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News: Guest Posts
Shelter Reseacher Needs Your Assistance

Bark Readers input needed – animal shelter adoptors, shelter volunteers, shelter leaders & employees –www.surveymonkey.com/s/animalshelteringstudy

As 2013 comes to a close, my husband and I, along with our new dog, Cuddles, are enjoying a week at the beach. Tybee Island, Georgia, is our favorite get-away with plenty of pet-friendly shops, restaurants and dog walking lanes but our vacation this year is bittersweet. We always take our Chihuahua, LeStatt staying in a pet-friendly cottage on the beach but this year is different. We lost our little boy to heart disease several months ago and considered cancelling our plans because it was so difficult to go without him. Then a lost dog wandered into our yard and though we managed to find her owner, Joe and I came home with a Pomeranian named Cuddles. Our vacation experience has been so much more special because we are sharing it with our new dog. I’m sure many Bark readers feel the same way about their companion animals but sadly, many homeless dogs and cats aren’t as lucky. For healthy homeless cats and dogs in shelters across the U.S., the number one cause of death is euthanasia and to help address this problem, I have focused my graduate sociological research on companion animals held in shelters. My current research focuses on gender and leadership in animal sheltering and the impact it has on euthanasia rates. Here is the part where YOU can help me gather data nationwide. I'm looking for animal shelter directors, employees, volunteers and people who have adopted a shelter pet to complete an online survey. If you have a few minutes, read through the information below and click (or copy and paste) the link which will take you to a survey where you can help build this important database!

Leadership in Animal Sheltering Organizations

Be part of an important animal sheltering research study

  • Are you older than 18?
  • Are you a current or former animal shelter director, current or former animal shelter employee or volunteer or have you adopted an animal from an animal sheltering organization?

If you answered YES to these questions, you may be eligible to participate in an online survey on animal sheltering research study. You may also consent to take part in an in-depth interview beyond the survey if you so decide.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/animalshelteringstudy

The survey will take approximately 15-20 minutes to complete. No names or organizational names are requested unless you wish to be contacted for an individual telephone or internet interview. The purpose of this research study is to examine leadership in animal sheltering organizations and the impact on policies in the sheltering organizations.

This study is being conducted at University of Louisville, Department of Sociology, Louisville, KY 40299.  Please call Jennifer Blevins Sinski at 1-502-852-8046 for further information or email jbsins01@louisville.edu

 

Bark Magazine understands the importance of research and data and provided me with the wonderful opportunity to learn more in my capacity as an intern this semester. They work hard to bring their readers the most recent, important research on our canine family members (and our feline friends as well).

What a wonderfully busy and productive semester this has been! The highlight of my experience was attending Best Friends Shelter’s “No More Homeless Pets” conference held in Jacksonville, Florida in October. I'm happy to say that I'm not the only data nerd out there. Judging by the number of sessions held during the NMHP conference that focused on improving data collection for animal sheltering organizations, animal welfare groups understand that data can make or break efforts to “Save Them All.” Granting agencies want to see strong programs that are mission lead, well organized and able to prove effectiveness by data-driven measurement. Organizations like Maddie's Fund, PetSmart Charities and others are working to develop common measurements, assessment and quantitative analysis that can be used throughout the animal welfare community. Community wide collaborative efforts which marry public and non-profit private organizations require a shared data language that can allow all agencies involved to clearly measure effectiveness. 

In my own home of Louisville, Kentucky, Louisville Metro Animal Services joined forces with the Kentucky Humane Society and Alley Cat Advocates to develop shared efforts to significantly reduce euthanasia rates of companion animals.  This shared data language allowed the community partners to successfully write and fund a major grant awarded by the ASPCA. Now the agencies work together, sharing data and adjusting programming to help move Louisville towards the goal of 90% live release rate.

Learning data speak isn't easy and when saving them all takes most of our time, sometimes data collection isn’t the first thing on our to-do list. But conferences like Best Friends Society's No More Homeless Pets provide opportunities to demonstrate ways to become data guru's and who better to learn from than an organization that truly understands the importance of data speak.

My passion about animal sheltering data was ignited after a truly eye opening experience I had last summer. As part of my research, I submitted open records requests to each of the 120 counties in Kentucky asking for the data that they were mandated to keep by a 2004 law passed in Kentucky. While I found that some counties worked hard to maintain current, accurate records, others struggled to accomplish this. Not because they didn't care but because they hadn't learned the how-to's of data collection. Conferences like 2013 NMHP provide a wonderful opportunity to learn from others in the field; a chance to make connections with organizations that will help develop an industry wide set of "best practices" for data collection.  While data isn't as cute and fuzzy as kittens or smell as sweet as puppy breath, it will help to save the lives of puppies and kittens daily. 

Thank you for your help with my research!

Jennifer Sinski  email:  jbsins01@louisville.edu

 

 

News: Karen B. London
AniMeals on Wheels
Helping vulnerable people feed their dogs

Low income means tough choices. Should I buy medications or heat my home? Do I pay my rent or buy shoes? Who gets to eat—me or my pets?

It’s this last question that inspired volunteers with Meals on Wheels to add pet food to deliveries for seniors and disabled individuals who are at risk of hunger. People who were taking food to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities noticed that many of them were doing without the food they desperately need in order to make sure their pets had something to eat.

As dog lovers, this is no surprise to most of us. Many of us have a “my dog eats before I do” mentality in the event of economic stress, but not all of us have had to act on it. Once volunteers became aware of this new threat to adequate nutrition for the people they serve, they became enthusiastic partners with a program called AniMeals on Wheels.

This program allows volunteers to deliver pet food along with the meals they bring to human clients. It relies on donations and volunteers for all pet food and deliveries and involves collaborations with a number of pet programs in multiple states. Despite the popularity of the program and the huge amount of food donated, the need is even bigger. They are never in a position where they don’t need more donations of pet food.

AniMeals on Wheels is one of many programs nationwide that seek to address the problem of hunger in both people and dogs. It’s important to understand that until there is enough food for their pets, the problem of hunger in low-income seniors and the disabled will not be solvable.

News: Editors
Baby Squirrel and His Dogs

A wonderful pictorial story of a very unique animal rescue—amazing how the dogs took to this little baby squirrel.

 

News: Shirley Zindler
Sweet Dreams Georgia
Georgia with Tim Racer of BAD RAP

The world said good-bye to one of Michael Vicks former fighting dogs this week as she succumbed to age related illness. Georgia became quite a celebrity after her rescue and left her mark on all who knew her. While I never had the opportunity to meet her, I’ve been told that Georgia was delightful and unforgettable.

I have to confess that when I first heard that some rescue groups were going to see if any of Michael Vicks fighting dogs could be saved, I disagreed. It didn’t make sense to me try and save dogs who had been bred and trained specifically for fighting when friendly, healthy dogs who had never been trained to fight were being euthanized all over the country every day. I love the breed, and was broken hearted by what they had been through, but I still thought it safest to let them go.

In the years since that terrible event, I have had the good fortune of meeting several of Vicks former dogs and I fell completely in love. The dogs I met were affectionate, happy, typical dogs who loved people and wanted to play with other dogs. Saving the Vick dogs ended up being a fabulous choice on so many levels. It is a reminder that all dogs deserve to be judged on their own merits, not by breed or history. It also brought a great deal of attention to all canine victims of dog fighting and gave some wonderful animals the love and happiness all dogs deserve.

Georgia was heavily scarred from fighting and was one of those who could not live with other dogs but she had a vast number of human friends who adored her. Georgia and the other Vick dogs were originally rescued by the amazing BAD RAP (Bay Area Dog-lovers Responsible About Pit-Bulls) rescue group. They traveled across the country hoping that a small number of the dogs could be saved. Instead they found that very few of the dogs were aggressive and many even enjoyed other dogs. BAD RAP evaluated the dogs, helped care for them and facilitated their eventual rescue and placement.

Some of the dogs that were unable to be adopted at that time were sent to foster homes and sanctuaries. Georgia went to Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, where she received much needed attention and training. She eventually passed her Canine Good Citizen test and was adopted into a loving home.

Georgia spent the last two years of her life as the beloved companion all dogs should be. When I think of Georgia, I try to remember one of the best lessons of dogs, which is to live in the moment. Georgia didn’t dwell on the past but lived joyfully in the moment. She was described as exuberant, confident and full of life.

Sweet Dreams Georgia and a huge thank you to all who helped her and the other Vick dogs get a second chance.

News: Guest Posts
The Senseless Killing of a Malamute, Mistaken by a Hunter for a Wolf

A Missoula man is living my worst nightmare. My heart goes out to him.

On Sunday, November 17th, Layne Spence took his three family members – Malamutes  Rex, Frank and Little Dave – out into the forest near Lolo Pass in Missoula County for some recreation. They drove to a campground that is closed for the winter. Spence was x/c skiing while his dogs did what Malamutes love to do – trot up the road just ahead of him, enjoying the snow. Because it’s hunting season, Spence’s dogs each wore a special collar with lights.

Suddenly, without warning, their peaceful winter outing was destroyed by the sound of gunfire—as reported in the local paper—two quick, muffled shots. Horrified, Spence watched Little Dave’s rear leg explode just yards ahead of him on the road. Yelling “Stop! Stop!” to alert the shooter, Spence stood helplessly on his skis as the camo-wearing hunter quickly fired four more times at Little Dave, with at least one bullet piercing the dog’s neck, killing him. The hunter then came down out of the trees, saying he thought Little Dave was a wolf and asked if he could do anything. Spence did exactly what I would have done—screamed at the guy to leave. 

In 2005, my Malamutes Maia and Meadow and I moved to the West Central Mountains of Idaho, a rural ranching and logging area adjacent to the Payette National Forest, just outside the tourist town of McCall. Wild wolves had recently been reintroduced and were gaining a toe hold in the State, over the vocal objections of many Idahoans, including most hunters and ranchers. I had been living in the Seattle area, where strangers were always interested in meeting my girls, rarely showed fear and never thought they were wolves. In Idaho, I discovered the opposite was true: most locals assumed they were wolves, were immediately afraid of them, and only with reassurance from me that they were dogs— very friendly dogs—would they come closer to meet them. One of my new neighbor, a rancher who—like so many there—bought grazing allotments from the forest service and grazed his cattle in the Payette every summer, letting them roam freely, making them possible targets for wolves—assured me that no one would mistake my girls for a wolf, that wolves have longer legs, don’t hold their tails curled up on their backs, etc. I wanted to believe him, but…I couldn’t, based on the fearful reactions the girls kept eliciting. A couple years later, as I was walking my girls on leash up a country lane, this same neighbor stopped his truck beside us. Without preamble, he pointed at Maia, the one who looked most wolf-like, and said, “I shot a wolf that got into my cattle yesterday. It looked just like that one.” He then drove away. I felt threatened and didn’t sleep easy for weeks.

During my time in Idaho—2005 through 2008—wolves were still protected as an endangered species and it was illegal to hunt them, although they could legally be shot if they “worried” livestock or threatened a pet. Despite those protections, I quickly learned that most locals would shoot any wolf they happened to see in the forest, any time of year, the Feds be damned. They bragged about it, or wanting to do it. So I made sure, any time I took my girls hiking or trail running in the forest, they stayed very close to me. During hunting season, I covered them in orange and even then—because I feared they would still be mistaken for wolves—I took them trail running in the only two nearby places where hunting was always illegal, a State park and a ski resort. I referred to their orange vests as “Do Not Hunt Me” vests. In fact, my fear was so great, I embellished the first vests I found (ironically sold by gun manufacturer Winchester to be worn by bird hunting dogs) by adding several lengths of orange flagging tape to their collars. The vests had nothing covering their chests so that head on, my girls could still be mistaken for wolves. Eventually I found bright orange vests made by VizVest that covered virtually their entire chest, backs and sides. I relaxed only slightly.

By 2008, it became clear wolves would lose federal protection and hunting them would be legalized in Idaho. Despite my love of the breed and having at least one Malamute in my life since 1985, I vowed that if I continued to live in Idaho I would not get another because the stress of worrying they’d be shot was too great. When I did add another dog to my family in 2008, I got an Aussie—a ranch breed no hunter would mistake for a wolf.

Trying to understand everyone’s perspective, I asked lots of questions—of locals, hunters, fish and game experts. Here’s my opinion, based on those conversations and living with the issue in a far-too-intimate way: Hunters out to kill wolves do so based on myth and fear. Their motivation is far different than the typical game hunter. Wolf hunters aren’t hunting for food, or even a trophy (although there are some really sad people out there who consider wolves a trophy animal and pose proudly next to one they’ve killed). An ethical elk or deer hunter will aim carefully to take the game with one shot; they don’t want the animal to suffer, nor do they want to follow a wounded animal over rough terrain to finally kill it. Many give thanks to the animal for the food it will provide. But a wolf hunter? They want wolves to suffer, they want to exterminate the species all over again. Wolf hunters seem motivated by an intense, almost irrational hatred borne of fear, believing wolf actively seek to kill humans. When I was building my house in Idaho, a concrete contractor told me with a straight face that the wolves the Feds were forcing on Idaho would come down onto school playgrounds and snatch children. (When I asked my 80-something father, who as a Kansas farm boy grew up hunting, why people were so afraid of wolves, he replied with his usual insight, “I guess they still believe in fairy tales.”)  Add to that fear a strong anger based on the misguided belief that wolves are decimating elk populations, making it harder for hunters to find them. (This hunter complaint is common, despite research in Yellowstone showing that reintroducing wolves improves overall herd health, and reduced elk populations allow aspen trees decimated by the elk to thrive once again, returning the entire ecosystem to balance.)

Mix misinformation (myth), fear and anger and you have a combustible combination leading to rash, irresponsible shootings like the one that killed Little Dave.

I moved back to western Washington in early 2009. By then, wolves were delisted and states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were eagerly issuing hunting tags for them or planning to do so. Idaho’s governor boasted he wanted the first tag. The blood lust for wolves was palpable, and for me, sickening. Locals complained how the wolves didn’t belong in Idaho, saying they weren’t even “native” which totally ignored their extermination decades earlier. Rumors spreading around town of the evils perpetrated by wolves grew to fantastic proportions. As one sympathetic dog-loving friend said to me, “It’s like religion. They believe what they want to believe and can’t be persuaded they might be wrong.”  It was clear to me that tragedies like that suffered by Little Dave and Layne Spence were waiting to happen in any state allowing wolf hunting.

Even more tragic for Mr. Spence? There’s nothing the State of Montana—the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department nor local Missoula County law enforcement—can or will do. Apparently the shooter had a tag for wolf hunting, the season in Montana for wolves in all winter long (September 15 – March 15), and the killing occurred in an area where hunting was legal. (If Montana is like Idaho, legal hunting territory is pretty much everywhere outside city limits.)

However, Mr. Spence may have a civil cause of action against the hunter for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional trauma—seeing his beloved pet shot and killed on a public road—depending on Montana’s statutory and common law. I hope he finds an animal law attorney and pursues it, because these sorts of cases, whether won or lost in the early rounds, can slowly change laws and people’s perceptions of what’s okay and what isn’t. When the pets we take onto public lands with us are afforded the same protections from harm that we are, others will be more careful. There are better, safer ways to “manage” wolf populations than issuing cheap hunting tags to people whose hatred and fear turns them into vigilante exterminators, overcoming their ability to hunt safely.

Read the original article in The Missoulian on November 19th, which has since posted several follow-up articles.

 

 

 

 

News: Shirley Zindler
Dog Friends

I've always been fascinated by watching dog friends together. They play, they cuddle, even lick each other. Many dogs are very bonded with their fellow canine housemates but its funny how sometimes dogs have a special friend who doesn't live with them. I love to see how dogs will find a friend at a dog park or other social gathering and pair up, just as people connect with certain other people. Once they've connected, when they see that dog again, they rush toward each other joyously and spend all their time together until they must part.

My own dogs enjoy each other very much although any of them will gladly ditch the others for a day out with me. They do sometimes find another dog who fascinates them for whatever reason. I once had a large spayed female Borzoi who was rather reserved with most new dogs but small intact male dogs were her thing. Let some little un-neutered Chihuahua come along and she was head over heels, acting flirtations and comically silly. My current dogs love to meet and greet other dogs at the off-leash beach. Occasionally one of them really hits it off with another dog for no rhyme or reason but it's always fun to watch.

I recently had the joy of watching two young dogs meet each other for the first time and make that instant connection. One dog was Lily, a one year old, Pointer/Lab mix who I had fostered since birth and who was adopted but back for a short visit with me. The other was Spur, a friend's five month old Cattledog pup. They were in a group of other dogs of all ages and sizes but the two youngsters bonded immediately. My friend and I must have sat for a good hour watching them wrestle, run together and thoroughly enjoy themselves. They paid very little attention to the other dogs and spent the entire time in close physical contact. I don't think they ever got more than a few feet apart and their play was spontaneous and joyful. There was no posturing for dominance, no competition or concern for who was in charge, just dogs having fun with each other. It was a delight to witness.

Does your dog have a special canine friend?
 

Dog's Life: Humane
Black Dogs Face a Hard Choice at Shelter
Don't judge a dog by his color

Editor’s note: Best Friends Animal Society is kicking off their annual Back in Black 2013 campaign dedicated to finding great homes for black dogs and cats. It’s a reminder that a stigma can follow adoptable animals who are black, as they often wait longer to find their forever homes. Special adoption events will be hosted throughout the month by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, our Los Angeles and Salt Lake City adoption centers, and participating No More Homeless Pets Network partners around the country. To learn more visit bestfriends.org.
 

When Tamara Delaney of Woodville, Wis., volunteered to find a home for a black Labrador Retriever named Jake last year, she had no idea what she was up against. Jake, cared for by a rescue group, had already waited nearly three years for a new home. And he would wait eight more months as Delaney tried to find someone to take in the big Lab.

It didn’t matter much that Jake was a sociable dog and in perfect health. Jake’s problem wasn’t his temperament—it was the color of his coat. Jake bore the stigma of the “BBD,” an acronym used to refer to big black dogs, who are frequently passed over for flashier, prettier dogs and wind up, like Jake, waiting for years to be adopted.

“Nobody wants a black-coated dog,” rescue workers told Delaney as she tried without success to find a home for Jake. And when Delaney turned to the Internet, she found that shelters across the country were overflowing with black-coated mutts.

“Please don’t overlook our black dogs,” rescue groups pleaded on their home pages above pictures of Rottweilers, Chows and Labs sporting bright bandanas. One shelter’s website just came right out with the grim truth: “The general public is not aware of how doomed black dogs are when they are brought to a pound.”

The more Delaney learned about the numbers of black dogs in shelters, the more determined she grew to make a difference—one black dog at a time. She started by adopting Jake, the overlooked Lab. But Jake would not be the only black dog in Delaney’s life.

Her newly acquired insight into the plight of the BBD inspired her to create a website devoted to them. Last November, Delaney launched www.blackpearldogs.com and named her new site “Contrary to Ordinary: The Black Pearls of the Dog World.” Since its inception, the Black Pearl Dogs website has been visited by more than 7,500 people.

“I’m starting to become a middle-person between shelters and rescues, to get their black dogs off death row,” says Delaney, whose inbox fills with email from shelters and rescue groups asking her to post pictures on her website of black dogs who were passed up on the way to the Golden Retrievers.

When Amy Chase read about Delaney’s Black Pearl site on an Internet message board this spring, she had a big black dog of her own to worry about. Five months earlier, animal control officers had dropped off Mickie, a Newfoundland mix, at the Ohio County Animal Shelter in Rising Sun, Ind., where Chase works. Looking for ways to make Mickie more interesting to those who visited the shelter, Chase highlighted his Newfie heritage, but nothing seemed to work.

To potential adoptors, “He was just another big, black, hairy dog,” recalls Chase. Mickie was scheduled for euthanasia in May, so Chase contacted Delaney, who in turn posted Mickie’s picture on the Black Pearl website. She also cross-posted it on other adoption sites, including Jen Wold’s Gemini Rottweiler and Pit Bull Rescue, where Delaney had found Jake. Before long, Mickie was no longer just another black dog, but the focus of three optimistic women and their commitment to finding him a home.

Most black dogs have to rely on shelter staff and volunteers to steer potential adoptors their way. And indeed, many shelters take extra steps to make black dogs more adoptable, according to Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. Teaching the dogs tricks, putting placards on kennels highlighting the dog’s personality (“I may just be a black dog, but I know how to balance a biscuit on my nose.”), making sure multiple black dogs aren’t kenneled next to one other—anything to catch the eye and imagination of potential adoptors.

“I’ve had to turn away many black dogs because I can’t fill the place up with them,” says Jill Wimmer, shelter manager at PAWS Atlanta, that city’s oldest and largest no-kill shelter. “And every one I turned away had a great temperament.” Wimmer knows that she can likely adopt out three dogs in the time it takes to find a home for one BBD.

Delaney’s advocacy for Mickie eventually paid off when Shonna Crompton of Ada, Minn., went online in April and came across Mickie’s forlorn face—stamped URGENT—on Wold’s Gemini Rescue site. “I couldn’t just let him die,” says Crompton.

In May, Delaney, Chase and Wold arranged for a network of volunteers to transport Mickie nearly 500 miles from Rising Sun, Ind., to Madison, Wisc. Crompton’s husband Shane drove Mickie another 400 miles to his new home in northern Minnesota. “His hip bones were protruding and his belly was sunken,” recalls Crompton of her first meeting with Mickie. “But he just sprawled out on the grass like it was the best feeling on the planet.”

Right now, Delaney is feeling pretty good herself, and hopes that her website, which is filled with black-dog facts, convinces more people to give a BBD a chance. She works for all the black dogs waiting in shelters and foster homes, and for the ones who never got a chance to know what it was like to play and be loved, she says. “I mostly just hope it helps people become aware of how overlooked and underadopted these dogs are,” says Delaney. “I had one person tell me, ‘Thank you for being an advocate for the black dog, because nobody else is.’”
 

News: Editors
National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month

In honor of National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month the good people at The Humane Society of the U.S., Maddie’s Fund, HALO, Purely for Pets and the Ad Council (the country’s largest producer of public service advertising) have produced an online video series,  “Meet My Shelter Pet,” to inspire shelter dog adoptions. These charming videos are part of their larger campaign to change people’s perceptions of shelter animals, and ultimately increase adoptions across the country.

Their series leads off, appropriately, with none other than Late Night with David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, with his daughter Victoria talking about their amazing four adopted dogs.

Would love to hear from you why you picked your shelter dog, and what encouraging words you would give to someone thinking of adopting a shelter dog. It really is up to all of us to get the word out!

 

News: Shirley Zindler
The Best Things About Dogs

In my job as an Animal Control Officer, I spend 10 hours a day working with dogs and then come home to a houseful of my own dogs. I love dogs and it’s such an honor to spend my life in their company. Anyone who has a close relationship with a dog would likely agree that dogs share many of our emotions, social needs and characteristics. Dogs are often our closest non-human companions. Horses, cats, birds and some other animals can bond very tightly to humans too but dogs most consistently choose to willingly follow us on almost any adventure or trial.

Studies have shown that dogs communicate better with humans and understand us better than any other animal on earth. In studies asking multiple species including dogs and non-human primates to interpret human body language to find a treat, only dogs understood human communications consistently.

People get very excited to think of dogs as little people in fur coats but I find the best thing about dogs is their very “dogness.” I have a lot of wonderful people in my life but sometimes no one can comfort or share a day with me in the way a dog can. My human family loves me but they don’t go into transports of delight ever every time I walk into the room. When I get home from work and my dogs greet me and then I take them for a run, I can feel the stresses of the day start to fade. They race and play with the same joy and abandon every single day.

Dogs live so fully in the moment. They never say, gee, I’m tired of this same walk, same ball chase, same Dog Park etc. It’s new, and fun, each time. Dogs find joy in the simplest of things. Just about anything I want to do, my dogs think is a blast. My wonderful friends and family are great to spend time with but they aren’t always available, or don’t always want to do the things I want to do. My dogs have never once said no thanks or I’m not in the mood, to a car ride, a hike, a cuddle or any other adventure. Not once.

Dogs are the perfect blend of similar enough to us enough to enjoy most of the things we do, and unique enough to be fascinating in their own right. Dogs are just perfect as they are.

Let us know what special “dog” things your furry companion does that make you glad he’s a dog.

 

Dog's Life: Humane
Animals Among the Inmates
A Louisiana prison’s shelter/adoption program.
Inmates staff the country’s only prison shelter

Drive along a narrow country road 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, La., the late-summer morning filtering through the leaves as you pass acres of cow pasture and a few small churches, and you’ll come across a white picket fence leading to the last thing you’d expect to find: a mediumsecurity prison. First comes the octagonal guard tower, peeking over the trees, then the blocky brick buildings and drab exercise yards enclosed by chain-link fencing topped with curly razor wire, 15 feet high. You’ve reached the Dixon Correctional Institute, home to 1,600 inmates whiling away everything from a few years to life. That’s where I found myself in early September 2012. I hadn’t come to visit the inmates. I’d come to see the cats and dogs.

When Hurricane Katrina barreled down on the Gulf Coast in 2005, hundreds of thousands of residents f led their homes, leaving their pets behind. Most weren’t being cruel—they left food and water and assumed they’d be back in a few days, as they had after previous storms. They didn’t realize that Katrina and the f loods that followed would devastate the region, demolishing homes, killing hundreds and drowning a city.

Fortunately, animal rescuers poured in from around the country, saving dogs on roofs, cats in attics and pets wandering homeless on the streets. They trucked them to emergency shelters throughout the area, including a massive triage operation that had been set up at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, La., 60 miles northwest of New Orleans. The facility—a venue for livestock shows, horse exhibitions and rodeos—would become the epicenter of the largest animal rescue operation in U.S. history, staffed by hundreds of volunteers and veterinarians caring for the more than 8,000 animals salvaged from the storm. But as the weeks wore on, Lamar Dixon began to overf low. There was no space left to shelter the cats and dogs. They sat in cages in parking lots, and thousands were in danger of dying or becoming lost.

That’s when Jimmy LeBlanc got on the phone. Dixon Correctional’s warden, LeBlanc had recently lost his 17-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, and he wanted to do something good for pets. He offered the Humane Society of the United States, which was running Lamar Dixon at the time, some of the prison’s real estate. HSUS happily accepted. In the middle of the night, trucks began arriving, carrying hundreds of dogs and cats, plus a few geese, ducks and horses. The prison housed them in a former dairy barn just a mile from its main grounds. Volunteers from Lamar Dixon set up kennels and a makeshift clinic, and the prison sent over 12 convicts to help feed and walk the animals and clean cages. Injured, starving pets were nursed back to health, and most were eventually reunited with their owners. The arrangement worked out so well that HSUS decided to make it permanent. In 2007, it gave the prison a $600,000 grant to build a real shelter. It would be used in future disasters like Katrina, but also as an adoption center for the local community. I’d come to check it out.

When I arrive at the prison, I pull up to the guard gate. My rental car’s window is caked with bugs and its A/C is struggling to overcome the oppressive heat and humidity. Colonel John Smith meets me on the other side. A 23-year Department of Corrections veteran who has worked with police dogs for most of that time, he’s tan and solidly built, with a gray moustache and short, brown hair. He wears a blue uniform and cradles a large black walkie-talkie. “Did you have any trouble finding us?” he says in a mellow Southern accent.

Smith guides me inside the prison grounds, past a double gate that resembles a chain-link airlock. I’ve been among inmates before, but I’m still a bit uneasy. Suddenly, a tiny black-andwhite Rat Terrier runs up to us, yipping “Come here, you little tramp!” says Smith, hoisting the pup into his arms. It’s his dog Chirro, who comes to work with him every day. I begin to relax.

We enter the main shelter. Opened in 2010 on the fifth anniversary of Katrina and built on the site of a former chapel, it’s a white-brick building with a peaked roof that looks a bit like a squat bungalow. Inside, we’re greeted by Smith’s junior officer, Master Sergeant Wayne Aucoin. Thin and young, with a shaved head and a brown moustache slightly less bushy than Smith’s, he manages the day-to-day operations of the facility, and he’s eager to give me a tour. Despite the modest exterior, there’s a lot going on inside Pen Pals, as it’s known.

Aucoin shows me the surgical suite, with its metal exam table and anesthesia machine. There’s also a grooming area with a large sink, a computer room for tracking the animals who come in and out and an education alcove. Here, inmates can peruse a growing library of veterinary textbooks; learn, from posters on the wall, how to spot zoonotic diseases like roundworm; and try their hand at diagnosing parasitic infections with a microscope. A few prisoners buzz about as we tour. Wearing jeans and light-blue T-shirts with “DCI” in large orange letters down the side, they wash bowls and mop floors.

And, of course, there are the cats and dogs. Two rooms lined with metal cages can house about 30 felines. Today, there are a couple of longhaired orange kittens, a black cat missing an eye and a handful of others. Many are brought in by the inmates themselves from the prison’s tool sheds and exercise yards. “The fences don’t really keep them out,” Smith says. “They slip through them like the wind.” The dogs live in a long, narrow space f lanked by kennels. There’s room for about 60 of them, but right now there are just a few. Still, the barking is almost deafening as we pass.

All in all, it looks a lot like your average shelter. That’s a good thing because it’s the only one in all of East Feliciana, a rural parish of about 20,000 people. I ask Aucoin what happened to homeless cats and dogs before Pen Pals was set up. “They got shot,” he says matter- of-factly. These days, he tries hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. He posts each animal’s picture and story on Facebook. He drives them to the nearby town of Zachary every month to adopt them out in front of the town’s library. He even brings them to local rodeos. “You’d be surprised,” he says, “but we adopt a lot of dogs out that way.” A dog costs $40, but the cats are often free, donated to farmers as pest control. “A lot of people ’round here want them just for their barns.”

Aucoin doesn’t keep the shelter running by himself. That’s where the inmates come in; five currently work for Pen Pals. One of the many jobs they can take at the prison, it has one of the longest waitlists. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who want to do this,” says Smith. Only a select few pass muster, however. Those with a history of animal cruelty or sex crimes are ruled out. “We screen these convicts pretty close before we bring them in here.” Once inside, they clean litter boxes, walk dogs and assist with exams and surgeries carried out by visiting veterinarians and their students from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “The students are a little spooked when they first get here. You see it all over them,” laughs Smith. “But by the time they leave, they’re joking around with the convicts.”

After we tour the main facility, Smith and Aucoin lead me out the back door onto a wide, grassy yard f lanked by barbed-wire fencing. In the distance is a 10,000-square-foot pavilion with an open concrete floor and a steel roof. As we head over, Smith tells me that the inmates take the dogs to this field to walk them and teach them basic obedience. “Watch out for land mines!” he smiles.

The pavilion is filled with dozens of makeshift kennels. There are a few dogs here now—the structure serves as a quarantine area, and new arrivals stay here before they’re taken into the main building. But its main purpose is as an emergency shelter. When a storm like Katrina hits, inmates can quickly build hundreds of crates, providing housing for as many as 250 dogs and 100 cats. If needed, they can split the crates in half, doubling those numbers. There are also generators to run fans in case the prison loses power. During Hurricane Gustav in 2008, the pavilion housed 40 dogs and 30 cats. And last week, when Hurricane Isaac struck, Lamar Dixon sent a few animals over. The warden didn’t even have to contact them. “We got a call from someone saying, ‘Hey, can you take a couple of dogs?’” says Aucoin.

Running a shelter inside a prison has its advantages. The main perk, says Smith, is the free labor. “You’ve got all the workers you need, and you have 24-hour access to them.” By caring for the animals and building the shelter and pavilion themselves, the inmates stretched HSUS’s $600,000 grant much further than it would have otherwise gone. But the money ran out last year. Now Pen Pals is completely reliant on donations. “We do a lot of begging, borrowing and stealing,” says Smith. And when he says stealing, he isn’t joking. The shelter has been known to pilfer medical equipment from the prison infirmary. “Bandages, X-ray film, you name it,” laughs Smith. “People medicine ain’t too much different than dog medicine.”

To date, the shelter, which is no-kill, has adopted out more than 250 cats and dogs. It’s the only one of its kind in the country, and Smith says he’s had calls from sheriffs throughout the state asking how to set up something similar.

Pen Pals isn’t just helping animals. The vet students who volunteer here gain valuable experience in shelter medicine, which they can’t get at the university. Inmates learn skills they can apply when they get out; one has already lined up a job at an animal clinic, while another just completed a correspondence course to become a veterinary technician. Even those who don’t get jobs become better people, says Smith. “Working here humanizes them. It teaches them to think about something other than themselves. They’ll walk up and tell me, ‘I gotta let my dogs out for a walk.’ You can see they’re concerned about these animals.”

The parish has changed too. Now that there’s a shelter in the area, the locals are more likely to bring sick and homeless animals here instead of disposing of them by other means. “Yesterday, a woman called about a Labrador mix who had been tied up in a yard for a long time,” says Aucoin. “He was so skinny, he looked like a walking skeleton. John and I drove out and picked him up.”

All of this gives me a warm feeling, and as I drive out of the parking lot after shaking hands with Smith and Aucoin, I almost forget that I’ve spent the last two hours in a prison. Almost, that is, until a guard runs after me as I prepare to turn onto the road leading back to town. “Stop, stop!” she yells. I hit the brakes and roll down my window. “Sir,” she says, scanning my back seat for stowaways, “I’m going to need you to pop your trunk.”

For more information on Pen Pals, including how to donate to the shelter, check out its Facebook page: Pen Pals, Inc. Animal Shelter.

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