Angela Hill / Eyewitness News
JACKSON, La. – The lost and abandoned souls of Hurricane Katrina are long gone from the Dixon Correctional Center, but out of the horror of that tragedy comes a golden opportunity.
It is a new, 9,500 square-foot pavilion-like shelter that can serve as a permanent emergency facility during any state disaster and as general facility for animals from East Feliciana Parish, which has no shelter.
The facility at Dixon was built with grant money from the Humane Society of the United States, which gave the prison the money for its generosity in housing animals during Katrina.
The lost and abandoned dogs living there now are now healthy, well-fed and loved.
Like Buford, the 140-pound mastiff who waits for his friend, inmate James Ziegler.
“A police officer brought him in. He had a cable with a ratchet strap around his neck,” Ziegler said.
James has loved Buford back into an adoptable pet.
“He's about 2 years old, just a big baby,” Ziegler said.
He has also brought out the best in Aaron, who's also looking for a home.
With Ziegler, this big guy is a hundred pounds of happiness, except that he’s afraid of cats.
James Ziegler of New Orleans and four other inmates are in charge of over 60 dogs. Their job is to care for and help socialize each animal.
“Some of them we fall in love with and we hate to see them go, but we know our job is to get them prepared for a home,” Ziegler said.
Inmate Jason Broom of Chalmette also takes care of the resident cats who have a full time job guarding the shed that houses the dog food.
“They wait on us to feed them every day. They come up and play with the dogs. They’re part of the family here,” he said.
For inmate Bryant Hayes of New Orleans, a little dog named Curly is very much family.
“I just let him out one day and everywhere I went, he just started following me around,” Hayes said.
Eight hours a day, he follows him. But Hayes knows one day Curly could be gone.
“If it’s somewhere better for him, I’m for it. But we're really good buddies,” said Hayes.
Col. John Smith has spent 23 years in corrections. He is president of the non-profit Pen Pal Shelter and sees what it is doing for the inmates.
“It gives them a sense of self-worth, some responsibility that they never had. Now they are responsible for caring for something,” Smith said.
And that responsibility includes working with veterinarians like Dr. Roberta McQueen, who volunteers at the Pen Pal clinic. She and the vets from the LSU Veterinary School have taught the inmates a lot about caring for shelter animals.
All of the inmates in the program have received certificates of excellence from the LSU shelter medicine program.
Inmate Ronnie Beechler is giving special care to Precious, a cat that was saved by another volunteer vet. One eye had to be removed and she is blind in the other.
“She’s a wonderful cat as you can see. She just needs someone who will show her love,” he said.
All these cats and dogs at the Pen Pal Shelter are looking for the same thing: love and a home, a second chance just like the inmates who care for them.
“I'm taking a correspondence course right now for vet assistants. Two more tests and I'll be finished,” said one inmate.
Bryant, who gets out next year, hopes to find work at a shelter.
“I have learned a lot, since I’ve been here, about animals and giving shots. I’ve learned a whole lot and I would like to continue doing it,” Bryant said.
For Ronnie Beechler, it will either be becoming a vet tech or turning his artistic talent into becoming a medical illustrator. He says it will also include volunteering at a shelter.
The endless wire is a constant reminder that these inmates are here because they broke the law and are paying the price but beyond the wires something else is happening for both man and beast: trust is built.
For these animals, who often show up malnourished and scared, the inmates’ compassion and care turn their lives around.
“You see the dogs realize ‘You are here to help me, you’re not here to hurt me. I'm in a good place,’” explained Master Sgt. Wayne Aucoin, who manages the facility.
He also sees the change in the inmates becoming men who now have a purpose and who believe in themselves.
“They are here waiting for me when I get here in the morning. They are already getting at it. They’re getting everything cleaned up. They do eight hours just like I do,” Aucoin said.
In the confines of a state prison, the men who work so hard to change the lives of the unwanted and abandoned may very well have rescued themselves.
No tax dollars are used to run the shelter. Pen Pals is a non-profit that must raise about $90,000 each year.
If you are interested in making a donation or in adopting one of the animals, write to Pen Pal Shelter, Dixon Correctional Center, 5568 Hwy. 68, Jackson, LA, 70748.