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.