In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, more than 50,000 animals — considered a conservative estimate — in New Orleans were abandoned as their owners fled to safety, according to officials at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson.

Residents’ intentions were to return within days to retrieve their pets, but the animals were left trapped in homes, chained to fences, swimming in storm waters and without food or water.

Understaffed and overwhelmed but motivated by compassion, rescuers found help in the form of a few dedicated volunteers from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, according to Cpl. John C. Smith, of DCI.

Smith said DCI assisted by temporarily housing some of the abandoned animals in a makeshift animal clinic set up inside an empty barn on prison grounds.

“Suddenly, we had inmates being trained to care for about 300 cats, dogs, chickens, ducks and even a few geese,” said Smith, who spoke March 19 along with Brandon Jensen, also of DCI, to the Rotary Club of Zachary.

In response to Katrina and the relocation of the animals, an agreement between the Humane Society of the United States, LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and DCI was formed to build a permanent shelter where student vets could gain experience while inmates cared for the animals and homeless pets in East Feliciana Parish, as well as an emergency/temporary animal shelter that could be used during any state disaster.

A $600,000 grant funded the construction and inmate labor was used to build a 9,000-plus-square-foot facility that would eventually expand over 4 acres.

In September 2008, Hurricane Gustav made landfall in Louisiana and the emergency shelter and DCI offenders and staff were put to the test, Smith said.

“Thirty-three dogs and 39 cats from the Lafourche Parish Animal Shelter were transported to DCI where offenders set about washing, walking, feeding and caring for the frightened animals,” said Smith.

In 2010, the permanent shelter was completed, and today, Pen Pals Inc. Dog and Cat Shelter and Adoption Center operates in East Feliciana to provide comprehensive training for future veterinarians and promote the rehabilitation of those incarcerated who are trained to assist, Smith said.

Smith and Jensen oversee about six offenders in the daily operation of Pen Pals, which has 80 dogs and 20 cats available for adoption.

Inmates work seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. bathing and grooming the animals, cleaning kennels and training the dogs to be agile, obedient and comfortable on a leash. Inmates take a veterinary assistant course to become certified to work in the shelter, a course they pay for themselves, according to prison officials.

“The waiting list is long for those who want to work in the shelter,” Smith said. “Pen Pals is a mutual assist program. The offenders assist, care for and love the animals, while the animals help the offenders rehabilitate, hopefully reducing recidivism.”

To be considered for the job, offenders must be model inmates, have good behavior and no animal cruelty or sex offender charges.

As far as he is aware, Smith said Pen Pals is unique in that it’s the only shelter on prison grounds that’s run by inmates and offers the services it does, such as working in LSU’s shelter medicine clinical rotation.

The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. Wendy Wolfson oversee students in ensuring Pen Pals has proper medical supplies, surgical equipment and animal supplies needed to effectively run the facility. The LSU students make the DCI trip a few times a month to perform health exams, spay, neuter and to vaccinate.

“No cat or dog will leave here unless it’s been spayed or neutered,” Jensen said.

“We socialize the animals and teach basic commands in an effort to make them more adoptable,” Jensen said.

LSU students and faculty show the inmates how to provide daily care for the dogs and cats, and administer vaccinations, heartworm treatment, medicated eye drops and antibiotics. Prisoners also are shown how to identify illnesses such as rabies, parasites and heartworms.

Smith said Pen Pals is a nonprofit, no-kill shelter run entirely on donations and grants.

Animals at Pen Pals are ready to be adopted and can be visited at the shelter from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday or by visiting www.petfinder.com or www.facebook.com/PenPalsIncAnimalShelter. Adoption fees are $40 per animal.

Smith asked that visitors call Pel Pals at (225) 634-6051 before showing up at DCI gates since prior approval must be obtained.

Pen Pals at DCI, 5568 La. 68, Jackson, accepts donations on Facebook via Pay Pal or by mail at Pen Pals, Inc., P.O. Box 788, Jackson, LA 70748.