LSU veterinary students likely expect their studies to take them somewhere. They might not expect it to be behind razor wire.

The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, however, has some unconventional clients. It’s a partnership that works for both parties. That is certainly the case for Pen Pals, the animal shelter based at Dixon Correctional Institute, near Jackson.

“It is a superb learning experience for the students,” said Dr. Wendy Wolfson, who brings students to Dixon both to treat animals and to train the inmates who care for the dogs and cats on a daily basis. “It’s a great learning experience for the inmates. The students also see a different side of society. Most of us don’t. I’d never been to a prison before this program.”

“We would not be able to operate without Dr. Wolfson and her students,” said Col. John C. Smith, who oversees Pen Pals at DCI.

Coincidentally, operate is primarily what the veterinary students do at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center at St. Gabriel and Avoyelles Correctional Center at Cottonport, which have had feral cat problems. Cats, it seems, don’t have much trouble getting through fences and razor wire designed to contain inmates. Once there, they find food and are safe from larger natural predators.

“They’re amazing at getting into places they probably shouldn’t be,” Wolfson said. “Angola is on 17,000 acres. You start off with two cats, and that’s all you need to perpetuate, and nobody addresses the issue for years. That’s how you get 1,200 cats.”

Spaying and neutering is how the veterinary students slow the growth of the cat population, and they’ve performed more than 500 such operations on cats that have been trapped at Angola. While the cats are in custody, they’re de-wormed, treated for fleas, vaccinated against rabies and treated for diseases before being returned to the grounds.

Dixon has had its share of feral cats, but Wolfson’s students make a big contribution to the Pen Pals shelter. On July 23, Wolfson and a handful of students led training sessions for the inmates assigned to care for the shelter animals. This day’s workshop covered various parasites that attack dogs and cats, reviewed how to detect and treat the worms while employing proper hygiene to keep themselves safe.

The Pen Pals shelter has microscopes to aid in detecting the parasites.

Wolfson and students come to Dixon roughly every other week. On the recent visit, the inmates were prepared.

“I think they’re really soaking up the information we’re giving them,” said student Becca Broussard, of Baton Rouge. “They’re doing really good work. I saw some of the animals today that we saw last week; they look a lot better. So, they’re doing a good job.”

The students said they don’t find it intimidating to be working inside a prison. The inmates are motivated to keep it that way.

“You don’t want to make them feel they’re in a prison with a bunch of stereotypical convict guys,” said Wylie Vanscoter, one of the inmate Pen Pals workers. “You want to make everyone as comfortable as can be. … Everybody that comes here is doing it of their own volition, volunteering to help us. Trying to make them as comfortable as possible is a big thing for us.”