Local animal rescues in Northern Michigan are facilitating lifelong friendships for pets and people of all ages. From a senior duo who adopted each other to the TikTok rescue queen, learn about the stories that will inspire your next pet foster or adoption. Plus, tips on what to do if you find a stray or feral kitten.

They were known across Northern Michigan as the “dessert dogs,” the kind but emaciated souls rescued from a hoarding case in which some were chained outdoors for as long as two weeks with no water or food. The Cherryland Humane Society took in as many as capacity would allow and gave them the sweetest names the staff could conjure up—Brownie, Fudge, Mousse, Pie—as a way to provide some counterbalance, at least symbolically.

When Caitlin Davies of Traverse City’s Old Mission Peninsula met Pie, she knew there was a good chance that the husky and pointer mix—who cowered when approached but still managed a quick greeting—was meant for her.

Now “Banana Cream Pie” can reliably count on her evening kibble. Not just that, it comes topped with fresh-cooked chicken, shredded and placed on top. There’s an evening walk down her favorite country lane—her tail now up instead of lowered in fear—meticulously timed treat breaks and quiet nights at home like both members of the household prefer.

With the case of Pie, success came from Cherryland’s support combined with Davies’ background. Her training and work in mental health therapy and with autistic children helped her develop patience and understanding, and the structured work-from-home life she was already living was what this particular dog seemed to crave.

“I might have liked one with energy, but my brother always told me you have to find the pet who fits the life you have, not the life you want,” Davies says. “We get each other. I tell her all the time, ‘We’re just two ladies trying our best.’”

A dog sitting on his bed, surrounded by fluffy toys.

Photo by Courtney Kent

Regional rescues like Cherryland facilitate matches with tools like in-depth surveys. Are you easygoing in interaction with your animals, moderate or strict? Is your dream pet energetic, a quiet snuggler or something in between? What is your daily routine, who else lives in the house and what’s your training plan? Answers help the staff make a successful forever match. And after the adoption? Cherryland stays connected for additional “meet and greets,” training, questions and future needs.

When there was national news about shelters emptying at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because people stuck at home sought companionship with new pets, Northern Michigan rescues like Cherryland and the Charlevoix Area Humane Society kept their careful screening in place. As a result, there have been fewer than predicted animal returns. But, even given the high rate of adoptions during the onset of COVID, there is still a need for adoption and foster families.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” says Tia Barbera, the shelter animal welfare manager and animal behavioralist at Cherryland Humane Society.

“We have had a few fantastic months of adoptions, whereas six months ago our adoptions were a bit lower. There are some weeks when every single one of our kennels/condos are full. There are other weeks when we have over 20 pets in foster! We have also noticed recently more animal neglect/abuse cases, and we need more attention to help them recover and grow.”

A shortage of veterinarians and affordable spay and neuter programs has brought a boom in kittens in need of adoption, notes Anna Dickerson-Homan, who runs The Kitten Factory rescue in Higgins Lake. Without the ability for timely spay and neuter appointments, combined with some cats getting pregnant before appointments came up, the resulting need for both homes and TNR (trap, neuter and return) volunteers has spiraled.

Elderly couple with a black lab.

Photo by Courtney Kent

A national marketing expert by day, Dickerson-Homan uses her skills to meet those needs creatively in her Kitten Factory avocation. Using clever graphics, such as a cool cat with a martini glass, on merchandising like T-shirts, mugs and stickers, and videos that have grown her TikTok account to more than 100,000 followers, she turns the crazy cat lady stigma on its head while marketing kittens in need of adoption and reducing the stigma of taking in those with special needs.

Other shelters find similarly creative ways to facilitate connections. In Boyne City, the Charlevoix Area Humane Society offers a pet “check-out” program—much like you might a library book—for a companion on a walk or overnight snuggle time. There, seniors can adopt an adult cat for no fee at all, another win-win, says Executive Director Scott MacKenzie. This program makes adoption easy for those who’ve lost a life partner or been secluded, and easy for the pet, too.

“Maybe it’s projecting, but when (pets) know they’re going home, you can see there’s a spring in their step, and there’s enthusiasm in their body language,” MacKenzie says. “And when a bond is made between an adopter and one of these dogs, it’s so personally rewarding—you know it helped save a life not just in the dog but sometimes even the people.”

These Seniors Adopted One Another

Retired Boyne City residents Henry and Donna Erber knew when the pandemic began that their annual sojourns to Arizona would end and the resulting lifestyle would be a good fit for a dog—something they hadn’t had since their kids were teens. The perfect match was obvious when Henry, age 75, met Quincy, who is something like 112 in dog years.

“I was looking for a lab,” Henry says. “The staff (at Charlevoix Area Humane Society) said, ‘We’ve got just the one for you.’ They brought him out and he walked right over to me. I scratched his ears. He nuzzled up to us, and I said, ‘We’ll take him. He’s the dog we want.’”

Quincy first went into a shelter in southern Michigan when his owner went to prison; he’d spent nearly a year in cages himself before finding his forever home with the Erbers—as well as an unexpected mission. He keeps his new family in sight at any given time, the Erbers say. He’s a natural therapy dog as well.

“I have PTSD from Vietnam and health problems from Agent Orange,” Henry says. “He can sense when I’m having a problem, and he will not leave me alone. He’s right here tight against my side. When I’m sitting in my chair, he puts his chin on my knee and looks at me and tries to get real close. A couple of times I’ve fallen. He comes out of nowhere and shoves underneath me. He gets under my knees so I can push my body up from there. He’s a sweetheart of a dog. We dearly love him.”

Man sitting in chair with dog on ground next to him.

Photo by Courtney Kent

The TikTok Rescue Queen

In the town of Higgins Lake, just a few blocks from the lake where Anna Dickerson-Homan grew up vacationing, a kitty named Lisa sits on the ultimate cat perch with a view of squirrels out the front door window. But if she senses there’s a kitty in need somewhere in the house—or it’s time to play—she’s in the thick of things.

Lisa is a “foster fail” at The Kitten Factory rescue, but for important reasons. Lisa suffers from Manx syndrome—spina bifida, a missing tail and a deformed spine—and walks on her wrists with paws turned inward. She needs cushioning underneath her to play without injury and gets unusual medical support like acupuncture for pain relief. She also is both pet and brand ambassador for Dickerson-Homan and her husband Steve, who dubbed their rescue The Kitten Factory because they’d joke about how they were “producing healthy kittens” by taking in broken kittens, fixing them and sending them out like a well-oiled machine.

Woman feeding a kitten.

Photo by Courtney Kent

Lisa plays a role as big sister to every new foster kitten who comes into the home—and, at any given time, a half dozen or so are playing around the meticulous house/headquarters or climbing onto a human’s shoulder. And when kitty Lisa is giving new foster kittens a bath and literally tucking them into a box, it makes for a TikTok video that garners tens of thousands of likes and in the process dispels a lot of stigmas.

“By keeping my followers engaged with honest and educational dialogue, I take away what’s scary about caring for a kitty with special needs,” says Dickerson-Homan, “and turn the unknown into empowerment.”

Those who want to give to a cat in need can help in many ways—monetary donations for food and medical care, social media help, answering emails and adopting or fostering a cat or dog through The Kitten Factory or any local rescue. A foster parent might, like Dickerson-Homan does, read chapters of Harry Potter (a kitty favorite, or another of your choice) to get fosters used to different voice intonations or offer up a warm spot until one can be found at a shelter. The reward is the serotonin boost of things like kitten purrs—and much more.

“The world needs a little kindness, and that goes for humans and animals,” she says. “It’s important to end their suffering, and it’s as simple as that, I guess. Animals give back so much to us and are important to our mental health. To be able to give back to them and support them in a time of need is immeasurably important.”

Woman kissing cat on the head.

Photo by Courtney Kent

How to Foster a Pet Without Fail

Foster programs are one tool that local animal rescues use to help animals in need. In some cases, foster homes are needed just to open room in a shelter to save more lives, says Scott MacKenzie, executive director of the Charlevoix Area Humane Society.

In other cases, foster “parents” are sought to temporarily help with, say, a dog who needs regular medication or the tiniest of kittens who need to be bottle-fed every few hours.

And you don’t need to have a full-time rescue facility or be a full-time foster volunteer to offer fostering help, says Anna Dickerson-Homan of The Kitten Factory.

“Anyone can do it,” she says. “The thing I get a lot is, ‘You work from home, you don’t have kids.’ But truly anyone can do it. I have a friend with five kids who does. It might just look like opening a spare bathroom for a couple of weeks so a cat doesn’t die on the street. Fostering saves lives. If you can’t foster, adopt. If you can’t adopt, donate. If you can’t donate, support virtually. All is so critical to animal success.”

Find a Stray or Feral Kitten? Follow this Guide!

Assess the condition of the kitten. Is it in danger? Does it look ill? Is it injured or starved? If so, bring it to a vet or shelter immediately.

Orange kitten on a desk.

Photo by Courtney Kent

Determine age.
Google an “age map” to help you determine how old the kitten might be. If younger than six weeks, trap it, have it spayed or neutered and find it a good home. If you cannot afford to do that yourself, contact a rescue for help and explain the situation.

First, though, look for mama.
If the kitten is younger than six weeks and you’ve seen the mother in the last few hours, leave it alone and monitor from a distance. If mom is not around or doesn’t return, begin orphaned kitten protocol and contact a shelter.

Notify a local TNR (Trap, Neuter and Return) group of the found kitten or colony.
A local rescue can usually assist with identifying a TNR group.

Be persistent and creative.
During “kitten season” (April to October), shelters and rescues are sometimes full. Consider fostering if you have space—or even holding the kitten for a day or two until the shelter can find placement.

Source: The Kitten Factory

Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”

Courtney Kent is one-half of The Compass Points Here, a photography and videography company based in Traverse City. 

Photo(s) by Courtney Kent