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 her mouth taped shut so a child can hold her, 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 who aid her in caring for the animals certainly are: They are convicted criminals, low-risk offenders serving out their sentences at Key West’s only jail facility. And they arrive with Ms. Selander each morning, committed to learning to care for a very unusual group of animals.
To explain how this extraordinary partnership came to be, a brief explanation of Floridian architecture is necessary. 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, for example, rests 11 feet above the ground, leaving a wide-open space underneath the building’s foundation — a prime location for a secure, fenced-in area that could hold inmates if a fire evacuation took 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.
Those ducks and chickens, which in 1994 became the first official non-human inhabitants of the Stock Island 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 they could think of: They 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 (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; 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 their days munching grass in the sun.
Mo the sloth, whose laid-back charm and perpetually smiling face have made him something of a Florida Keys celebrity, can often be found hanging from farmer Selander’s neck, positioned at the center of a crowd of eager children (and their parents) waiting patiently to stroke his bristly fur.
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, of course, 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 U.S. 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 — a lesson many of us would be lucky to learn outside of prison as well.
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. ¦