Allendale County in South Carolina is one of the poorest areas in the country. The average household income is $25,327, and 42% of the 10,000 residents live below the poverty line. They have one grocery store, one veterinarian, and the nearest Petco is 45 minutes away. But despite what they lack, the town boasts an animal welfare program that is making a huge impact on the lives of homeless pets.
It started in 2013 when the warden from Allendale Correctional Institute reached out to Vikki Scott from a local rescue called Animal Advocates. Animal Advocates has a 12-year history of stepping up to take care of the area’s needy animals. They pull dogs and cats out of the overcrowded shelter to give them better chances at being adopted, and they’ve helped ease an impossible situation that has seen a euthanasia rate as high as 98%.
After a lot of planning, Animal Advocates sent two cats to live at the prison as part of a trial run for the MeowMates program. When that went well, they gradually increased the number until there was a total of 25 rescue cats living in the prison on a temporary basis.
As Vikki puts it, MeowMates “isn’t inventing the wheel,” but the innovative program stands out for many reasons. All the cats live in the cells with the prisoners. Vikki calls the prisoners who are accepted into the program the “pet dads,” and together they help homeless animals find new homes. The pet dads are responsible for socializing their animals and doing everything possible to care for their health and well-being. They take their roles seriously, and Vikki has watched the prisoners transition from wanting the cats for selfish reasons to truly caring about helping animals in need. She told iHeartcats,
“The men tend to build walls around themselves in prison, but the animals pull them down.”
The pet dads take in animals from all situations, and even feral cats have found new hope within the prison walls. A cat named Tallulah was a particularly fierce feral taken in from a colony that was destined for extermination. Animal Advocates saved her, but her hissing and scratching initially eliminated her chances of ever finding a home. She was fearful and resistant to change, but that didn’t stop a determined prisoner from wanting to help. It took time and patience, but the feral cat has since made tremendous progress.
Since Tallulah, the MeowMates program has raised 18 motherless feral kittens. Men who had no previous experience with animals were taught how to nurse the newborn babies and provide for their every need. They were nervous and uncomfortable at first, but they’ve developed a sense of pride and responsibility for taking care of their young charges.
Besides the 25 cats that currently call ACI their temporary home, there is also a group of dogs that makes up the MuttMates program. Regardless of species, all the animals at ACI spend a few months with a pet dad while they wait for the perfect adoption opportunity.
The work done by Animal Advocates through the MeowMates and MuttMates programs has earned national attention. Jackson Galaxy, the cat behaviorist, and host of the Animal Planet show My Cat From Hell, told iHeartcats,
“Programs like Animal Advocates’ MeowMates is a perfect example of the kind of forward-thinking in action that the animal welfare world needs. Animal Advocates recognized that animals were needlessly dying in their area, and then solved that problem – not only from the animal euthanasia standpoint but also from a human standpoint by helping inmates develop and widen their circle of empathy. These men will assuredly leave prison different than when they arrived because of their experience parenting and caring for these animals. Talk about a win-win, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
The Jackson Galaxy Foundation teamed up with the Petco Foundation to host the Innovation Showdown competition. Animal Advocates was chosen out of 200 idea submissions to be a finalist. They were awarded $5,000 and plan to use the money to expand the MeowMates and MuttMates programs. They’re looking forward to bringing in more helping hands to their rural area and saving as many animals as possible.