Pets-prisoners program touted as humane societies converge on Orono for annual conference

People listen to Bobby Silcott during a dog and cat first aid and CPR course during the annual conference of the Maine Federaion of Humane Societies in Old Town Wednesday.
People listen to Bobby Silcott during a dog and cat first aid and CPR course during the annual conference of the Maine Federaion of Humane Societies in Old Town Wednesday.
Posted March 16, 2011, at 8:49 p.m.
Last modified March 16, 2011, at 11:42 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Issues weren’t limited to vaccinations and spaying-neutering at the Maine Federation of Humane Societies annual conference Wednesday.

This year, topics ranged from how to contend with an influx of unwanted bunny rabbits around Easter to using social media as promotional and informational vehicles.

For the second consecutive year, representatives of humane societies from all over Maine came to Orono to exchange ideas, trade tips, share information and simply stay in touch. Once again, 17 different societies were represented by almost 80 people at the Black Bear Inn and Convention Center.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the conference wasn’t even included on the list of topics and talks: The Paws and Stripes program run by the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland.

The 5-year-old partnership with the Maine Correctional Center in Windham places puppies with prisoners for six weeks so inmates — under the supervision and guidance of licensed trainers — train the dogs to be ready for placement with adoptive families.

“We’re the only one in Maine, and perhaps the only one in New England, in operation,” said Toni McLellan, the Animal Refuge League’s director of operations. “We go up every week with a certified trainer to train the pups so when they leave, six weeks later, they’re housebroken, socialized, leash-trained, and ready to be placed.”

“The dogs are with [the prisoners] 24-7,” she added, noting that the canines have crates with blankets, toys, and water and food bowls.

The inmates “keep journals and write in them every day,” McLellan said.

Prisoners, who must undergo an application and interview process to be chosen for the program, attend weekly training classes.

McLellan, a Wisconsin native with 20-plus years of experience in wildlife biology as a research scientist and biologist, says the program has been a solid success and she would like to see it expand northward.

“We get so many compliments on how well the dogs are trained from the families that adopt them,” said McLellan, who took part in a presentation on the Maine Animal Transport Program. And what it brings to the inmates — and the puppies — is hard to measure.

Prisoners have “cited this program as a reason why they’ve gone on to get their GEDs and that they don’t feel lonely anymore or quite as much [of] an outcast because they have a friend,” McLellan said. “Many say they’ll be much better citizens when they’re released and pet owners.”

Many of the prisoners become quite attached to the pets they’re training. “It’s hard for some of them, very hard, for some of them to give up the pups,” McLellan said.

Shaw admits the program is not without its detractors, who argue that prisoners, especially those serving hard time for serious offenses, shouldn’t be rewarded with pets.

“The prisoners are medium security, meaning they’re in jail for anything from theft to homicide to sexual offenses,” she said. “Some complain that prisoners shouldn’t be part of this program, getting a pet. But I believe strongly in rehabilitation and it’s amazing to witness that and see this program change some of their lives.”

For Susan Bell, executive director of the Bangor Humane Society, Wednesday’s conference was invaluable.

“There’s no one umbrella organization that ties everyone together, so this is an opportunity for everyone in the state to get together and talk about commonalities,” Bell said during Wednesday’s conference. “I’ve taken probably 10 pages of notes, and I’ve only been to two sessions so far.”

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