The Animal Chaplains of San Quentin State Prison 

The day my chaplaincy supervisor at San Quentin State Prison asked me to coordinate a program that would bring animals into the prison was a happy day indeed. Animal chaplaincy has been a focus my entire life, though it was only after my formal chaplaincy training began several years ago that I heard the term animal chaplain. My excitement did not match the obstacles that met us in this endeavor. Starting a program in San Quentin is not something that happens overnight. Nine months after the idea came up, the program proposal is still an idea, stacked on the desk of an authority, wrapped neatly in red tape.


However, to my delight, I have come to see that Animal Chaplaincy is alive and well in San Quentin State Prison and shows up unexpectedly in many beautiful ways.


I always take note when anyone tells a story about animals, but especially at San Quentin where the sight or sound of any wildlife (except the birds on the yard) is extremely rare. Now and then one of the inmates will spot a deer walking across the distant hills. To the men this vision is akin to a sacred visitation, something that becomes a blessed memory, a memory that usually leads to other memories of their life outside the prison walls, times of youth, nature, connection.


To my delight, stories involving animals began coming in our Friday Meditation group. One day a man spoke about a crow that had taken up residence in the chow hall. This crow sat on a beam above the hall, observing all the prisoners. Now and then it seemed to blatantly mimic the correction officers, barking out commands in a staccato, almost sarcastic tone. Another usually reserved man spoke of seeing images of fish and turtles while he meditated, which led to a round of stories about childhood pets. Inmates spoke warmly of TV shows portraying animals of different species playing together or showing empathy for each other, which provided perfect material for our pre-and post meditation talks.


My favorite story is about an inmate named D. who always attends our Friday Meditation group. D. lives with chronic nerve pain that becomes unbearable when he has to be upright for any length of time. He arrives at our Meditation Class after spending the morning standing in the chow line, and lowers himself into his chair with obvious pain and discomfort.


Because of this, D. spends most of every day sitting in the far corner of the lower yard, his pain successfully mediated by sitting, as well as his love and companionship with the birds of San Quentin. Geese, starlings, pigeons, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, seagulls, even ducks; D. knows them all as individuals with their own personalities, habits and behaviors. D.’s “camp” in the corner is marked like bases around a home plate with various natural hollows and dips in the dirt that fill with rainwater. The birds come in close to get a drink as they roost or wander around on the yard. All the birds regardless of size or type are tuned into D.’s every move, physical or verbal.


D. told me that the geese, usually migratory birds, became permanent residents of the prison after the San Francisco Giants donated a grass mat for the ball field years ago. Since then, the birds’ constant presence along with the inmates walking the yard have become an integral part of life, a peaceful co-existence, one that can flourish regardless of anyone’s checkered past, present, or hopeful future.


One day, as D. and I talked about the birds, him on one side of the cyclone fence and me on the other, I noticed his feathered flock of friends come to attention and circle up slightly closer to us as if they thought me a threat to D’s safety. D. pointed to a goose standing alone with one leg held up. His voice thickened with sadness as he described how the goose had held its leg up for the past 10 months as if broken or at least hurt real bad! D. didn’t understand why none of the “outside volunteers” had offered to help this bird. The goose still flew fine, but hopped around the yard on one leg. Sometimes it’s disability kept it from getting food or drink, as the other birds kept it on the outskirts.


Together in silence we watched the injured goose for some time. I was struck by D. and the bird’s similar ailment, and said a silent prayer thanking the Great Universe for giving D. this perfect, feathered mirror. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a few men walking towards us from other places in the yard, men I didn’t know. One man approached and spoke “Yeah, that goose has been hurt ever since I got here over a year ago. I wish there was something we could do to help it. I hope it isn’t in pain.” Two other men coming into earshot echoed that sentiment. I was struck by their empathy for the goose. After all, these men are prisoners, tough guys. Their caring expressions and their warmth towards the goose stood in contrast to whatever past had ended them here. Many of them have maimed or murdered humans, and yet here they were so worried about this one goose with the hurt leg. I reflected on how this bird standing with it’s broken leg had induced such a depth of empathy in the men who gathered around, and I silently thanked the universe once more for the profound gift animals are to the healing of our spirits. Just then my class was called. I left my side of the cyclone fence and walked up the ramp to the classroom.


A few days later I walked out of the education building after class. To my surprise one of the guys sitting on the bench outside the building asked me if I’d found anything out about the one-legged goose. Another guy further down on the bench piped in, then another. Perhaps they had seen me talking with D. that day-in any case, I didn’t remember their faces, but remembered the entire conversation about the injured bird. The guys all echoed the sentiment of hoping the bird wasn’t in pain and wanting to get it help.


I asked the guys if any of them knew about Wildcare, an organization in San Rafael that rescues and rehabs wildlife in distress. I have brought live and dead animals into Wildcare over the years. I heard myself say “Someone should call Wildcare” but in that instant I also knew this job was mine. I promised the guys I would call Wildcare the next day and see what could be done about helping the goose with the hurt leg on the yard of San Quentin State Prison.


The next morning I called Wildcare. I barely got the words “volunteer in San Quentin” out of my mouth when I heard the soft voice on the other end of the line escalate with excitement. “I have been wanting to connect with someone at San Quentin for at least four years! Oh! Sorry! I didn’t mean to totally hijack the purpose of your call. What are you calling about?”


I told her about the goose with the damaged leg, and all the the inmates, who wanted to know if there was anything they can do to help it. Without pause she told me that state law mandates any one-legged or hurt-legged fowl brought in as a rescue must be euthanized. She confirmed my belief that the bird had adapted well to its chronic injury, was likely not in pain, and was probably going to live out a normal lifespan.


The kind, but knowledgeable woman went on to tell me that in her 7 years with Wildcare,  she has seen hundreds of birds from San Quentin treated for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was getting caught in razor wire. Knowing that the relationship between the inmates and the birds was tenuous, and knowing the prison rules against feeding birds, her hope was to provide more education to the men about the natural habits and needs of all the species of birds that freely visit and interact with the inmates daily, year after very long year.


I marveled at how this conversation about Animal Chaplaincy at San Quentin, and D., the Saint Francis of the prison yard, with all his birds gathered around their own Home Plate, had led to this person who knew and cared so much about the birds at San Quentin. I marveled at how the Men in Blue had shown so much empathy for the goose with the broken leg, and how that goose was the genesis for so many to have the wish to relieve its suffering.


The following week, I told D. and the other men about my conversation with the woman at Wildcare. They were greatly relieved to hear that the goose was probably not in pain, and would likely live out a normal life.


In hindsight, this Goose with the Broken Leg was also, in some ways, the Goose with the Golden Egg, as it is a catalyst for the emergence of empathy and compassion in the men on the prison yard, a feeling of connection, which led to connection with many others Once again, I find myself bowing in thanks to the sacred and crucial role animals play in the big picture we are all play a part in. There really is no us and them no matter what, and often the voice of Spirit speaks loudest when wearing feathers, fur or scales.

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