Travel 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, LA on a narrow country road. The late summer morning seeps through the leaves as you pass several acres of cow pastures and a couple of small churches, and you’ll come across a white picket fence that turns out to be The last thing you’d expect: a medium-security prison. First there is the octagonal watchtower peeking over the trees, then the blocky brick buildings and drab exercise yards, which are surrounded by chain-link fences with curly barbed wire, 5 meters high. You have reached the Dixon Correctional Institute, home to 1,600 inmates who spend anything from a few years to living. I found myself there at the beginning of September 2012. I did not come to see the inmates. I came to see the cats and dogs.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, hundreds of thousands of residents left their homes and left their pets. Most weren’t cruel – they left food and water behind, assuming they would be back in a few days, like after previous storms. Little did they know that Katrina and the subsequent floods would devastate the region, destroy homes, kill hundreds and drown a city.
Fortunately, animal rescuers flocked from all over the country to rescue dogs on rooftops, cats in attics, and pets wandering the streets homeless. They took her to shelters across the area, including a massive triage operation that had been set up at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, LA, 60 miles northwest of New Orleans. The facility – a venue for livestock shows, horse shows, and rodeos – was to become the epicenter of the largest animal rescue operation in U.S. history, staffed by hundreds of volunteers and vets looking after the more than 8,000 animals rescued from the storm. But as the weeks went on, Lamar Dixon began to overflow. There was no more space to house the cats and dogs. They were caged in parking lots and thousands were at risk of death or loss.
That’s when Jimmy LeBlanc called. Dixon Correctional caretaker LeBlanc had recently lost his 17-year-old Yorkshire Terrier and wanted to do something good for pets. He offered a portion of the prison’s real estate to the Humane Society of the United States, which was then headed by Lamar Dixon. HSUS was happy to accept. In the middle of the night trucks with hundreds of dogs and cats arrived, plus a few geese, ducks and horses. The prison housed them in a former milk barn just a mile from the main site. Lamar Dixon volunteers set up kennels and a makeshift clinic, and the prison sent over 12 convicts to help feed the animals, walk the animals, and clean the cages. Injured, starving pets were nursed to health, and most were eventually reunited with their owners. The agreement worked so well that HSUS decided to make it permanent. In 2007, she granted the prison a $ 600,000 grant to build real housing. It would be used in future disasters like Katrina, but also as an adoption center for the local community. I came to check it out.