Seventy-six cats that escaped a flooded bayou 15 months ago wound up at the prison. There, female inmates nursed them to health before the cats were put up for adoption. Deemed a success by officials, convicts and volunteers, the exercise essentially opened the door for more cats evacuated by Katrina.
Two teams of four female inmates who've earned the right to care for cats leave traditional lockup daily. In eight-hour sessions, they work with the cats in hopes of making them more adoptable.
"The trust that forms between you and the cat is what's important," says Aimee Mootz, an inmate who works daily with the cats.
Animal handlers teach the women at Pocahontas everything there is to know about the critters, Lynch says from proper care to positive reinforcement. They use behavior-modification techniques that can turn an alley cat into a lap cat. They've just started using a "clicker," a training mechanism associated with food and applied most often to dogs to get them to behave.
The inmates even teach the cats tricks.
One trick is the "give me five," Lynch says, whereby a cat pats its paw on the palm of a prisoner. "We have a few politically incorrect ones," Lynch adds amusedly, such as the "stick 'em up" a cat sits on its haunches with paws extended upward and the "spread 'em," in which a cat stands feet apart, its front paws against a wall.
Tricks aside, what transpires is mutually beneficial, Lynch says. Both the inmates and the cats are trainable and could have bright futures if given the chance.
"They are so excited to have a positive impact, having saved [the cats] from being killed," Lynch says of the female inmates who participate. It seems the cats don't quip. "Nobody says, 'What did you do? What are you in for?'" Lynch says.
The program is the cat version of Pen Pals, an offshoot of the statewide nonprofit Save Our Shelters. Pen Pals began five years ago at a prison in Goochland County and is now found in five Virginia Department of Corrections facilities, says Larry Traylor, a corrections department spokesman.
Each rescued puss is given a full medical evaluation from a veterinarian and is neutered or spayed before it can be adopted. In the weeks spent with the animals, inmates do "personality assessments" of the cats too. Cats awaiting adoption are pictured on the Save Our Shelters' Web site (www.saveourshelters.com ) and on Lynch's iPod. "It's loaded up all cats all the time," she says.
Each Saturday Lynch drives to Pocahontas, picks up a half-dozen or so cats and transports them to For the Love of Pete, an eclectic pet shop near the intersection of Libbie and Grove avenues. The cost to adopt a feline: $100.
Pen Pals for cats differs from its dog program: Inmates don't live with the cats 24/7, so the attention isn't as individualized, Lynch says.
There's also a high cat-to-inmate ratio. For example, there are eight inmates and 32 cats currently in the Pen Pal pet center. At press time, six more cats were being held at area veterinary clinics to be evaluated before entering the program. In other words, the ratio of cats to inmates is often 4-to-1 or 5-to-1.
Despite the odds, relationships form between the convicts and the kitties, and this makes partings bittersweet. "There are a lot of tears," Lynch says.
Lynch has high hopes that the effort she's spearheaded may cause a greater dip in the number of cats euthanized locally. What's more, she envisions a growing public awareness campaign about second chances. "We're putting a kinder, gentler face on prisons," she says, where "people are being rehabilitated and cats are, too." S