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Inmates welcome cats orphaned by Katrina

A Virginia prison is a refuge for about two dozen cats displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Pocahontas Correctional Unit inmates Tuesday Kilgore, left, Lisa Sclafani, center, and Wendy Brickey hold Hurricane Katrina refugee cats outside the prison's cat shelter in Chesterfied, Va., on Tuesday.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Prison is a refuge for about two dozen cats displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a place filled with women happy to be able to soothe away their trauma and fear.

Four Pocahontas Correctional Unit inmates have been caring for the cats since they made the cramped 20-hour truck ride last month from an overwhelmed Mississippi shelter. The women see it as a chance to help not only the abandoned pets, but also the hurricane relief effort and even themselves.

“They’ve had a long journey,” said inmate Wendy Brickey, 45, her eyes brimming with tears. “I get the chance to make it OK.”

The prison’s Pen Pals program, in which trusted inmates help socialize abandoned cats until they’re ready for adoption, had just five felines before Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The Humane Society of the United States estimates as many as 50,000 animals may have been left behind in the New Orleans area alone.

The Jackson County (Miss.) Animal Shelter took Pen Pals cat coordinator Peggy Lynch up on her offer to help rehabilitate some of the cats it had taken in.

A feeling of serenity permeates the prison’s shelter, a squat, maroon building just outside the barbed-wire fence. Pictures of cats plaster the cinderblock walls and cat-print curtains and pillows brighten the otherwise drab room.

“It’s probably the nicest shelter that they could ever land in, so far as the amount of love and attention,” Lynch said. “I walked in and it was just amazing — just this total sense of calm... They seem to blossom out here.”

Scared or sick upon arrival
The animals arrived agitated and scared, many suffering from respiratory illnesses due to the stress of a long truck ride in a plastic carrier and weeks in a cramped shelter. The inmates started giving them food, medicine, love and — of course — hurricane-appropriate names.

Their furry charges include Gumbo, VooDoo and the Ragin’ Cajuns — a sextet of frisky black kittens that bounce around in their cage as if they’ve just discovered a stash of catnip. A cat dubbed Katrina became displaced when her caretaker committed suicide in the hurricane’s devastating aftermath.

When word of the hurricane reached the prison, about 20 miles south of Richmond, some inmates donated what little money they had to the victims. There wasn’t much else they could do — until the cats arrived.

“Had I been at home, I probably would have gone down and helped,” inmate Tuesday Kilgore, 35, said as she reclined in a chair next to her favorite cat, Skye. “This gives me responsibility and gives me motivation to go out and live a so-called normal life.”

“It makes us feel like we can be a part of something — to be a part of the storm — to help out,” Brickey said. “We are so secluded from the world and there’s somebody waiting on their pets. And while I might never meet them, I took care of them while they’re getting their life together.”

Cats adopted to permanent homes
So far, nine of the Mississippi cats have been adopted, and Lynch hopes someday they’ll all go to good homes.

At least one other prison — Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, La. — has taken in pets displaced by Katrina, according to the Humane Society. More than 200 animals have taken shelter in a converted dairy barn at that prison.

Brickey said working at the Pocahantas shelter has been rewarding ever since she started in March.

She immediately connected with Scarlett, a kitten so traumatized she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. After months of love and patience, Scarlett began trusting Brickey, and now the two often cuddle up together.

“When I look at her, I see that after all this time, I’m not so wild anymore — and she’s not so wild anymore,” she said.