Armadillos in a basement, swans in a pond, sloths on the ceilings, kangaroos in a field, kids in a classroom, an alligator in a van. Is this place a zoo, an animal sanctuary, a traveling circus, or a school?
“It’s hard to put a name on it,” admits Steve Marsh, the president and head curator of the Creature Conservancy. “We’ve got zoo elements, nature center elements, but a classroom feel. If you figure out an easy way to describe us, let us know.”
The conservancy is a nonprofit located on a twenty-three-acre campus kitty-corner from the Washtenaw Farm Council grounds. Its entrance is framed by a windmill and small fenced dog park. Three farm-style buildings house the conservancy’s classroom, along with Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital, Dogwood Veterinary Referral Center, and Creature Comforts Bed & Bath. Inside, the sloths–Poco, Annie, and Slo Poke–hang beneath soaring cathedral ceilings. “People come here for years, and don’t realize that sloths are above them,” says Kim Ellis, conservancy vice president and mammal curator.
In warmer weather, black swans serenely glide across a nearby pond, while parrots perch in an outdoor aviary. Muntjac deer share another aviary with the vultures. In the winter, some birds and animals vacation in an oversized barn; others wait there for habitats to be built for them in the campus’s largest facility.
That enormous two-story building houses most of the animal residents–among them hissing cockroaches, iguanas, ball pythons, and Al the alligator. A habitat is currently under construction for the kangaroos, Tulip and Maybelline, and Benny, the Parma wallaby. Plans for porcupine, coyote, arctic fox, and red fox habitats are underway. As a work in progress, it’s not yet open to the public–Ellis says just when it will be is contingent on funding.
The animal passion behind the Creature Conservancy began, appropriately enough, with a romance. Vicki Daldin, a veterinarian with a lifelong interest in exotic animals, moved to Ann Arbor in 1988 to work at two vet clinics. She was prompted by friends to meet Steve Marsh, a Saline-based exotic pet store owner who also presented animal education programs. “I went to his store,” she recalls, “and we started to meet every other Wednesday for lunch and talk about exotic animals.”
The couple eventually married. Steve sold his pet store to finance the 1993 opening of Animal Kingdom, Vicki’s vet practice, in a small building at its current site. The 3,000-square-foot facility that replaced it was built in 2006. The Marshes worked together over the years to build the practice, with Steve handling the business side. Steve’s focus eventually shifted to being the househusband and chief of child care as they welcomed their offspring–Eli, now fifteen, and Ella, twelve–into their nest.
The Marshes’ romance with wildlife reached a new level of commitment on August 5, 2005. That morning, a wooden crate was discovered at Animal Kingdom’s door. Inside was Al the alligator.
At that point, Al already weighed ten pounds (he now weighs about eighty-six). The Marshes figured that, like many unwisely selected pets, he had been abandoned when he became too aggressive or expensive to keep. Rescue facilities couldn’t care for such a large animal, and zoos weren’t interested. But Al had no fear of humans, and that would have put him in danger had he been released in a swamp.
Al became the first of Creature Conservancy’s 590 residents (not counting the cockroaches). He now lolls about in his heated indoor cement swamp, surrounded with foliage native to his natural surroundings. A boardwalk leads to what will be his private outdoor swamp this summer.
The pristine landscape and buildings are a testament to the hard work of Steve, Kim, and the conservancy’s roughly three dozen volunteers. They’re using pickaxes to help create Al’s new swamp and other habitats, while wishing for a $5,000 trencher attachment for their Bobcat tractor.
Like Al, many of the animals are rescues. Slo Poke the sloth was found in a trailer park, while Benson and Miehiera, the arctic foxes, were poor pet choices for their owners circumstances. Two ball pythons were found in a Dumpster, other pythons and iguanas were left behind in U-M dorm rooms.
Steve and Kim’s multiple responsibilities–overseeing the animals and volunteers; maintaining and creating facilities; and running programs, events, and tours–leave little time for fundraising. Most of the conservancy’s support comes from Animal Kingdom and Creature Comforts, with Animal Kingdom also providing vet services. But the conservancy benefits from in-kind donations, including fresh fruits and vegetables from Whole Foods and occasional building materials and discounts from Lowe’s for specific projects. Chelsea Lumber also gives occasional discounts. Idexx Labs donates all lab services. Unsolicited gifts and a few small grants add a little more to the coffers. The conservancy’s tours, events, summer camps, and on-site and off-site educational programs also add income.
All the education programs involve human-animal interaction; a recent program at Google included two vans of select animals, along with Steve and volunteers. A preschool program began in January. The popular weeklong summer camps give elementary school kids the chance to learn about and meet the conservancy’s more than seventy-five species of animals, while taking on responsibilities such as building salamander habitats.
The public is welcome to tour the outdoor Wild Life Park and visit a wide variety of domestic and exotic animals at no charge, though donations are welcome. Behind-the-scene tours of the entire campus are available for a modest fee.
The Creature Conservancy’s mission, Steve says, is “to work within our community to create personal connections between people, animals, and their shared environment. It’s easy for people to kill one another because they demonize [each other]. We can easily do the same with animals, but when we personalize animals and teach people that they have homes, social drives, purposes, and communities just like them, it opens them up to saving animals and the planet.”
A self-described introvert, Steve nonetheless serves as the conservancy’s public face. His passion for its mission helps get him through presentations–but he couldn’t do it without the support of the animals themselves. “I’m really not much of a people person,” he says. “I can comfortably talk in front of ten thousand people if I’m holding an armadillo. If I’m not holding an armadillo, I don’t want to be there.”
The Creature Conservancy has relationships with multiple zoos, including a close one with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, as well as animal rescues and other animal-related organizations. Steve has appeared with Jack Hanna on the David Letterman show; Peter and Piper, the coyote pups he brought along, howled in his hotel room, mistaking the sound of Manhattan traffic for their welcoming siblings.
“It’s a privilege to work with these people and animals,” Steve says. As for the conservancy, “I like to think it’s going to be here long after we’re gone.
“We don’t think about what we get out of it, but what we can do for it.”