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.