Inside the Florida Jail that Doubles as an Exotic Animal Zoo
Behind bars, abused and abandoned animals are finding refuge. Caring for them calms prisoners. Petting them draws thousands of visitors.
by Kim Raff
MIKE SMITH was out of prison for 10 days when he blacked out while drinking and was arrested alongside a busy street in Key West. When he sobered up, he was back in jail. By his own admission, he was not surprised to be there. The blacking out, it had happened before.
“I’m done,” Smith told himself. “If I don’t stop I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in prison.”
He has no recollection of being arrested, half a block off Duval street.
This time, Smith knew he would have to do a small stint before he could get a spot in a substance abuse program. In the interim he signed up to be a trustee at the jail, working on a farm that for the last two decades has become a corner of Monroe County where abandoned, abused, confiscated and donated animals from around the country have found refugee behind razor wire. A place where a miniature horse named Bam Bam grazes his days away on a pasture, as men in orange jump suits muck stalls and make sure water dishes are brimming.
Smith was amazed on his first day on the farm at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Stock Island Detention Center.
“I figured it’d be just a couple of pigs, maybe,” he said. “I didn’t know there was gonna be snakes and lizards and alligators and everything else.”
Twenty one years ago, out on the busy road that runs alongside the jail, a flock of ducks was losing its battle with traffic. In response to their dwindling numbers, a fence was erected, a pond put in and a few picnic tables where the guards took breaks. But the sanctuary didn’t stay small for long. And as word spread through the “coconut telegraph” — the unofficial gossip tree that spans the Florida Keys — the jail’s animal population began to increase and diversify. There was a lot of need and it turned out the jail was beginning to look like the place to fill it.
Curator Jeanne Selander — “Farmer Jeanne” as she’s known around town — runs the farm with the trustees. For the inmates it’s a way to make daily escapes from the jail in order to feed, clean and build the animals’ trust. Selander came to the farm almost 10 years ago with a background in marine biology. She was working for the Key West Aquarium when the job opened up and veterinary Dr. Doug Mader, who she worked along side at the aquarium, pushed her to apply. She had a love for animals, but she’d never stepped foot in a jail and was apprehensive about working alongside inmates.
After landing the job Selander, still unsure, visited the site with Mader as he did his rounds. “I thought what a neat little place and how much more could be done with it. After I saw how the [previous] farmer interacted with the inmates, and that it was a safe environment, I thought, Yeah, I could do this.”
On Selander’s first day there were 25 animals roaming around. Most of them farm animals. Most of them of the petting zoo variety.
Today, Stock Island Detention Center is home to 150, including Maggie, one of three sloths, and an alpaca named Snowflake. Then there’s Peanut, a miniature horse found wandering in the Everglades after being abandoned by her owner.
The animals arrive at the farm through a network Selander builds with animal rescues throughout the country. The network focuses on finding homes for animals like Sherman, an African Spurred Tortoise, acquired during a raid on a crack house in Denver, Colorado. Or Ghost, a blind and elderly horse believed to be in his late twenties who arrived at the farm in 2008 as no more than skin and bone after being abandoned in a remote county of the state, and who passed away last October.
Smith, the inmate, knew Ghost well. That the horse would spooked and be stubborn, at times.Some of the other inmates had a healthy fear of Ghost, but Smith made a connection.
“I just felt comfortable around him,” he said. “And seeing that everyone else was uncomfortable around him,I knew that I had to do what I had to do to make sure he was taken care of right, and not neglected. Doing something good when I was in a pretty bad situation myself. It really gave me peace,” he said.
Some of the inmates “try to be the big burly guys with the attitude,” Selander said. “And that always used to move me when ever I’d see them talking to the blind horse because that’s a bond they’re forming with an animal that needs them.”
Twice a month, the farm invites the public in to fawn over the animals. Selander’s outreach into the community and the reputation of the farm means it’s not unusual for bi-monthly Sunday open houses to draw in as many as 200 people. Many of them greeted by Mo the sloth who is regularly an ornament cradled in Selander’s arms as guests arrive.
“Everyone thinks he is hugging me, but really he just thinks I’m a tree,” Selander said.
It’s the community support that allows for the farm to continue its work. The farm is completely funded by donations. No tax dollars go to fund the project.
“If I ever need anything the community really steps up to help,” says Selander.
Along with the inmates.
“A lot of the inmates maybe have never had anybody that cared about them,” she said. “And to see that the animals need them … it means something to them. And they really take good care of them and I have some of them say, Your in jail just like me.”
Today, Smith is finishing up treatment and found work. He is sober. But he fondly remembers his time on the farm with Misty the Moluccan cockatoo that he snuck orange slices to. The one that followed him around the farm cooing, “I love you”.
“It kept me focused,” Smith said. “Spiritually, it helped me a lot. I definitely wont forget it, that’s for sure.”