Animals behind bars

There’s a long and storied history of blending animals into the world’s prison populations. Possibly the best known U.S. prisoner to interact with other species while behind bars was portrayed in the movies by the late actor Burt Lancaster: Robert...


There’s a long and storied history of blending animals into the world’s prison populations. Possibly the best known U.S. prisoner to interact with other species while behind bars was portrayed in the movies by the late actor Burt Lancaster: Robert Franklin Stroud.

Known as The Birdman of Alcatraz, Stroud was a killer incarcerated in his early days at Leavenworth, although he eventually moved to Alcatraz. Originally imprisoned following the slaying of a nonpaying client in 1909, Stroud worked as a pimp and was known for his violent temper. While in prison he murdered a security guard and had a well-deserved reputation as one of the most vicious of inmates. Stroud spent much of his life sentence (commuted from death) in solitary confinement but moved to a prison hospital for his final years.

Stroud’s nickname came from his prison-acquired reputation as an ornithologist and expert at raising birds. According to his biographers, the inmate began keeping birds after stumbling upon some injured sparrows on prison grounds. The story—which some scholars dispute—is that he nursed them to health and started a profitable business buying, raising and selling canaries, but those birds were housed at Leavenworth, not Alcatraz. Stroud became famous for his knowledge as a birder, but left them behind when relocated. He died in 1963, still in prison.

Early origins

Earl Strimple, a doctor of veterinary medicine and pioneer in regards to integrating animals into prisons, wrote in the American Behavioral Scientist that the benefits of having animal programs in prison settings include, “lower recidivism rates and concomitant lower costs to the state.” He quotes the 1997 claims of the superintendent of the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, Wis., that of 68 inmates involved in the animal program who were released, none had reoffended. Compare those numbers to a comprehensive prison recidivism rate of approximately two-thirds at that time, and the program’s benefits soon become obvious.

Strimple says the first substantial animal therapy program in a U.S. prison system launched in 1975 at an Ohio-based mental hospital for the criminally insane. That early effort revealed that patients involved in daily contact with animals “required half the amount of medication, had reduced violence, and [did not attempt suicide].” Strimple observes that a separate ward, operated without the integration of any animals, had the opposite experience.

Soon, he says, other programs launched in U.S. prisons. Notably, a program integrated into a women’s prison in Washington State helped provide therapy dogs to the disabled, and Strimple says he personally observed inmates feeding feral cats of their own volition at a Lorton, Va., prison facility. Working with a pet food company, he was able to secure donated food and coach those inmates on nurturing the animals in a healthy environment. Strimple credited the program with assisting the men who were released in gaining confidence and the ability to obtain and hold jobs on the outside.

The integration of animals, both domesticated and wild, has now become a widely accepted practice in many of the country’s prison systems. Experts say the same holds true on a global scale. Caring for stray and feral cats, for example, has been implemented in prison systems from Switzerland to Thailand. And prisoners from at least one U.S.-based prison were used to help foster felines that were evacuated from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Feral cats help rescue inmates

Experts often speak about how well the majority of inmates respond to having animals under their care. One of the most often observed benefits of a prison-animal program are the warm bonds that inmates form with the animals. And, while training programs are well documented as beneficial in prison settings, even casual relationships seem to bring out the best in prisoners. Like the facility at Lorton, Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa (famous for holding Nelson Mandela) is home to a thriving feral cat colony. Pollsmoor staff have seen some of that country’s most notorious prisoners work through childhood issues of abuse and abandonment.

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