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Tag Archive | "50 animals die"

Family loses 50 animals in fire


This barn with a stray cat sanctuary burned on Monday, November 28, killing all the animals inside.

By Judy Reed

When Jody Willer did her final check of the night on the 15 cats and dozens of chickens, ducks and other fowl in their pole barn, she had no inkling that anything was wrong. But her whole world blew up just two hours later.

Willer and her young adult daughter, Kristeena, live with Willer’s brother, Bob Versluys, in the 8000 block of 20 Mile Rd, in Nelson Township. Willer, who is disabled, moved in there with her daughter after a divorce, and her life has revolved around taking in and caring for stray cats, as well as caring for the various chickens, ducks and geese. She had a “cat condo” in the barn, with a “cat camp” in a fenced in area in the yard behind it for the cats to play in. The birds had their own part of the barn, and were able to roam freely during the day.

“I went out to the barn about 7 or 8 and made a fire that night (in the wood stove) because I knew it was going to be cold,” she said. “At about 11 I went back to restock it for the night, and everything was ordinary. I never would’ve given it a second thought.”

Willer said she normally goes to bed about 11 but stayed up until about 1 watching TV. When going to bed, she noticed through the window that the mercury light at the barn was out. She told her daughter she was going out to check the breaker. 

When she got to the barn, she opened the first door with her key. When she went to open the inner door, she realized the handle was hot. When she opened the door, thick black smoke blew her back and the flames ignited. Willer said she screamed for her daughter, who came out and tried to break open a back window to get to the animals but couldn’t. Her brother, who happens to be the Fire Chief at Grand Rapids Township, was on the job in Grand Rapids and not home at the time.

According to Sand Lake Fire Chief Ed Holtzlander, the call came in around 1 a.m., and both Sand Lake and Cedar Springs responded to the scene. “We were there about an hour and a half,” said Hawkins. “There was tar paper in the roof, and we had to pull all that down.” 

All the animals perished from smoke inhalation. “We got all the animals out and buried them,” said Willer. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through. We loved our animals and treated them like grandkids. That’s 49 lives, so sad and traumatizing.”

The three oldest cats were 17 years old. “I got them from Cedar Animal Hospital,” she said. The oldest chicken was also 17 years old, she said. “They usually only live about 11 years,” she added.

For now, she’s at a loss with what to do with herself. “Taking care of animals gave me a purpose,” she said. “Thank goodness we kept some in the house, too,” she said, referring to the several cats that have the run of the house, including a two-month-old stray someone dropped off.

While the fire department felt it may have been a spark from the wood stove that started the blaze, Willer said that an insurance inspector called and said that he cannot rule out whether it was electrical or a spark from the stove, so he will be back out to continue to investigate it. 

Regardless, she said that when they rebuild, they would not have a wood stove in it, and plan to make it mostly concrete to allow any fire to burn itself out more quickly.

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