Marc Bekoff wrote about how teaching wildlife conservation behind bars has helped prisoners feel more connected to humans and nature, and has given them a positive vision for the future. Programs involving direct contact with animals — like those that pair up shelter dogs with inmates for training programs, communities that employ inmates to help at local animal shelters, and those that let prisoners keep small animals as pets — have also been shown to improve confidence and relations between inmates and guards.
At a prison on Ontario, Canada, inmates, prison workers and local animal activists teamed up to save the lives of about 17 feral cats who called the facility home.
The feral cat colony at the Bath Institution has been around for a couple decades, but prison officials decided last spring that they “had to be removed — period.” That wasn’t a popular position, and not only among people who were worried about the cats. Suzanne Stevenson was among the prison workers who were concerned that getting rid of the cats would increase tension in the prison. “The inmates loved them,” she said. “They’re very attached to these animals.”
When Mary Shaw, local veterinary technician and director of Spay Neuter Kingston Initiative, visited the prison to see the cats, inmates were lined up along the fence yelling, “Save our cats. Save our cats.” The inmates also circulated a petition, getting signatures from 300 of the 345 or so prisoners who wanted to keep the cats around.
With the help of Spay Neuter Kingston Initiative, prison officials agreed to let the colony stay. The cats have all been spayed, neutered, vaccinated, de-wormed and treated for fleas. Most of the kittens are now on the outside thanks to an adoption program. The prison cats who remain behind bars continue to receive regular vet care and year-round shelters have been set up for them on the prison grounds.
Shaw said, “It changes your whole way of thinking when you recognize that you can actually introduce someone to the concept of empathy and compassion using an animal, and see how it changes their lives.”
Providing sanctuary for cat colonies behind bars seems like the perfect solution: the inmates get animal companionship and the cats get to live without endangering any sensitive wildlife. There are a handful of other prisons around the world where inmates and feral cats get the mutual benefits of living together. Hopefully, for the sake of both species, we’ll see more prison cat programs catching on.