In the Santiago Sur Criminal Detention Center, one of Chile’s oldest prisons, hundreds of cats live alongside 4,482 inmates.
It’s relatively common in prisons throughout Chile that felines roam the halls. Originally introduced into penitentiaries to control rodent populations, cats have come to play a more profound role as companions. And this goes beyond being a merely heartwarming anecdote: Evidence suggests that inmates who interact with animals while in prison not only have reduced stress levels because of this companionship but may also have reduced the likelihood that they will end up in prison again.
Barred by rules against bringing cat food into the prison, many inmates instead feed their cats from their own meals—some sharing so much that they risk going without enough food for themselves. The practice isn't always good for the cats, either: They can become sick from eating too much human food. With no spay/neuter access, the cat population at the detention center has grown uncontrollably in recent years, which means there are more feline mouths to feed.
There are other problems, too. The largely cement-paved outdoor spaces do not provide the cats with adequate environments to use the bathroom, causing a hygiene problem. But the most critical issue is that the cats do not receive veterinary care, resulting in untreated wounds, disease and a high kitten mortality rate. Inmates attempt to treat the cats as best they can, with the limited resources available, using home remedies.
Clearly, there is a strong bond between many inmates and the cats, and a genuine desire to improve the quality of life for these animals.
That’s where our Humane Society International team in Chile comes in. This team works to deliver access to veterinary care in some of the most underserved and remote communities. In recent months, HSI teamed up with local Chilean charity Felinnos Foundation in its efforts to support spay and neuter to control cat overpopulation. Spaying and neutering helps stabilize the cat population and ensure there are enough resources to keep cats healthy and happy.
Over the course of three days, together with Felinnos Foundation, we supported a trap-neuter-return program in the prison, done in cooperation with the Chilean Gendarmerie. Approximately 30 cats were collected from the prison grounds each day, given medical care for any untreated illnesses, spayed/neutered, vaccinated against rabies, kept overnight to recover and then returned to the penitentiary, many to their specific inmate guardians.
The strong bonds between the inmates and their cats were evident starting on day one. They helped to deliver the cats to the on-site clinic the day before for pre-surgical fasting. Once their cats were recovered from their treatments, the inmates were already waiting patiently, sometimes for hours, outside to bring them back “home.”
During the most recent clinic, an inmate shared his pride at helping to bring the cats for whom he cares to the sterilization clinic. He said that he wasn’t going to be an inmate for much longer: In just 23 days, he would be released from prison for good, and he had requested to take one of his cats with him to be his companion. He is not alone: As many inmates approach the end of their sentences, they want to bring their beloved cats to their new life outside of prison—and to continue doing good for animals once released back into normal life.
However, the inmate needed written permission from the facility to remove the cat and to procure some type of carrier to transport the cat. Thankfully, the Gendarmerie officials agreed to help sort out the logistical details of ensuring he and his cat can be released together. This is a triumph, as it shows a growing understanding of the power of the human-animal bond. Prison cat programs undoubtedly have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of prisoners, cats, administrators and society at large.
Compassion should know no limits. In the humane world we are trying to create, people understand the profoundly positive impact animals can have on human lives and comprehend that such a connection entails obligations to uphold their care and protection. Chile’s “prison cats” are a testament to the power of this connection.
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