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.