It’s the dead of winter. We’ve had more single-digit cold nights than I remember for a long time. There’s so much snow piled up that it’s hard to find a place to put it. Spring looks faa-a-r-r-r away.
So it’s time for a story to warm your heart.
Over in Ann Arbor, the Humane Society of Huron Valley (not to be confused with the Michigan Humane Society) is run by a very bright and peppy woman, Tanya Hilgendorf. Toether with a group of community leaders like Sharon Rothwell, a top exec at Masco Corp. Tanya helped raise $8 million to build an entirely new shelter to replace the old embarrassment that was put up in the mid 1950’s.
Now the place is filled to the brim with cats and dogs awaiting adoption, puppies jumping up and down to attract attention and cats who are more reserved …but hopeful.
The shelter is crawling with volunteers to walk the dogs, and you can hardly get in the parking lot on Saturdays for all the families interested in a loving pet. A “Bountiful Bowls” program provides money to buy pet food for adopting families who can’t afford it.
Late last year, Hilgendorf caught an idea that had been successful at other shelters. Take hard-to-adopt dogs into the Huron Valley Corrections Facility, which houses some 1,200 female inmates in nearby Ypsilanti. Assign them to inmates for training in obedience, good manners and proper behavior. Have them stay for six weeks of obedience training, and then return to the shelter, far more adoptable. And hope the inmates in turn will learn something about what it means to take care of a loving and dependent being.
The first class of 10 started last November and graduated in December; of these, seven dogs have already been adopted. The next class graduates February 11. The program’s been so successful that Hilgendorf expects it to continue indefinitely.
“It’s been a win-win-win.” she said. “A potential adoptee says, ‘Wow, here’s an already trained dog with basic obedience. For the women inmates, the program gives them a sense of meaning and self worth, and it helps them grow compassion for others. And society benefits because inmates who go through the program gain a sense of self-worth,” which helps their changes of successful rehabilitation.”
They send to the prison dogs who are “behaviorally challenged, with bad manners, no or little training, but diamonds in the rough,” Hilgendorf said. They’re mostly larger breeds: Shepherd mixes, pit bulls or pit bull mixes, other big mutts.
At Huron Valley, the dogs are assigned a primary and secondary trainer, together with a handler. They live with the inmates 24 hours a day, but are always with a person and never left alone. They’re never assigned to an inmate with a record of animal cruelty.
“When the dogs to back to the shelter, it breaks your heart how much the women miss them,” says Hilgendorf.
“One of them told me her dog likes to be tucked into bed with his toy and his blanket, and he needs to hear that he is a good boy.”
Hilgendorf quotes prison officials who report the “amazing” impact the program has on the inmates, giving them meaning and purpose, learning to give and receive love. Inmates get terrific emotional impact of being able to take care of and nurture a creature – something seldom found in a prison. And, Hilgendorf says, “dogs give unconditional love. They don’t judge; they don’t care about your race, your condition, your past behavior. An inmate’s past disappears in the present of the relationship.”
I first learned about this when my wife, Kathy, who is on the board of the Humane Society of Huron Valley, showed me a copy of a letter Hilgendorf received from an trainer inmate who participated in the program: “In an environment where it is both illegal and detrimental to display any act of kindness, you have provided an outlet for us to reconnect with the human aspect of ourselves. For many of us, it has been years since we were able to openly be concerned for the condition of another. Who would have thought bringing broken animals to broken women to be ‘fixed,’ so to speak, would become an opportunity for us to heal?
“It is human nature to want to care for, comfort, and support another; in prison, acting on these emotions can cost you … this is our chance to reconnect and begin to feel human again.”
Unconditional love. The absolute staff of life, whether for animals or humans. And certainly the best way to face yet another single digit night is to be tucked into bed with your toy and your blanket and be told you are a good boy.
Anyone interested in learning more can contact the Humane Society of Huron Valley at 734.662.5585. The shelter is located at 3100 Cherry Hill Road, east of Ann Arbor.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.