Disabled veterans heal animals at Baraga petting zoo

BARAGA, Mich. (AP) — She held a baby bottle to the little fawn’s mouth, and as it stood above her feet, it peed all over the torn sneakers she was too broke to replace.

Diane Morin didn’t flinch. Her normal expression, eyes swimming in worry, didn’t change. She’d done this four hours ago, and would do it again four hours later, and so on for weeks, because that’s how often her new baby needed to be fed. And she didn’t want to disturb the skittish deer as it drank.

“Are you still going?” the 57-year-old said with gentle surprise to the fawn as it soaked her shoes, soaked the floor and soaked the paper towels she’d placed beneath it in the office of a fireworks store.

It was a chilly summer morning at Pete’s Petting Zoo, a single-acre animal rescue with a trail that winds under shady trees between clean, wire-fenced pens. Diane and her 65-year-old husband, Pete, started the zoo seven years ago as a tourist attraction next door to Morin Fireworks, their small family business, the Detroit Free Press (http://on.freep.com/2baji2Y ) reported. Here, they’d gathered dozens of stray, wounded and unwanted animals that were consuming more of their dwindling money, time and energy with each new arrival.

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They’d gotten the week-old fawn a few days before, when someone collecting firewood in the forest found it and contacted them. When an animal in the area needs rescuing, Pete’s Petting Zoo is pretty much the only place available to take it. And they rarely say no.

“His mother was killed, hit by a car, and some people called us,” said Laurie Hayes, 40, a manager of both the petting zoo and the store. “The baby was still in the woods beside her, just screaming.”

That meant yet another animal to care for, another drain on their strained finances. The zoo is free of charge for visitors, which means just about everything is paid for by the owners, who fund it from what they earn at their fireworks store. But there’s not as much of that income as there used to be, even in the summer — and try surviving on fireworks money in the dead of an Upper Peninsula winter.

That means sacrifices, like wearing sneakers with holes and tears in them. “My granddaughter comes first, my animals come second, and I’m last,” Diane explained.

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Pete and Diane are disabled veterans; both of them honorably discharged, both of them wounded physically and emotionally. They might say they do all this because they love helping animals. But in many ways, the animals actually help them more.

“If we didn’t have the animals,” Pete said, “both of us would be in a mental institution.”

Pete wakes up as the sun goes down. He can’t sleep at night. Hasn’t been able to since the war.

“Over in Vietnam, you get used to being up all night,” he said. “Nothing usually happened during the day. It was always at night. So you’re kind of wary about going to sleep at night.”

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Instead, he tends to the animals that might be awake — the deer, the mini-horses, some of the goats. And he stands guard for predators emerging from the darkness.

Pete grew up in Bay City, served a tour with the Army in Vietnam in the late ’60s, and came home permanently disabled. “Mortar. Got me in the back,” he said.

He moved back to Michigan, to the Ojibwa reservation where his father was born and raised, and opened a fireworks store in 1970.

At first, it seemed like a bad idea. The sound of exploding fireworks was jarring for a returning veteran. “It gets you really nervous when they start blowing them off,” he said.

“But there’s kids that had some fireworks down in Iron Mountain once, and the excitement I seen from those kids, I said, ‘Why not’? I wanted to do something for the kids, ’cause there’s nothing for them to do up here, except hang out in the woods.”

He started selling fireworks from the trunk of his car, then got a roadside stand, followed by a tent, then finally a full building. He and his wife live in an aging mobile home that’s parked between the store and the animal pens, with a 6-year-old granddaughter they took in and raise now.

They started the petting zoo in 2009 for her, and for the little kids who come to shop with their parents but get bored wandering the aisles of don’t-touch merchandise.

At first it was four goats. Then they got a chicken. And some ducks. And a peacock. There were two animal rescues nearby, but both closed, and most of those animals wound up at the fireworks store petting zoo. “It just progresses,” Diane said.

Now, they take care of nine sheep, six llamas, five mini-horses, five whitetail deer, four pygmy goats, four dwarf Nigerian goats, three mixed-breed goats, three potbellied pigs, two donkeys and a growing assortment of ducks, chickens, geese, guinea hens, rabbits and peacocks. It costs tens of thousands of dollars each year to pay for feed and hay and vet bills and the paychecks of a few employees, who sell fireworks, feed the animals and help clean the pens twice a day.

Because they’re on tribal land, they’re not eligible for state or federal grants or nonprofit status. They get a few hundred dollars a year from the Baraga County Community Foundation and a few bucks in donations sometimes from visitors. But the zoo is essentially funded using their Social Security disability checks and whatever income they make at the fireworks store, which is open 24 hours a day. In good years, they’re lucky to break even.

And still, they stubbornly refuse to charge admission.

“My goal was to make it free for people to come in,” Diane said. “There’s a hardship for money up here. The unemployment is high. And people with families, they can come here and they don’t have to worry about spending money. They can come here, they can bond with their kids, they can bond with the animals.

“There’s a lot of single fathers out here, and some of them say, ‘I don’t have money to take them anywhere.’ Well, they have no excuse now. They can come here, they can sit with the kids, for 50 cents, they can buy a little bag of food, and they can spend as much time as they want here.”

Diane walked through the pens one-by-one to say hello to all her animals. And at each stop, they’d gather around her like docile pets.

“Hey, Kisses,” she said to a large pot-bellied pig who waddled over and began chewing more rips into her sneakers. Diane didn’t move. “She’s just like my baby. I just love her to death.”

On days when there’s a lull in the work, she’ll spend a few minutes with each of the rescued animals — petting and talking to them like friends comforting each other. She needs this time with them. It’s the only thing that’s helped her so far.

Diane grew up in Pittsburgh, joined the Air Force and was stationed in Germany, where she was given the grim task of cleaning up fatal accident sites. “I was going to plane crashes and picking up bodies and things like that,” she said.

She moved to the U.P. and got a job as a guard at a mall, where she met Pete, who ran mall security. They got married, quit, moved to the reservation and sold fireworks full time.

But she couldn’t forget the plane crashes. “If I see something that triggers it, if I see something on TV — a burnt body or whatever — it starts bringing back flashbacks, a lot of memories. It’s really bad,” she said. She stood next to one of her donkeys, softly petting its face.

“It’s something I gotta live with, and this is how I deal with it. The animals are therapy for me. It’s very calming, you know, when you come down here and sit at the picnic table. You just relax.”

Both she and her husband found the animals’ presence soothing, so they gathered more and more of them — especially those that were somehow traumatized, or wounded.

A mini-horse with a birth defect in its leg. A blind goose. Two rabbits that had strokes and walk with sideways heads. A horse with a tumor. A bunny that can’t see. And Kisses the pig, who was kicked out of its litter and taken in by the couple, who let it stay the winter with them in their cramped trailer.

“A lot of these farmers, they’ll put down anything, and I don’t believe in that. I don’t kill,” Diane said. “People don’t want anything that’s not perfect. I don’t care if they’re not perfect. To me, they’re perfect.”

Terry Lerma, 58, a psychologist at a local college, came as a skeptical visitor but was so impressed by how happy the animals seemed that she wound up becoming the zoo’s tour guide. “It was the first private zoo that I’d been to that I didn’t come away feeling sick and depressed.”

She said the therapeutic effect of the zoo, whose animals are tame and friendly toward visitors, isn’t limited to the owners. Whole groups come to spend time with the animals.

“Other folks, especially the tours that come through from some of the group homes, it’s just a delight to watch the effect — folks who don’t normally talk will talk; folks who are very reticent usually get excited; the folks who are overexcited settle down a bit,” she said.

“The animals are very soothing. They’re a really positive influence on mental health, just like any pet would be. And everybody’s got their favorites.”

Back inside the fireworks store, the fawn staggered on unsteady hooves among the aisles of Black Cat firecrackers, Excalibur artillery shells and Roman candles. It peered nervously around each corner as Diane followed it protectively.

It was late afternoon. Pete was still sleeping. A pair of llamas sat outside on lookout for predators in his absence, ready to sound the alarm if one of the wolves or coyotes in the area approached. A woman wandered the trail with her toddler grandson, who was trying earnestly to speak to a horse, which replied by putting its face forward to be stroked.

A neighbor rode back and forth outside on a bulldozer, scooping from a massive pile of manure shoveled near the edge of the zoo. He offered to take it off the couple’s hands. “He sells it,” Diane explained. “Otherwise, it would cost me $400 to get it taken out.”

Every penny counts nowadays. They tried a GoFundMe page once, but few people know of the zoo, and the results were next to nothing. They’re trying again, reluctantly.

“We do what we can,” Diane said. “I don’t like to ask for help.”

Costs rise every year because the couple won’t release their tamed animals into the wild, so their numbers never dwindle. They could get hit by a car, or unknowingly approach a hunter, she said. “I just don’t want somebody killing something that I’ve been raising, you know? They’re here for good. They’re not gonna go anywhere. This is their home now.”

It was feeding time, again. Diane bent over, picked up the fawn and took him to the back, where it laid down and snuggled against a child’s stuffed animal in the fireworks store office, now taken over by this new arrival to the family.

“I’ve gotten frustrated a couple times, thinking I can’t do this anymore, ’cause where are we going to come up with the money?” Diane said, reaching down to feed her new baby. “But we just keep going.”