I spend my days here working as a dog handler and trainer in the Staff Dog program. On any given day I am in contact with these wonderful creatures, even during days when my clientele are absent. It is a blessing, and I have always thought this. Who am I to deserve such kindness?
Incarceration is difficult, because at the end of the day when you’re lying on your bunk, it’s easy to drift to thought’s of easier and fonder times in life. No matter how you look at it, you are a prisoner by your own actions.
This week’s questions come from Stephanie in London, England who asks me how I cope with doing such a long time, and from Nicole in Perth, Australia who asks about dog programs in American prisons. Thank you Stephanie and Nicole for following, and thank you for these great questions.
I woke up today to sniffs and licks on my ear from one of the dogs I’m currently caring for. All of them are here for several days as boarders, and there’s nothing more satisfying than to wake to these wonderful animals. I work as an animal trainer in the Staff Dog Program, and as the name implies, each dog is owned by a staffer.
The pound rescue program periodically received cats, and I had been juggling the idea for months about making a move into the cat section. Eventually I decided I’d spend a year caring for the cats, partly to mix things up, and partly because I’ve always been a cat lover at heart.
I grew up with cats. So when good fortune arose to care for the strays and newborn kittens that the pound sent in, I jumped at the opportunity. I had spent the previous decade training dogs, and I thought this would be a fun change. The program had several cat handlers, and my move from the dog universe to the cat world drew frowns from the dog guys and praise from the cat guys.
Cats are a world apart from dogs. Dogs yearn to be around you; cats yearn to be around you when they’re in the mood. Dogs will eat just about anything (dog food, people food, flip-flops); cats, they eat what they tell you they will eat. Dogs happily play with other stray dogs, but put a bunch of stray cats in a room, and you have a recipe for Fight Night.
Most of the time caring for the cats involved bottle feeding newborn kittens and then potty training them. The cats stayed here until they reached two pounds, and then they were placed for adoption through the pounds website. A wonderful thing about cats is that they are very independent. You rarely need to bathe them (they groom themselves) or tend to a half dozens other things that dogs require. Once they’re a couple of months old and potty trained, you can let them run wild–they’ll be fine.
The program administrator was a wonderful woman named Ms. Campbell. She loved animals. She came to work daily with new and exciting stories about one or more of the cats or dogs she owned (and did not own, for she took care of a number of strays: cats, a dog, a turtle, a duck, and I’m pretty sure there was a raccoon in the mix, too). She once told me that the rescue program was the one thing that kept her coming to work every day. Without it, she’d just assume quit.
Shortly after I started caring for the cats, she took me aside one day and told me about a stray cat she had taken in. It lived in her garage most of the time, she had said, or under her car when it was parked outside. She lived in the countryside and was always coming upon stray animals. I asked her why she didn’t simply let the cat into the house; after all, she had other stray cats she let inside.
“Oh, eww,” she said.
“Eww?” I said.
“Oh, you should see it. It has issues. It’s missing patches of fur all over, and its fur is all knotted and mangy.”
“It probably has some skin issues, that’s all,” I said. “It probably needs a topical and a good shampooing. Hell, it could be allergies.”
“It’s always scratching and”–she quivered, stuck out a puking tongue–“I think it has fleas, and ticks.”
“Aww, the poor thing,” I said. I was a bit surprised at her reluctance. She was never shy getting down and dirty with the dogs or cats we had running around here. She wore dog slobber and cat hair on her clothes daily like a badge of honor! She was always spending her own money on dog and cat flea shampoos, toys, leashes, collars, and you name it, for the cats and dogs here in the program. Yet, she was hesitant to get involved with this cat. Hmm, I thought, ‘Tis a bit of a mystery, this cat.
So I said, “Why don’t you bring it in and I’ll flea dip it, clean its ears, and treat whatever skin issues it has. I’ll also get all the ticks.
She shook her head. “Yeah, that’s a great idea-NOT! I’m not letting it into my car.”
“Take one of the cat carriers home from the pound then,” I said. “Put the cat into the carrier and bring it in that way.”
“Okay, maybe. But the cat’s crazy; you’ll never be able to give it a bath.”
I gave her a look that said yeah right.
“No, seriously,” she said. “It’s mean.”
“It’s a cat,” I said. “Not an 80 pound pit bull. Besides, what’s its name?”
“I haven’t named it.”
“You haven’t named it?”
“It’s just…eww.” She quivered again.
“I’ll think of one then,” I said, more puzzled than ever. “Just bring the cat in. Let me get it cleaned up; it’s probably suffering! Those fleas and ticks and all.”
A week passed before the subject of the cat came up again. I had spent the week caring for bottle feeders-kittens so young that their eyes weren’t open yet. It was an exhausting task. You had to feed them formula every two hours using tiny baby bottles, potty them, and make sure they were set until the next feeding. This of course involved getting up at night every two hours amongst so many other things. It wasn’t uncommon for these young newborns to die before being able to eat on their own. Caring for bottle feeders was stressful, and the thought of one dying on me kept me vigilantly awake at night. I had long forgotten about my conversation with Ms. Campbell. Hell, all I could think of was the sleep I wanted.
Then one afternoon Ms. Campbell arrived at the block looking haggard and worried. The moment she entered I knew something was wrong.
“Christopher,” she said. She was discreetly motioning for me to come to her. “I ran the cat over,” she whispered.
“What?!” I said. “Is it okay?”
“I think so,” she said, still whispering. “It’s not limping or making sounds like it’s in pain. It’s eating and it still meows at me through the garage door.”
“You checked the cat, right? Felt around to see if it was hurt?”
She looked around the day room to make sure no one was listening. Her shame was palpable.
“Yeah, I checked; it didn’t seem to be in pain.”
“Okay,” I said. Now tell me how it happened.”
“I was backing down the driveway and I ran something over and—”
“You actually felt a bump?”
“Yeah, right over it”–she skipped one palm over the other to illustrate–“it’s a big cat.”
I started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just thought of a name for the cat,” I said. “Bump.”
“Bump?” A quizzical look crossed her face.
“Yeah. It’s short for ‘Speed Bump’.”
Her mouth fell open and her hands immediately found her hips. For a moment I thought she was going to scold me! Instead, she started laughing.
“Bring the cat in,” I said, “and I’ll make sure it’s fine and I’ll get it cleaned up.”
“Okay,” she said.
What was this cat? I thought. I’ve never heard of a cat getting run over and surviving. By the time evening came, I had convinced myself that she had imagined running the cat over. It just didn’t make sense. Either way, I was excited. Partly because I was eager to see this cat, and partly because I knew the cat was dear to her, despite her aversion to it. I was determined to get her cat in order, even if it was a stray that lived under her car.
The next day Ms. Campbell arrived carrying a large cat carrier and a plastic Walmart bag with flea shampoos, regular shampoos, brushes, antifungals from the pound, and cat doses of Benadryl. There were also catnip mice and small rubber koosh balls and baggies of cat snacks. Several cans of Fancy Feast cat food clanked at the bottom of the bag.
All of it was for Bump.
“Well,” she said. “Here he is.” She passed me the cat carrier and I took it by the handle. The first thing I noticed was how heavy it was.
“Wow, he’s heavy,” I said.
She snickered, “Wait until you pick him up. He’s all muscle.”
I set the carrier on one of the tables and peeked in through the metal gate in the front. Crammed inside was a giant brown and white cat. The first thing I noticed was that it looked like it had been romping through mud and fields of burrs. They were stuck to its matted fur. It had patches of hair missing from its head, and the scent of dried, putrid pond mud wafted from within. Gawd, I thought, it smells awful. When I leaned in close, it growled and hissed at me.
“Here’s some stuff that you might need,” she said. She passed the Walmart bag. “I’m gonna leave Bump with you for the weekend. So there’s food and toys, too. If you have any problems, have the pound call me.”
“Cool. I’ll get him cleaned up right now.”
“Be careful,” she said again. “He’s mean.”
Mean, I thought. Okay then.
I went to the cell and found my cell mate JT. I showed him the cat and the bag of stuff, told him that Bump would be with us for a few days, and how we needed to bathe and flea dip the cat.
“Ms. Campbell said the cat’s mean,” I said.
“Mean, huh?” he said, a bit humored. He poked a finger in between the front of the carrier, and the cat hissed and spat. “Oh! Definitely a live one.”
“I don’t think we should let it out in here because of the fleas and ticks. So let’s take it upstairs to the porter closet tub and we’ll let it out there.”
“Sure,” he said. “Suit up!”
‘Suit up’ is what we’d say to each other whenever it came to flea dipping and bathing difficult cats. What did ‘suit up’ mean? In This World, it meant that I put on an extra pair of long pants, a sweatsuit top, my sweat jacket, and when necessary, my winter jacket. I have razor thin scars on my arms and legs from previous efforts while not ‘suited up.’ There’s nothing worse than four sets of razor sharp claws dig into your flesh, as 10 pounds of wet, angry cat uses your body to claw itself to freedom. So, yeah, I suited up for this one.
By the time we made our way upstairs, the other men in the cell block were staring at us. It was quite a sight to behold, I’d imagine: two grown men dressed like Eskimo’s with bottles of shampoo, flea dip, and an angry, hissing cat carrier. If I didn’t know any better, I thought I caught looks of knowingness. That look one gives you when you know something is about to turn out bad.
We arrived at the porter closet.
“Alright,” said JT. “You want to hold and I’ll wash, or I hold and you wash?”
“I’ll hold, you wash,” I said.
Holding a reluctant cat under a flowing faucet in a deep porcelain tub was always a perilous proposition. Once the soap lathers, things get slippery fast. I felt more in control if I held, so it was an easy decision.
I set the cat carrier down on the second tier range. This was always a tricky moment. Sometimes you let the cat out and it takes off for the far reaches of the cell block; other times there’s no issue.
“You ready?” I asked.
“Go,” said JT, as he positioned himself on the range to stop any attempt to flee.
I clicked open the front of the carrier, and the door swung wide. The cat didn’t come out. Crap, I thought. I really don’t want to have to reach in for it. I then gently tilted the carrier, and Bump came pouring out.
There on the range sat the largest cat I’d ever seen. Bump had to be at least 16 pounds! He had a white face, a brown chin, brown and white pastel mid-section, paws that were padded brown, and all white legs. All his white parts were caked with dirt and streaks of mud. His long hair was knotted and matted, and he had patches of fur missing on his head and hindquarters. No sooner had this registered did I catch a good whiff of him–pure pond puke.
I stared down at the cat, and Bump looked up at me. Despite his gruff appearance, there was tenderness in those eyes.
I reached down and ran a hand over him. I felt his body relax, and I was amazed at how solid he was. One giant, furry muscle.
“Aww,” I said, more to soothe Bump than for anything else.
I ran my fingers around his head and neck, walked and gently poked and prodded them down and across his mid-section. If the cat had any pain, this is when I’d discover it. I continued prodding down his hindquarters and stopped at the tip of his tail. About halfway down his tail he meowed, and I felt a swollen area. Poor thing, I thought. He definitely got it smashed somewhere.
I made a mental note for Ms. Campbell to let the vet tech know. I then picked him up, the final test of injury, and he didn’t make a sound.
“Well,” I said to JT, “he seems fine enough. His tail’s got a bump, but he should be fine.”
“Good. Let’s wash him. He stinks,” he said.
I hoisted Bump into the porter’s closet. There we had a tall, square, porcelain tub. It was deep; ideal for mop buckets and washing cats. I set Bump in the tub and eyed him cautiously. Bump just sad there looking up at me. Hmph, I thought. He doesn’t seem so mean after all.
JT started the water and found the right temperature. I put my hands around Bump and moved him under the faucet. The water flowed down his back and rivered away in dark flows of muddy dirt and grime. It looked like he hadn’t ever had a bath. To my dismay, I saw fleas fleeing to areas that weren’t wet yet.
JT worked the water into his fur and then squirted cat flea shampoo all over him. No sooner had he worked up a lather did I feel every muscle in Bump’s body tense.
“JT, hurry; I think he’s not liking this,” I said.
Bump cast a wild eye at me, and we made eye contact. Gone was the tenderness I saw seconds ago. His green eyes narrowed to slits.
“JT,” I said.
“I know, I know,” he said. His hands moved and lathered quicker now. Bubbles recklessly accumulated in the tub. JT had used so much flea shampoo that bubbles threatened to engulf Bump’s entire form!
Bump let out a grueling mewl. I felt his body contract ever more, pulling his form into a dense ball. Beneath my palms his muscles felt like stretched rubber bands about to fire.
I tightened my grip and tried to maintain a good hold.
“Murrr,” Bump growled.
“Almost there,” said JT. “You got him, right?”
I felt my hands slipping from all the soap.
“You got him, right?” JT said again.
“Dude I’m slipping!”
“Rinse!” I said. “JT, RINSE!”
But it was too late. Bump uncoiled from a singularity, exploded, kicking wildly in all directions. I felt the stabbing pain of rows of sharp, angry cat teeth in the back of my hand.
Bump began gator rolling—
–-Oh shit, I thought. Shit, shit—
—and rolled again, loosening himself from my grip.
JT’s eyes flashed fear and Bump’s flashed maniacal glee. 16 pounds of soapy, pissed off cat dug forepaws and hind paws into his arms and chest. The beast scampered up JT’s body like he was a scratching post, found his shoulders, and went airborne.
JT screamed like a little girl.
Convict heads rippled across the cell block.
Someone pointed and laughed.
I watched as Bump landed with a squishing smack onto the range. The cat ran for the stairs, making quick work of the steps down to the ground floor before disappearing from sight.
“Shit,” I said.
We eventually located Bump. He’d made his way to the unit’s laundry room and was hiding behind a dryer. By the time we pried him from behind the machinery, he was covered in dust balls and dryer lint. I never realized how dirty the laundry room was until that day.
The rest of the weekend was uneventful with Bump. He hid under my bunk, only coming out to hit the litter box and scarf down his food whenever I fished out a can. Then it was back to hiding in his cave. I tried to coax him out, but he hissed and spat at me each time.
“Fine,” I said. “Stay under there then.”
Bump stared back with disdain.
Ms. Campbell arrived on the unit Monday morning, chipper as always. She was at my cell door knocking before I even realized she was there.
“How is he?” she asked.
“He’s fine,” I said. “He’s got a bump on his tail, probably got it smashed somewhere so you may want to let the vet tech know.” I had picked Bump up and offered him out to her.
“O-oh!” she squealed, “He looks so good cleaned up.” She took the animal from my hands and smelled him. “And he smells so good! Did you have any problem bathing him?”
I looked at Bump, and Bump looked at me. Bump meowed innocently as if on cue. Pfft! I thought.
“Nah,” I said. “No problem.”
Ms. Campbell set Bump in his carrier and gathered up his toys. She thanked me for taking care of him and getting him fixed up. She turned to leave, but stopped short.
“Oh, I heard it took both of you to wash one little kitty.” She gave me a playful gotcha smile. “I told you he was mean.”
“Just try not to run him over again,” I said.
And with that, she was off into the crowd.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.