can empathize with them so much more. This can happen to almost anyone."

Sullivan said while "there's not a lot of positivity in this story," she hopes to use the money from GoFundMe to help others. 

"My Fire Department has the animal masks, but my animals were past the point of resuscitation," she said. "A kind woman is donating a training service to the Hazel Park Fire Department for animal CPR in memorial for my pets, not that it would have saved them, but would save other families."

One of her new goals is to reach out to surrounding communities and make sure their fire departments have the training and equipment to help pets when disaster strikes.

"I'm going to fund the training," she said. "There's no lesson to be learned here but there is some action that could be taken here."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_