Michigan Humane Society Celebrating 135 Years
The Michigan Humane Society took root from a simple vision for the city of Detroit 135 years ago: that it would become a kinder, safer place for all its residents. In celebration of this anniversary year, we take a look back into some of the key areas of the organization’s history that took shape, grew and progressed into today’s MHS
“The work of the Michigan Humane Society is of a sort that no city in civilized America can afford to be without.”
– Abner E. Larned, 1935
A LOOK BACK TO 1877
On May 14, 1877, concerned citizens in Detroit gathered together to form the Michigan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). A relatively new phenomenon at the time, the MSPCA was part of a growing trend that had begun in London with the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and in New York as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In the years since 1877, though the name would change, the organization’s dedication never would. From the Gilded Age, to the Roaring ’20s and the Great Depression; from Detroit’s post-war boom years, to the riots of 1967 and the challenges that have troubled the city in the decades since, the Michigan Humane Society (MHS) has been a fixture in the community, holding true to the promise we made back all those years ago: That no matter what, we always would work to alleviate animal suffering.
The Michigan Humane Society name was taken in the 1920s, following the consolidation of several older humane organizations, including the Detroit Humane Society and the Animal Welfare Association. As time passed, the Michigan Humane Society dramatically grew and expanded under the leadership and with the support of some of the state of Michigan’s best and brightest, including former senators, mayors, community and business leaders, and concerned citizens – with names such as Ford, Cody, Palmer, Larned, Ledyard, Cavanaugh. Driving through the city of Detroit today, the street names read as a veritable who’s who of people involved with the Michigan Humane Society over the years.
Today, the Michigan Humane Society’s reach extends far beyond Detroit. As the state’s oldest and largest humane organization, MHS has become a nationally recognized leader in animal welfare due to the wide scope of our programs and services, our fidelity to our mission to prevent cruelty, and a philosophy of constant improvement: always looking for ways we can better serve the animals and communities that rely on us. Though the world of 2012 might look much different than that of 1877, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for organizations such as MHS.
PROTECTING THOSE WHO CANNOT HELP THEMSELVES
In the early years, the organization’s mission included the protection of women and children, as well as providing many services to dogs, cats and other animals. However, much of the Society’s early work combating cruelty was concerned with the needs of the more than 68,000 horses working in the city of Detroit. Overwork and cruelty to horses was a common occurrence. The organization responded by providing water fountains for workhorses, a rest farm for horses at the corner of Inkster and Michigan Avenue, and when the situation called for it, the use of a specially designed horse ambulance.
In 1913, Arthur C. Curtis, who would be-come the organization’s first paid employee, was named Humane Marshal by Michigan Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris, and given statewide authority to investigate charges of animal cruelty.
Curtis was Michigan’s very first “Animal Cop,” investigating reports of cruelty, inspecting horses and livestock and, when the situation required it, rescuing animals. During his 40 years of service, Curtis investigated thousands of cases of animal cruelty of all kinds, resulting in fines, prosecutions and in some cases, imprisonment for the perpetrators. As time went on and the use of horses declined, MHS’ focus shifted more toward companion animals – dogs, cats and other domesticated pets. The need was rising. In 1947, 43,000 animals passed through MHS, in large part because of our response to 26,739 ambulance calls, 2,415 emergency rescue calls and 1,076 cruelty investigations. By the late 1960s, horse rescue calls in the city were becoming rare.
Even during the riots of 1967, MHS was there helping animals affected by the crisis. Working around the clock, MHS set up an Emergency Animal Relief Station to care for injured and homeless animals. MHS staff stayed at the shelter, and MHS veterinarians, assisted by the National Guard, provided first aid for animals injured in the riots. MHS also provided 5,000 cans of dog and cat food for animals in the area.
For a century, MHS cruelty investigators have been quietly and diligently working on the front lines of animal welfare in Detroit. Sadly, they are no less needed today, as our small team of professionals expertly investigates more than 5,000 cruelty cases each year. In May 2002, they received international attention with the debut of the Animal Planet series, “Animal Cops: Detroit.” Featuring current Chief Cruelty Investigator Debby MacDonald, Investigator Mark Ramos, and the rest of the MHS cruelty investigation and rescue team, the series documented the struggles facing animals in Detroit every day – abuse, neglect, dog fighting, hoarding and abandonment. The series was an instant hit with viewers and continues to be rebroadcast to this day.
In the 1920s, MHS placed a greater emphasis on animal adoptions. In 1925, the shelter facility was a leased building at 7378 Richmond (a street that today is known as the Chrysler Expressway service drive). In 1931, MHS purchased and renovated the former Detroit Piston Ring factory at 7401 Richmond, which is still functioning today as MHS’ Detroit shelter location, thanks to several face-lifts. Over the years, MHS has adopted nearly 500,000 animals into loving homes!
For decades, MHS held an annual Horse Christmas Party to celebrate the city of Detroit’s horses and the people who properly cared for them. Awards were given for the best-kept horse, and the horses in attendance were provided with apples and other treats. As urban areas such as Detroit had transitioned away from a reliance on workhorses, MHS held its last horse party in 1971.
FRIENDS OF MHS
Over the years, MHS has enjoyed the support of many prominent individuals who took an interest in the organization’s mission.
The Ford name has a long history here in Michigan and that includes generosity toward animals. In 1935, Edsel Ford contributed to the purchase of a new animal ambulance trailer for the organization while Henry Ford served on the MHS Board of Directors. The Ford family also donated a parcel of land that was used as a rest farm for workhorses.
Michigan’s Governor William Milliken was a friend to MHS and provided much-needed legislative support during his time in office. He also dropped in during MHS’ 1975 “Pick-A-Pup” adoption event at Pontiac Mall.
It just so happened that when MHS turned 100, a Michigan man was in the White House! President Gerald Ford, joined by his dog, Liberty, sent his well-wishes on MHS’ 100th anniversary in 1977.
Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Martha Griffiths was a staunch supporter of animals and fought tirelessly against the exploitation of any living being. In a 1984 interview with MHS, Griffiths said, “Anyone that is cruel to life in one form is capable of cruelty to life in any form.” She also stressed the importance of community involvement with the legislature. “People need to know what bills are under consideration in Congress or in their state legislatures that affect their pets and other animals.”
MHS has a long history of engagement with Detroit’s mayoral office. When the Society’s first board of directors was chosen, Alexander Lewis, then mayor, was elected vice president. In the 1960s, after MHS created a hotline for lost pets, L-O-S-T-D-O-G, the first call was placed by Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh.
MHS also has a long history of developing humane legislation to better protect animals statewide, as well as developing harsher penalties for animal abusers. The passage of critical animal protection legislation often has taken years of effort and setbacks, introductions and reintroductions.
One of the Society’s first legislative successes was the passing in 1911 of a bill prohibiting the trafficking of old and worn-out workhorses. Sponsored by State Rep. Ward Copley, a lifetime supporter of the Society, the bill made it unlawful for any person to offer for sale or sell any horse deemed permanently unfit for work.
Over the last few decades, MHS’ legislative successes in Lansing have resulted in large part from the dedication and passion of the organization’s now-retired legislative lobbyist, Eileen Liska, who worked toward the passage of several key bills on MHS’ behalf.
In the final weeks of the 1995-96 legislative session, Governor John Engler signed into law three new bills that dramatically strengthened Michigan’s anticruelty laws into some of the strongest in the nation. Consequently:
- A person who kills their own animal or a stray animal can be charged with a felony.
- Juveniles who commit an act of animal cruelty must undergo a mental health evaluation.
- Dog fighting, cockfighting, observing such fighting, or breeding and training animals for such fighting is a felony offense.
- Judges can prevent abusers from ever owning an animal again. With the need for stronger sterilization policies to reduce pet overpopulation, MHS ensured they were written into state law. After years of work, and a veto in December 1995, a bill requiring sterilization of all animals being adopted from shelters in Michigan was finally signed into law in 1997 by Governor Engler.
During the 1990s, MHS experienced a spike in the number of large exotic cats that had been taken from people who had not figured out that these are wild animals and are neither pets nor guard dogs – animals such as lions, cougars and servals.
In 2000, after a prolonged effort in Lansing, MHS celebrated the passage of a ban on private ownership of large exotic cats and similar legislation banning the ownership of wolf hybrids and bears.
Today, MHS is pushing for laws to further strengthen the penalties for dogfighters, prevent puppy mills from setting up shop here in Michigan and more. Michigan is one of the national leaders in humane laws, but there’s always more work to be done, and MHS will continue its strong and effective leadership role in this area.
MHS IN THE COMMUNITY
Along with providing lifesaving services to animals in need, much of MHS’ daily work in the community is educating and promoting greater awareness of animal issues. Through adoption counseling, cruelty investigation, presenting adoptable pets in broadcast and print media, special events and, of course, humane education presentations, MHS has for decades taken a leadership role in promoting humane values.
Recognizing that children are the future of animal welfare, MHS started its humane education program in 1925 and, since then, has reached tens of thousands of students, scouting and other youth organizations, with lessons on responsible pet ownership, respect for animals, and safety around animals.
For many years, MHS has provided low-cost programs to help low-income pet owners keep their beloved pets. In 1991, MHS began offering an annual series of high-volume Protect-a-Pet clinics. Since their inception, the clinics have provided thousands of vaccinations annually to help keep those pets – and others in the community – safe from a number of deadly diseases. In recent years, low-cost microchipping services were added to the clinics.
In 1993, MHS co hosted the inaugural spring Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo pet adoption event in partnership with the Detroit Zoological Society. It was an instant success, and in 2001, a fall event was added. MHS welcomes animal welfare groups from across Michigan to participate in this, the largest event of its kind in the country.
With the ever-critical need for community sup-port, many of MHS’ largest annual events have been fundraisers, including the Mutt March, which began in 1989; the Bow Wow Brunch, in 1990; the Telethon, in 1997; and the Mega March for Animals – the largest walk for animals in Michigan – in 2006.
As in yesteryear, today’s MHS relies on community support to change animal lives.
MHS IN 2012 AND BEYOND
Today, your Michigan Humane Society is a strong, vibrant and constantly evolving organization that provides programs and services reaching tens of thousands of animals in Detroit and well beyond each year. Our founders surely would look with respect on what MHS has become today.
But that does not mean that MHS is resting on its laurels. MHS constantly is looking for ways to improve the services we provide to the community and the animals that need us every single day. We are in the preliminary planning stages on a brand-new Detroit Center for Animal Care. We’re continually building on our efforts to reduce the numbers of unwanted animals with bold, new sterilization programs, adding to the more than 270,000 animals that MHS has sterilized over the past 20 years.
But most importantly, we are working every day through our preventative efforts in the community to lower the number of animals who cannot be placed into a loving home. We’re also hard at work on efforts to lower the number of unadoptable animals coming to animal shelters and rescue groups – animals who are too sick, injured or temperamentally unsound. Too many animals in our community spend their lives without proper socialization, appropriate veterinary care, or ample food, water and shelter. Too often, we see dogs living on the end of a chain, forced to endure the bitter cold and extreme heat with nary a comforting word or a kind gesture.
Within the next few years, our foremost goal is to provide guaranteed placement of every single healthy and treatable animal that comes into MHS – either in a loving home or with a rescue partner organization.
Solving these and the other critical problems we face – pet overpopulation, cruelty and more – will require a community-wide effort. It’s something that’s bigger than any one organization or any one group. But it’s an effort that MHS continues to lead as part of the promise we made all those years ago – back when Rutherford Hayes was president and a ballet called “Swan Lake” was making its debut – a promise that means a bright new future for all animals in Michigan.