By Karen Foulke Larson
Zoos provide opportunities to see unique animals, but where can children and adults go to touch exotic animals and ask questions about them? The Creature Conservancy, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization, provides that type of hands-on learning experience for children and adults.
The Creature Conservancy is located on Ann Arbor-Saline Road in the Copper Leaf Crossing Complex. Visitors driving by may stop to walk around the grounds, intrigued by the animals that are visible behind fences. They can see the fuzzy white Arctic fox, the colorful peacocks, and the barking deer. However, the majority of the animals, and arguably the most interesting ones, cannot be seen by an impromptu visit. Most of the habitats can only be viewed at special events. Other animals’ visibility is dependent on the season and/or the time of day, since most of the animals are brought indoors at nighttime.
If visitors attend an event at The Creature Conservancy, what awaits them is much more than just seeing animals behind fences. In the education center, audiences can view the animals up close and, in some cases, even touch them. It is a memorable experience for visitors of all ages and a chance to ask questions and learn about how animals live in the wild.
The Creation of The Creature Conservancy
In 2005, a ten-pound alligator was left in a crate at the doorstep of the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital. No explanation was given, but the staff speculated that the alligator was getting too large, too aggressive, and/or too expensive for his owner to keep.
At the time, there were few options for a homeless alligator. Zoological societies received animals frequently that owners regretted having as pets. Because Al was not afraid of humans and associated them with food, releasing him in a swamp would have been a potentially dangerous mistake.
Steve Marsh and his wife, Dr. Vicki Daldin Marsh, own Copper Leaf Crossing, a 23-acre complex which houses the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital, a medical facility specializing in exotic animals, as well as groomers, a boarding facility, and a dog park. The Marshs decided to give Al a home, and his arrival eventually led to the creation of The Creature Conservancy, which now occupies approximately 17 of the acres.
Soon Al was joined by a sloth rescued from a trailer park, a macaw whose owner never returned to pick him up from a boarding facility, ball pythons found in a dumpster, and iguanas found loose on the University of Michigan campus.
“It is easy to buy exotic animals online,” said Steve Marsh, the head curator of The Creature Conservancy. He said that exotic animals often just get recycled in the pet market.
Kim Ellis, Vice President of The Creature Conservancy and Mammal Curator, said, “People feel like they can tame an animal if they get it as a baby.” Of course, that isn’t the case. You can’t change the nature of an animal.
One owner didn’t realize the many reasons that a fox is not meant to be a pet, and a fluffy white Arctic fox named Burton came to live at The Creature Conservancy once his owner realized his mistake.
Marsh cautions that you have to “be careful about being too judgmental” about the pet owners who decided to purchase wild animals. He said everyone needs to think long and hard about all the factors involved in pet ownership before getting any type of pet.
Each creature has an interesting story of how it found its home at the Conservancy. The macaws were all previously pets. Owners relocated them for a variety of reasons — economic rescue, divorce, and a relative moving in who didn’t like their noise.
Life span is another factor that people often forget to include in their decision-making. Macaws may live 25 years, and a tiny little tortoise can grow up to be quite large and live 40 to 50 years.
Most of the animals are rescues, but The Creature Conservancy has acquired some animals to meet teaching goals. For example, giant toads and legless lizards are teaching tools for learning about the disruption of the ecological balance.
The Creature Conservancy also has exchanged animals with The Columbus Zoo. Two polecats are the newest additions from the zoo. The Creature Conservancy’s setting has some advantages for presenting animals, like a defined space, a constant setting, and the ability to have an animal in front of an audience for a short amount of time.
Commitment to Education
Even before The Creature Conservancy was started, Marsh used his work at Copper Leaf Crossing to educate the public. The nonprofit’s mission is “to work within our community to create personal connections between people, animals, and their shared environment. By bringing humans and animals together in educational settings, we hope to cultivate a greater appreciation for the animals with which we share this planet.”
In addition to educational events and tours, The Creature Conservancy hosts birthday parties as fundraisers. The birthday guests can choose from a long list of animal party guests. Ellis points out that people often choose the kangaroo or a sloth, but they may be even more fascinated by the opossum or a reptile and their roles in the ecosystem. Making a connection with animals helps people increase their awareness of conservation. Marsh said that, after meeting Pete the skunk, he hopes visitors will think differently the next time they see a skunk in the wild.
Marsh tailors his presentations to the attention span of the audience, but he clearly has a wealth of information and a passion for education. He enthusiastically takes questions and leaves his audiences with a new appreciation for the animals he introduces.
Home Sweet Home
So what does it take to feed and care for such a diverse group of species? A tremendous amount of food and hundreds of volunteers ensure the animals thrive. The organization is always grateful for monetary donations, food donations, and items from their wish list, which includes food, toys, cleaning supplies, and more.
It takes approximately 120 to 150 pounds of food per day to feed all the animals. That's an average of sixty individual meals per day (factoring in reptiles who eat less frequently, and about fifty meals per day just for the mammals and birds).
Whole Foods Market Ann Arbor on Washtenaw Avenue has been donating food three nights each week. That donation is a huge help, especially since it is the only food donation that is received on a regular basis. The Creature Conservancy purchases about eighty to one hundred pounds of produce per week, as well as all the dry feed for animals like turkeys, emu, and swans, plus pellets for kangaroos/wallabies and supplemental grain for the deer. Often, special events at the education center include a request for visitors to bring food for the animals to help with this enormous expense.
As a nonprofit without any paid staff, it would be impossible to keep a program of this scale open without dedicated supporters and volunteers. Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital, where Daldin Marsh is one of the veterinarians, donates the building space, utilities, and veterinary services, and many staff members volunteer their time on their days off from work.
Steve Marsh and Kim Ellis are responsible for the most volunteer hours with their efforts seven days a week. Both are modest about their roles and instead prefer to talk about the team effort.
Ellis, who also serves as the volunteer coordinator, praised the volunteers and their roles. The number of volunteer hours a week can easily reach 250, with approximately 100 hours of that time devoted to preparing food and feeding the animals. Volunteers come from a variety of lifestyles, including college students, professionals, and retirees who all share a love for taking care of animals.
Marsh and Ellis have long lists of duties and are dedicated to the care of the animals, but neither of them are satisfied with just maintaining what already exists. They both work hard to improve the habitats for the animals and the educational experiences of the visitors.
Growing Into a New Space
One of those improvements was a new indoor habitat for Al, the alligator brought to Animal Kingdom in a crate. He has grown since his arrival on the doorstep eight years ago and is now fifty pounds and five feet five inches. His new home is a beautiful space designed by Marsh, with a pond dug by Eagle Scouts. The walls are built from one-hundred-year-old recycled stall wood, and Marsh hammered each board in place himself. A boardwalk provides a space for Marsh to present information to people visiting Al. Rain water fed from a steel roof flows into his 3,000-gallon pond. Al loves his new home, which he moved into March 2013, giving him ample room to swim for the first time. He even started behaviors that were new for him like vocalizing.
The kangaroos, Tulip and Maybelline, also moved into their new enclosure in April 2013, and Marsh has plans to add viewing areas.
Camps at The Creature Conservancy
The Creature Conservancy offers week-long summer day camps for kids with opportunities for hands-on experience with exotic animals and science-based learning. Animal adaptations, social behavior, habitats, and conservation are part of a curriculum that is enhanced by visits with more than fifty different species of “animal educators.”
Five-year-old Jacob Carbone attended the half-day camp for kindergarteners last July. He loved it so much that he told his mom he wants to go back this summer for a two-week camp. His mom Debbie said, “I was very pleased that the camp not only taught the children about animals but they also incorporated games and art projects into the daily activities. The children were involved in many aspects of the camp, ranging from preparing the foods to feeding the animals to learning about their habitats and characteristics.”
Julie Gales’ daughters, Emma and Sophie, both loved camp. Gales said, "Our four-year-old attended a half-day camp last summer and came home bubbling with excitement each day. She loved Abner the emu, Tulip the kangaroo, and the two wolf pups. Her favorite time of the day was watching the animals get fed! I really loved how engaged she was from the minute she arrived until we picked her up at the end of each day."
Gales’ family has had many positive experiences with The Creature Conservancy. She said, “We have gone there for adult birthday parties and for Girl Scout field trips. It is always fun to see the animals and learn something about their habitat and their ecological needs."
Some schools have started choosing field trips to The Creature Conservancy instead of trips to area zoos. Ellis said that’s because visits include “an opportunity to see it, hear it, touch it, and ask questions.”
The first grade of Woodland Meadows Elementary in Saline has visited The Creature Conservancy for field trips for the last four years. First grade teacher Betsy Marl said, “Going to The Creature Conservancy is an amazing field trip right in our own community. As we get off the bus, we are often greeted by animals strolling around the grounds. The children have a rare opportunity to meet, touch, and learn about many exotic animals. Steve and countless volunteers do a wonderful educational presentation stressing the animals’ habitat, homes, diet, and the extensive care that many of them require. It's a field trip that will long be remembered by our first graders.”
She added, “The changes that have taken place at the Conservancy each year have been phenomenal. Each year gets better and better and we meet more new animals.”
The Creature Conservancy hosts several annual fundraisers, including a “Spooky Species” event that features classic Halloween animals like owls, ravens, and bats. On Valentine’s Day there is a Creature Courtship event for adults that provides interesting facts about animal courtship and procreation.
Many Creature Conservancy events have a suggested age for attendees, keeping in mind the attention span of the audience and the need for audiences to remain calm and quiet so that animals aren’t startled. Until recently, there hadn’t been opportunities for preschoolers, but The Creature Conservancy is trying a new weekly program especially for children ages two to five and their parents.
Ellis said that the children’s interest in animals often motivates parents to learn more, and in some case the kids are the educators. She recalled a conversation where a parent considered getting a turtle, and the young daughter countered, “Mom, that is a wild animal that lives for fifty years.”
It is possible to meet some of the Conservancy’s animals without going to their education center. The Creature Conservancy is a regular guest at The Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum’s Creature Feature fundraiser every October. Last year they brought 90 animals representing 28 species to the event! They also introduced people to over 300 Hissing Cockroaches.
The Creature Conservancy also does presentations for libraries, school groups, and companies by bringing animals to off-site locations. Marsh and the animals are often guests at The Ann Arbor District Library, with some programs for a younger audience and other events strictly for teens and adults. Laura Pershin Raynor, Youth and Adult Services Librarian, Ann Arbor District Library, said, "I'll never forget the time Steve arrived for a library program for children with his newly adopted young kangaroo named Tulip. The care and tenderness he showed her, along with the knowledge he had, was so impressive and touching. The Creature Conservancy serves as an excellent model for teaching respect of the natural world and all its fascinating creatures."
The library also hosts events specifically for teens and adults where they bring animals that can't normally handle larger, loud crowds of children. Erin Helmrich, Teen and I.T. Production Librarian, said, “The special programs that The Creature Conservancy offer for the teens and adults at the library are spectacular! …Steve is able to share tremendous amounts of detailed and fascinating animal information and offer a more intimate, and at times, hands-on experience."
Whatever the venue, the audience soon learns that these extraordinary animals that were once in need of permanent homes are more than tenants at The Creature Conservancy. They are educators teaching children and adults how to make informed decisions about choosing a pet and ambassadors bringing humans, animals, and nature together.
The Creature Conservancy is located at Copper Leaf Crossing, 4940 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, in Ann Arbor. The campus is open for self-guided walking tours as well as scheduled, docent-led tours 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays, and 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information about The Creature Conservancy’s upcoming events, signing up for a guided tour, volunteer needs, and their wish list, visit www.thecreatureconservancy.org or leave a message at (734) 929-9324. Camp registration starts in February.