Madison HeightsOctober 31, 2012
Memorial garden honors the lives of adopted animals
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
MADISON HEIGHTS — What was once weed-choked soil at the back of the Madison Heights Animal Shelter is now a flowerbed laced with the ashes of animals that were saved by the shelter and adopted out to loving homes.
At the center of the Sadie-Hero Memorial Garden, named in honor of two special-needs animals, is a bench donated by Kay Berry, Inc., which reads: “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”
The shelter, in a gravelly lot next to the salt dome at the Department of Public Services at 801 Ajax, had an 83 percent save-rate last year. They turn to euthanasia only when an animal is so aggressive that it would hurt humans or other animals, or when the animal is so ill, injured or malnourished that to keep it alive would prolong its suffering.
“Our save-rate percentage is extremely high,” said Madison Heights Animal Control Officer Suzette Gysel. “We’re very proud of that.”
It’s emotionally taxing for the staff and volunteers at the shelter trying to save every animal that comes their way, so the new garden is a source of relief for them as well, providing a sense of closure on the animals that have come and gone.
“We’re hoping pet owners will get some healing and peace,” Gysel said. “It’s also beautification for the shelter, making it more welcoming, and a reminder that animals have feelings and we take them into our lives. We’re honoring them by remembering.”
The garden was dedicated on Saturday, Oct. 20. Teary-eyed animal lovers gathered around as several individuals mixed the ashes of beloved pets into the garden.
One of them was Debbie Wilt of Armada, who brought the ashes of Sadie. The black Labrador-pit mix arrived at the shelter in 2006 and had behavioral issues that cast doubt on whether she’d find a home. But then Wilt, who rescues and fosters dogs, decided to adopt her the same year. She saw something special in Sadie and gave her a loving home.
That’s not to say Sadie was always easy.
“She was a bad girl,” Wilt said affectionately. “The first night I brought her home, I had to let my husband know, ‘Knock on the door before you come in because she’s a livewire.’ She was very temperamental and bit a few people, including my ex-husband and my dad. She was a naughty girl — I think she may have been abused at some point.”
Sadie was diagnosed with an illness in 2011 and it claimed her life this year.
Then there is Hero, the black chow that is the other namesake of the garden. He came to the shelter with a badly broken leg. Gysel was able to raise the $2,000 needed to fix Hero’s leg, thanks to Alexandria Whitney at Guardians for Animals: a connection that later led to GFA’s Pet Expo coming to Madison Heights, which it has done ever since.
Then it was a matter of finding Hero a home. One rescue knew just the right family.
Since 1981, Chris and Steve Kovich of Sterling Heights have adopted chows; at times, they have had as many as five at once. Recently, three of them passed away: one every other month in a six-month span. Hero was one of them, passing in June.
“He was my protector,” Chris said. “He was a protector, but he was a lover. Every time they go, they take a piece of your heart. I say to my husband, ‘I don’t know if we have any heart left,’ but we adopt more.”
Chris and Steve believe their pets live on in spirit, and that loving other animals shows love to the deceased ones as well. Madison Heights Police Lt. Corey Haines understands this sentiment. He and his family were at the dedication ceremony to add the ashes of their dog Astor to the garden. Lt. Haines was the city’s first K-9 handler, and Astor the first K-9 dog. They served as the K-9 unit for four years, and then for the next seven years, Astor was the Haines family pet, until he passed away in 2010.
Haines, now a father of two young children, said Astor was like his child before having children. The dog was around when Haines’ first daughter was born in 2009.
“He was a big part of our family,” Haines said. “This garden is a beautiful idea that Suzette came up with, for people to have someplace where they can come and reflect. Pets are very close, a very integral part of the family these days, more so than they used to be 20 years ago.
“I was very honored and very moved that they asked me to come be part of it,” Haines said. “It’s especially nice for my wife and I to be able to share this with the rest of the members of the community, and to see Astor’s ashes laid to rest as well. It’s never easy losing a pet.”
The dedication ceremony Oct. 20 not only marked the Sadie-Hero Memorial Garden, but the nearby Lois Vitale Victory Garden, as well, named for the 75-year-old Madison Heights resident who has been working at the animal shelter — first as a volunteer and now as a part-time city employee — for the past 25 years. She continues to come all 365 days of the year, even on holidays, making sure that the animals are properly cared for.
“She comes every morning,” Gysel said of Vitale. “She feeds all of the animals, cleans all of the pens, gives medication if needed, answers people calling in with questions, and more. If I have the day off or have a vacation, I know the shelter will be taken care of because she’s here. She has been a vital part of this shelter.”
Now people can come to the gardens to meditate on the love they shared with pets.
“People can bring some of the ashes or all of them, if they like, and spread them in the garden, and they’ll become part of the garden, helping to nurture it and grow,” Gysel said. “It’s kind of like life renewing itself.”
The Madison Heights Animal Shelter is located at 801 Ajax off John R between 12 Mile and 13 Mile, and can be reached at (248) 837-2784.
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