Usually the word “jail” brings some harsh imagery to mind: barbed wire fences, orange jumpsuits and tall concrete walls. That’s not the case in the Key West, though. Ask a local about the jail, and the most likely image is Mo, an adorable and charismatic sloth who’s become the unofficial mascot of the Stock Island Detention Center, which doubles as a sanctuary for unwanted animals.
“All the animals here are either abandoned, abused, confiscated or donated,” Jeanne Selander, the caretaker for the facility, explains to Care2. “The animals are here because they need a forever home and we give them one.”
Among the facility’s residents are: Boots, a small alligator whose original owner didn’t want to pay for his vet bills after he ate the silicone lining in his tank; Fat Albert, an African spurred tortoise who escaped his owners’ home and was found wandering around town; and Bam Bam, an abandoned miniature horse. In total, the prison holds 150 animals and up to 596 prisoners. Five of the latter get to work with the animals as volunteers.
“The prisoners are screened very carefully,” says Selander. “The qualifications include non violent, no child offenders of any kind, and obviously no animal abusers. They’re the cream of the crop, really, but the first thing is that they need to want to work in the farm. You need to want to help and like animals.”
Selander says most prisoners who work at the farm do it seven days a week despite not being required. It may take them a day or sometimes weeks for them to feel completely comfortable feeding or cleaning up some of the animal areas — specially the 14 foot long python enclosure— but for the most part they learn quickly and get used to it.
The animal farm was first established in 1994. Since the detention center is built on stilts 11 feet off the ground, part of the area underneath it was originally not used for anything. When a group of ducks kept getting hit by cars at a nearby golf course, the sheriff’s office used the classic Floridian structure to solve the very Floridian problem and re-homed the ducks there. Soon nearby animal rescue organizations heard of what was being done and the animal farm expanded into the green areas of the facility.
No taxpayer money is dedicated to the farm, it is completely funded by donations and fundraisers, and animals come in from all over the country from rescue organizations in desperate need of help after rescuing animals from misguided owners in over their heads.
Selander, a marine biologist who was working as assistant curator at the Key West Aquarium, came in 10 years ago when the veterinarian who had patients both at the aquarium and the animal farm encouraged her to check the place out. Seeing it as “a real diamond in the rough,” she stepped up to the job despite never having stepped foot in a prison before and began her development work putting up informational signs for each of the animals and creating an outreach program to spread the word about the farm to the community.
Today the animal farm is open to the public on the second and fourth Sunday of each month from 1 to 3 p.m. The last open house, according to Selander, brought in 330 visitors, most of them kids, who get to see the animals up close — but only if the animals want it too.
“I never force the animals to have attention they don’t want,” she says. “Some of them love attention and will come up to people, others don’t and no one is allowed close to them.”
One of the reasons why some of the animals are so people friendly is that they all have been domesticated — also why, Selander says, the animals are kept at the farm instead of being released into the wild.
“They’ve been raised by people. All the animals have been domesticated or lived in captivity their whole lives so they’re non-releasable.”
To avoid that from happening to a new generation of animals, part of Selander’s mission with the farm is to tell visiting kids that these wild animals do not make good pets, no matter how cute they are — yes, even Mo.
More information of the Stock Island Detention Center’s Animal Farm can be found on its Facebook page.
Photo Credit: Rob O'Neal