2017-05-18 / Top News

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Children’s Animal Park

BY MAXINE LOPEZ-KEOUGH
Florida Weekly Correspondent


Trigger, now at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Children’s Animal Park. 
COURTESY PHOTO Trigger, now at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Children’s Animal Park. COURTESY PHOTO Amidst the usual stories on mosquito control controversy and tree commission drama, the tale of a homeless man riding a horse named Trigger to Key West seemed almost impossibly Floridian in its absurdity. After wrecking his pickup truck and surviving a contentious divorce, a barefoot man named Chris Emerson decided to ride his elderly, half-blind horse from South Carolina to Key West to start a new life. Mr. Emerson’s plan, in its entirety, seemed to end there.

After receiving numerous calls from concerned citizens who’d spotted the duo making their way south alongside the highway, authorities intercepted them on Nov. 23, 2016, in Miami. Mr. Emerson admitted he had no money, no plans for how he would care for Trigger once they arrived at their final destination (where, unbeknownst to Mr. Emerson, horses are not allowed to be kept as pets) and had no idea that the horse he’d been feeding spare plastic bags of grass clippings was essentially starving to death.


Trigger loves donkeys and follows Dash and Eeyore around the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Children’s Animal Park. Children love to interact with the animals. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Trigger loves donkeys and follows Dash and Eeyore around the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Children’s Animal Park. Children love to interact with the animals. COURTESY PHOTOS The photos were particularly grim. They showed a chestnut gelding, ribs visible and back covered in open sores. It had been ridden 700 miles under an unpadded, duct-tape-ridden saddle and a backwards bit that cut into the animal’s mouth (better for control, according to Mr. Emerson). It took months of care and rehabilitation for Trigger to recover, and in April, 2017, it was announced that Mr. Emerson had signed over full legal custody of Trigger to the state as part of his plea deal. Now, the horse has found a new home. Ironically, it’s in the same place that Mr. Emerson had anticipated settling down, albeit under entirely different circumstances. Trigger became a permanent resident of the Monroe County Sheriff ’s Stock Island Detention Center, where he spends his days grazing in an open paddock and following around his new best friends, a pair of donkeys named Dash and Eeyore.

For Jeanne Selander, a typical day at work always begins the same way. She travels to Stock Island and picks up inmates at the Monroe County Sheriff ’s Stock Island Detention Center. From there, things can go a number of ways. Perhaps the sloth needs some extra attention, or the African spurred tortoises need weighing. Maybe the alligator needs its mouth taped shut so a child can hold it or a pregnant Patagonian cavie (if you’ve never seen one, picture a rabbit on steroids) is about to give birth.

Ms. Selander is a farmer tasked with the care of dozens of animals and while that may not sound unconventional, her farm assistants certainly are. They are convicted criminals, low-risk offenders serving out their sentences at Key West’s only jail facility. They arrive with Ms. Selander each morning committed to learning to care for a very unusual group of animals.


The sloth is a favorite of visitors to the animal park. The sloth is a favorite of visitors to the animal park. A brief explanation of Floridian architecture is necessary to explain how this extraordinary partnership came to be. Here in Florida we have hurricanes and hurricanes bring floods. Because of this, many homes and commercial buildings are built high above the ground on stilts. The Stock Island Detention Center rests 11 feet above the ground, leaving a wide, open space underneath the building — a prime location for a secure, fenced-in area in which to hold inmates should a fire evacuation take place. Or, in the case of one particularly troublesome gang of ducks and chickens with a penchant for getting run over by cars, a great place to keep feathered creatures out of the nearby road.


Farmer Jeanne allows visiting children to hold and learn about the exotic animals at the farm. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Farmer Jeanne allows visiting children to hold and learn about the exotic animals at the farm. COURTESY PHOTOS Those ducks and chickens, which in 1994 became the first official nonhuman inhabitants of the detention center, were not alone for long. After receiving a call from the SPCA that a blind horse had been found abandoned in the Miami area, the sheriff ’s department did the only sensible thing it could think of. It set the inmates to work building a secure pen, and the horse — later dubbed Angel — was transported down to Stock Island, where it gained a few new feathered roommates at its new home.

From its humble beginnings of one blind horse and a handful of reckless fowl, the Monroe County Sheriff ’s Office Children’s Animal Park was born. Since those first animals arrived on Stock Island in 1994, the farm has flourished, with fascinating and exotic species added throughout the years, all of which remain cared for by the detention center’s inmates, who are always under the ever-watchful gaze of a resident farmer. The farm, open to the public every first and fourth Sunday of the month, now includes a massive aviary of tropical birds, an expansive reptile exhibit, a stable full of pigs, goats, and horses; a rabbit warren and dozens more species some rarely seen outside much larger zoos or refuges. A large exhibit of cavies, the enormous, aforementioned, rabbit-like rodents, are a delight to behold. They are bizarrely proportioned, deeply spirited and very high jumpers. They can reach speeds up to 18 mph in the wild, though the pack at the sheriff ’s farm seem content to spend its days munching grass in the sun. Mo the sloth, whose laid-back charm and perpetually smiling face have made it something of a Florida Keys celebrity, can often be found hanging from Ms. Selander’s neck, positioned at the center of a crowd of eager children and their parents waiting patiently to stroke his bristly fur.


Getting up close and personal with an alpaca. Getting up close and personal with an alpaca. 
Feeding one of the African spurred tortoises. Feeding one of the African spurred tortoises. Some of the animals that arrive at the farm do so as voluntary owner surrenders, while others are the result of animal abuse police seizures or even, in the case of two exotic tortoises, a particularly nasty drug raid.

It is impossible to ignore the irony that these innocent creatures, rescued from illegal situations, go on to become indebted to caregivers whose own place at the farm is a result of their criminal behavior. And yet, it is apparent that the relationship is truly a symbiotic one. The animals enjoy the care and attention of the inmates, who in turn are offered the opportunity to receive formal training in animal husbandry. These skills can be utilized after a prisoner’s release to find legal and rewarding employment. This is no small feat. Florida correctional facilities, on average, report recidivism rates of 26 percent or higher, meaning one in four inmates will return to prison within three years of their release. Inmate programs across the United States are notoriously underfunded and rarely focus on what the sheriff ’s farm is dedicated to providing its inmates each day: the immeasurably positive experience of learning to care for another living creature, to exhibit compassion and responsibility and to witness, firsthand, that some beings once doomed to a life of abuse and neglect can, in fact, heal from both external and internal wounds and go on to live joyful lives. That’s lesson many of us would be lucky to learn outside of prison as well.


Farmer Jeanne Selander. Farmer Jeanne Selander. For the children of the Florida Keys, the sheriff ’s farm offers a rare opportunity to view some species of animals they might not otherwise be able to visit. And to the farm’s various animal residents, as well as the inmates of the Monroe County Sheriff ’s Stock Island Detention Center, the Monroe County Sheriff ’s Office Children’s Animal Park offers the same to both: a second chance at life. ¦


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