Moe the sloth thinks that “Farmer” Jeanne Selander is a tree. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
It’s something of a local law in Key West, Fla., that once you’re bestowed a nickname, you’re a certified member of the Conch Republic on this quirky island on the southernmost tip of the United States.
And so, even though Jeanne Selander never really wanted to be a farmer, she has proudly accepted her informal moniker of “Farmer Jeanne.”
Selander isn’t really a farmer. Her job more closely resembles a zookeeper or a prison warden, since she’s in charge of more than 100 animals and, on any given day, a half-dozen or more inmates while overseeing the country’s only petting zoo inside a jail.
Hand-painted signs lead the way to the Children’s Animal Farm at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
To get to the zoo, or the farm as it is affectionately called, you walk beneath the sheriff’s office and through a towering locked chain-link fence and wind through concrete pylons to emerge into a scene straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
Inmates in orange jumpsuits, most of them here awaiting sentencing, can be seen mucking out pens and pouring feed into buckets.
These fences were designed to contain both animals and inmates. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
Albert, a 50-year-old, free-roaming tortoise is typically first to greet visitors when Selander opens the prison gates, followed closely by Misty, a pink cockatiel who yells out, “I love you” to anyone who will listen.
Albert the African tortoise is strong enough to move concrete barricades. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
There’s a whole mess of potbellied pigs; most have been surrendered by their owners. Selander explains that many people mistakenly believe that these animals will stay the size of a Chihuahua when they really grow to about 500 lb. There’s Bam Bam, a miniature horse who is blind in his left eye; two alpacas from a rescue organization in Ocala, Fla.; an albino python; Kelsie, the attention-hungry lemur; 11 doves sent from Wisconsin; two Patagonian cavies, the second-largest rodent in the world; a toucan named Hemingway; two prairie dogs originally purchased at a roadside market; and Chanel, the de-scented skunk.
Misty the cockatiel greets guests and inmates by saying, “I love you.” (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
Selander doesn’t take primates as a rule. They’re too aggressive.
There are a few rules here that are unique to a zoo inside of a jail. For instance, Selander doesn’t let the inmates feed the sloths, Moe and Maggie, their fruit. The inmates may eat it. Same goes for some of the animals’ medication. They could take it themselves.
The petting zoo has three mini horses on the property. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
But Selander, a nonsworn deputy who had never been around inmates before taking this position, says she feels safe here. In eight years of working here, she has been attacked by an inmate only once.
The Stock Island Detention Center was built on stilts 11 feet above the ground to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Underneath the building is employee parking and a secure, fenced area used for the evacuation of inmates in case of a fire. The farm was started in this evacuation area.
The first inhabitants were a group of Muscovy ducks, which were killed on a regular basis by cars on the road leading to the jail. Next, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Miami asked whether the facility had space for a blind horse. Inmates created a pen, christened the horse Angel, and the farm was born.
As legend tends to do in Key West, Fla., news spread quickly across the two-mile island that the prison was taking in animals.
“If I have space and I can handle it, then I take them,” Selander says very matter-of-factly. “We figure out the money later.” No taxpayer dollars are used to operate the farm. Selander operates the facility mostly through private donations, and a small cut of the money from sales at the jail canteen typically covers feed and vet bills.
Angus is a prisoner favorite at the farm. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
I expected to be charmed by a modest petting zoo. Instead I was converted into a believer of the zoo mission Selander has embarked upon. “Farmer Jeanne” says at least three times during our talk that she has found her calling in life at the farm, and when she says it, you believe her.
The real constraint is whether she can evacuate all of the animals in case of a hurricane. If a Category 5 storm were to hit, Selander would load the animals onto an 18-wheeler and get them off the island to a farm they have on retainer on the mainland. Right now, they are just about at capacity for evacuation, which is something Selander considers when new animals are offered up. Selander admitted that she does have two exotic animals on her wish list.
“I’d love a giraffe and a zebra,” she said. “With all the celebrities in Miami, you’d think someone might end up having one.” She keeps room in the evacuation plan just in case.
The farm is normally open to the public, free of charge, on the second and fourth Sundays of every month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. “Farmer Jeanne” also conducts scheduled tours.
“I had 12 visitors my first Sunday open house, and now I regularly have 150 to 200 people on a Sunday,” Selander said.
The most famous member of the zoo just might be Moe, a two-toed sloth.
“Everyone wants Moe to come to their event,” Selander said.
Moe sees things upside down. (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)
“People think he’s hugging me,” Selander said. “He really just thinks I’m a tree.”
Over the years that she has worked at the farm, Selander has seen more than 100 inmates come through her program, some of them more than once. She keeps in touch with many of them once they are on the outside, and sometimes she gets word that they’ve used their experience at the petting zoo to get jobs working at veterinarians’ offices or local kennels. Some come back for open houses with their wives and their kids to show them the animals they took care of.
Jo Piazza cuddles with a kinkajou. (Brad De Peyster for Yahoo Travel)
The inmates do everything from cleaning to feeding to building new enclosures for the animals. Selander was recently strategizing with some of the inmates about how to make a prairie dog enclosure that would show off the intricate tunnels the animals can build.
Inmates do play favorites, and it isn’t unusual to see them running around with Angus, the giant black steer, or quietly talking to Ghost, the blind Appaloosa who was abandoned on the side of the road by her previous owners in 2008.
“I know they bond with Ghost,” Selander said. “When I see these big, burly, tattooed guys talking to a blind horse, that’s when I know that I’m making a difference.”