Pet a lamb, go to prison

Law and order in Ann Arbor is tougher than you think.


Monica Finch
February 10, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

When I moved from New York to the Ann Arbor area last
summer, I thought I had done my homework. I knew that the city is
considered the "Beacon on the Hill" of the Midwest. The
University of Michigan, educational nerve center of the region,
is known as the Harvard of the Midwest. Ann Arbor often is in the
Top 10 when magazines such as U.S. News & World Report conduct
their "most livable city" surveys. And, among its numerous
indisputable accolades, the city is noted for being especially
kid friendly. In sum, I knew Ann Arbor to be a progressive oasis
in a region some might be tempted to regard, at best, as
staunchly conservative or, less charitably, as downright
benighted.

My faith in the place was summarily shattered late last year by a
front-page story in the local newspaper. The city was vigorously
prosecuting Joni Strickfaden, a longtime owner/operator of Apples
& Pears Daycare Center. This was not a hideous
daycare-child-abuse sort of crime, nor was Strickfaden being
accused of any financial perfidy.

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Her offense? She brings newborn farm animals, including chicks,
to her daycare center as part of an annual springtime tradition
she has celebrated for more than 12 years.

This is not a NIMBY story either. Strickfaden's neighbors are
familiar with her baby animal program. They don't seem to mind.
But one day a woman drove by, saw children playing with a lamb in
front of the center and called the city's animal control officer.

Strickfaden was the victim of a drive-by snooping.

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It did not take long for the saga of Joni and her little lamb to
morph with Swiftian absurdity into a cause cilhbre. The district
attorney's office prosecuted the case with all the fervor and
tenacity of a pit bull chomping on a letter carrier's leg. With a
straight face and righteous indignation, the assistant district
attorney in charge of the case told reporters: "This lady is out
of control." He expressed fears that Strickfaden might next bring
in a "15-foot killer python, poisonous bugs or killer bees" for
the children to observe.

(His words, not mine, I kid you not. This isn't exactly a case on
which to build a professional career, let alone hang your hat.
Prosecuting a case involving kids and animals equals professional
self-immolation. Isn't that taught in Law 101? Maybe he missed
that day.)

As usual, the devil is in the details. Strickfaden's offense was
her violation of a city code that forbids the "keeping or
housing" of animals other than traditional pets. Strickfaden and
her supporters contend that the animals are not kept or housed --
they just visit for a few days. She insists that her intentions
are obvious and benign. She is not running a petting zoo or a
farm, she points out, and she is not some kind of animal
collector nut.

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In fact, Strickfaden's only mistake was to stick to her
principles and refuse to be intimidated. She fought the charges
-- to the tune of more than $6,200 in legal fees. The cost of
principle comes dear in Ann Arbor. And the cost to taxpayers
hasn't been reported. Strickfaden estimates the city pissed away
about $10,000 or $15,000 of taxpayers' money that could have gone
toward much better uses, such as park improvements or educational
programs. The toll in bad P.R. for the city is incalculable. Most
livable indeed.

Strickfaden fought for a jury trial and ultimately was acquitted.
A second trial was about to begin when the assistant district
attorney abruptly dismissed the case. It was heartening to see
how conciliatory and reasonable he became in the face of
escalating public ridicule. (In a scathing letter to the editor,
a wag wanted to know what the ordinance says about keeping a
"jackass" in the district attorney's office.) Apparently the assistant district attorney's
fears of things snakey and poisonous also had abated.

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There was some talk about the city council creating a resolution
that would exempt Strickfaden from the ordinance's
letter-of-the-law interpretation. After the charge was dismissed
last winter, she asked the council to review its proposal for a
resolution. To date, there has been no such action.

These days, with her money gone but her principles intact,
Strickfaden looks forward to spring. And so do the children. As
sure as the vernal equinox, she will bring baby farm animals to
the daycare center this year.

But Strickfaden may not have heard the last from the city of Ann
Arbor. At the close of the last legal go-round, the assistant
district attorney reiterated that the city's animal ordinance is valid and
will be upheld. Of his lamb-loving nemesis, he warned, "She risks
prosecution, if it's merited."

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It will be interesting to see what happens in a few short weeks
as crocuses begin to peek up from the ground and buds begin to
swell. I keep envisioning, irrationally perhaps, the district attorney
knocking on Strickfaden's door with a summons in one hand and a
jar of mint jelly in the other.

Ah, spring, when the sap -- all kinds -- runs exceedingly in Ann
Arbor.


Monica Finch

Monica Finch is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor. She would like readers to know that Strickfaden has established the Lamb Defense Fund to defray legal expenses at Great Lakes Bank, Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, MI, 48105.

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