A Zoo Within a Zoo

By Mike Powers

One of the fascinating things about this prison experience of mine are animals which are formally or informally kept by the prisoners. All sorts of wildlife and domesticated animals can be found in and around the prison, and these “lifers” bring many of us prisoners a little joy and encouragement in an otherwise very dark place.

My transfer facility was all indoors, so the only critters to be found around there were insects and rodents - not exactly the best pets. Also, the facility was in Tulia where the climate was hot and arid, and so, even the insect cycles were minimal. That said, there was the giant rat I saw walking along the top of a water pipe above my head one day in the laundry where I worked. Someone cried out, “Look out, Powers!” When I looked up, right above my head was this enormous rat. At first, I thought he was a beaver or something, but the skinny, long tail gave him away. Several of the fellows took off their shoes and started throwing them up into the pipeworks. The big fellow had been sauntering nonchalantly along the pipe, but now, he hustled to the hole in the wall drilled for the pipe chase and disappeared to safety. If he ever reappeared, he didn’t do it while we were at work. He probably made it into the kitchen commissary and ate some inmate food, killing him instantly.

On my way down here to the Stevenson Unit, I had to overnight at the Dirty Darrington, so I was able to experience for myself what those poor reality TV contestants endure when they have to stick their head in a bucket of roaches. At that time, as a percentage of area, you could find more insect on the wall than paint. Nobody kept these as pets, I can assure you, but I later read an article in Popular Science that talked about how you can hi-jack a roach’s nerve system with a little wire harness and, for about thirty seconds, control his movement. After that, he apparently becomes desensitized to the electrical signals and regains control of himself. I’m not sure all the work of fitting the harness to the little guy would be worth the disgust at handling him and the brevity of the “remote control” power. Might be fun if you were in school and wanted to gross out your teacher or something.

My first real acquaintance with prison pets, though, was at the Stevenson. When the bus arrived, there were horses in the pasture, racing each other in play. It was rather idyllic, actually. Prison horses are working horses, however. The field bosses ride them when the inmates are working the fields - you know, like the plantation masters of old. They are not inmate friendly, either. They are trained to bite and kick any inmate that gets to close except for the ones directly responsible for their care and feeding. Yeah, exactly like those old plantation masters, I guess.

The horses have made for some funny stories, though. Not all the bosses that are asked to work in the fields are experienced hands. Some have to learn how to ride before they can start working with inmates in the field. There are other jobs they can do in the meantime. For instance, in the fall, especially, there is a lot of fog in our area. When visibility is reduced to a certain point and the towers can no longer guard the fenceline, the field bosses are dispatched on horseback to patrol the perimeter. Patrol is probably the wrong word, because they don’t move about. They just go to an assigned station and try to remain there. I say try, because the horses hate this duty. They want to run and race and play. A couple of years back, we had a new field boss named Ms. Lang. She had already established herself as a no-nonsense, take no prisoners kind of officer. But, she was no horseman. Assigned a duty post in the fog one morning, she was trying to get her horse to stay still in the designated area, but he kept on wheeling out of her control, first to the left, then to the right. Finally, having had enough of her “no-nonsense”, the mount showed her some horse sense; he bucked her right off as all of us were watching from a window. Needless to say, he became one of our favorite animals.

Another real popular pet we had around here for a good number of years was a big ol’ orange tomcat we all called “Fuzzy Nuts”, for obvious reasons. He earned his name the hard way. While we were out at rec one evening in the late summer, ol’ Fuzzy Nuts was still really just a kitten, he was gamboling around over by the volleyball court when a huge owl swept down out of the sky and snatched him up. For most of us, that was the first time any of us had seen a raptor go after his prey like that, and it was pretty cool to watch, even though we felt bad that this kitten was about to lose his life. Well, what we watched next was even more surprising. It was already dark out, and the glaring lights were shining down on us from their poles about 25 feet up in the air. The owl whisked Fuzzy Nuts up out sight, but then we heard a yeowl and a screech. All of a sudden, this bright ball of orange fur reappears from the night sky, legs splayed out, tail erect. He made a hard landing and hurt his leg pretty bad. Also, his ear was torn up and bleeding. He’d walk with a limp for the rest of his life, but he definitely earned the admiration of all us prisoners.

There are an awful lot of stray cats around the unit, and the orange furballs still keep coming. We are upto fuzzy Nuts the Third right now, but he’s, no fighter. That old owl would have eaten him for dinner.

The strays eat pretty good, because we eat so poorly. A lot of the leftovers make it out the chow hall door and out to the animals. It’s commonplace to see a mess of cats just about any unit you go to, but when the Stevenson Unit was evacuated for a hurricane not too long after I first arrived here, I saw something that really took me by surprise. Half of us got shipped to the Connally and half to the McConnell. The ones who got to go to the Connally got it good. Most of them slept on the chapel floor, and the chapel was air-conditioned. Also, the commissary manager took pity on them and let them make a five-item commissary run, so they were sitting around in the A/C eating ice cream and drinking Cokes while the other half, myself included, were stuck in a partially flooded gymnasium with one fan trying to blow on 700 inmates. It was a miserable weekend as we waited for the weather to clear, but there was one bright spot. When we left the chow hall after eating, instead of the usual cats gathered in the yard across from the door, there were a bunch of skunks. I can tell you, there were a lot of inmates who had more fear of them skunks than a phalanx of lawmen with guns drawn. It was hilarious. But the skunks were oblivious. They just sauntered around the yard gobbling up the fragments that residents to the unit had thrown for them. They stank, of course, but they didn’t spook, so there was no spray. Except for the food, they seemed like they couldn’t care less there were a bunch of humans walking by a few yards away.

Now, you’re also going to find dogs on most of the units, but these canines are certainly not our best friends. Most of these animals are trained to track and attack escaped prisoners. In fact, the trainers who care for the dogs are themselves inmates. Did you expect anything less? However, the dogs are deliberately mistreated by these inmates so that it is made clear that they are the enemies of anyone wearing white. I’m not talking about abuse, really, just that the dogs are not loved or petted in any kind of way by the people that feed them. Also, the “dog boys” as those inmates are called, have to dress up from time to time in a special suit and let the dogs attack them as if they are apprehending a runaway slave… pardon me, inmate. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, the dog boys, who are all outside trustees, sometimes have to leave a trail for the dogs to track. Whenever a guard is working with outside trustees off the unit in certain conditions, he will take one of the horses and several of the dogs. As the trailer goes by, you can see the horse, but not the dogs. You sure can hear them, however, and that’s why the TDCJ is the home of the “Barking Horse”.

One morning, one of the field bosses with a forty-acre spread in the seat of his britches was trying to round up a horse to put in the trailer. Don’t ever think a horse is stupid. These animals knew that after a short ride in the trailer, they’d be standing around in the heat all day with this rotund officer sitting on their back. These horses scattered every which way but loose when they saw him coming in the gate. We were laughing so hard, we like to splita gut. He finally made one of the trainers go in there and get him a horse, but not before he was huffing and puffing from the exertion of it.

Some fellows in here take the idea of having their own personal pet a little too seriously. Since there aren’t many animals that can meet the prerequisites for such hazardous duty, this humble station often falls to the many types of lizards that can be found around here. Since they are content to mostly just sit or lay around someplace warm all the time as long as they are fed, they make the perfect, and really only, kind of pet for us prisoners. It is not uncommon to see my fellow inmates walking around the dayroom with a lizzard clinging to the front of his shirt. They will eat the bugs that their “owners” catch for them while coming back from breakfast in the morning or going out to rec in the evening. Fortunately, as likely as it would seem given the typical inmate’s propensity for gambling, I’ve never seen anyone fighting their lizards. However, a great spectacle is made when a male and female are brought together and decide to make like the birds and the bees. In fact, the mating behaviorsof all the animals are big entertainment on the farm. Poor Fuzzy Nuts never got a roll in the hay but that the entire inmate population of the Stevenson Unit was instantly aware.

Something about the exhaust fan chutes on the rooves of the buildings intrigues the local bat population. As a consequence, quite often, one of these poor creatures will accidentally find his way into the dorm, and all hell follows with it. He flies around, frantically trying to find a way out, all the time dodging all manner of projectiles being hurled at him from every conceivable corner of the dorm. It’s not a pretty sight, and it rarely ends well for the bat. About the best the creature can hope for is to be not too badly damaged when the shoe hits it and the sheet is thrown over it. Beyond that, it will hope that no one stomps it, but instead carries it outside to resume his insect hunt. As contrary as many of our population are to letting bats live, the one argument that can often save their lives is their consumption of mosquitos and other pesky bugs. One thing that all of us “animals” in the zoo have in common is that we are terribly wary of the ones in gray.

The cats make a decided effort to avoid crossing their paths, and in this they are very wise. A sweet little gray tabby that abides near my dorm got caught in front of Officer Lucio, and before she could get away, he laid a mean kick right into her side. She let out a pitiful shriek and took off running. I was mad as hell. “That’s exactly the way you’d kick the inmates if you thought you could get away with it.” “Who says I can’t? he replied.  I’m going to go through the motions on a grievance since mistreating animals is against their code of ethics, but I’m pretty sure it won’t do any good. After all, these are the people who keep human beings locked up in 120-degree cells while their pigs get air conditioning.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez