YACOLT — After 26 months, Craig Bigler is a free man again.
“When I was younger and I got released from prison, it was like, party time, go wild,” Bigler said. “Now that I’m 50, it’s nice to have your freedom. I’m just going to take it slow, and just enjoy the day.”
On a gray Thursday morning, Bigler walked out of Larch Corrections Center with his belongings — a TV, hygiene products, court papers — as well as Cheetos, his newly-adopted orange cat.
Bigler and Cheetos were brought together by the Larch Pet Training Camp (LPTC), a collaborative program between the corrections center and the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. It’s a program that has helped hundreds of cats and residents at Larch since it began in 2012.
“It gives (cats) an opportunity to reset and rewind and be able to cope, to where we can really evaluate how they are behaviorally,” said Angela Rowland, feline supervisor at the Humane Society.
Rowland added that cats tend to “shut down in high-stress situations,” such as when they first arrive at a shelter. The stress of being in a shelter may make cats unadoptable until they learn to cope with the stress. Cheetos, for example — then named Galileo — was nearly feral when he first arrived at the Humane Society, and in no condition to be adopted.
Larch Superintendent Lisa Oliver-Estes said that inmates only worked with cats for the first several years, in part due to a “big population of feral cats” in the county. Larch began its program for dogs in 2016, a year after Oliver-Estes transferred from Washington State Penitentiary, which had programs for both cats and dogs.
Dr. Marci Koski, certified cat behavior consultant and founder of Feline Behavior Solutions, said that cats are well-suited to the prison environment — arguably more so than dogs.
“Cats can live in smaller environments, and they’re not as dependent on people to be taken out for walks,” Koski said. “They’re not quite as regimented as dogs in terms of some of the specific needs that may not be accessible for dogs in a prison program.”
A second chance
Though the program helps cats (and dogs) adjust to a home life, it also helps Larch’s residents re-enter society after a period of incarceration.
“It’s not just a second chance for the cats,” Koski said. “It’s a huge benefit for the people here who are handling and working with the cats. I think that really helps set them up for success once they leave Larch.”
Programs such as the LPTC are beneficial even for individuals who are serving a life sentence. Oliver-Estes described a man at the state penitentiary whose work as a dog handler helped him overcome depression.
“He just couldn’t stand the thought of being incarcerated for the rest of his life,” Oliver-Estes said. “Over a period of time, his relationship with the animals that he worked with was so phenomenal and so rewarding that he was able to go completely off of mental health medication.”
The program offered a new start for both Bigler and Cheetos. Bigler, a repeat offender, was most recently arrested in 2015 for burglary. Eight months into his stay at Larch, he got involved with the cat program, going on to become one of the lead cat handlers, working with a new feline about every month.
But the moment he met his orange tabby in March, he knew he’d met the one.
“He’d sit there and watch TV with me, play with toys with me all day, sleep on top of me at night, and I just decided that Cheetos was the cat I wanted to bring home,” Bigler said.
The Humane Society waived Bigler’s adoption fees, sending him home with food, litter and a bed for Cheetos.
Bigler is looking forward to his future — he said he’s already working on finding a job and could go back to work as early as next week — but looking back on his time in Larch, he’s grateful to the Humane Society and Koski for helping him “turn a negative into a positive,” he said.
Stories such as Bigler’s and Cheetos’, where a handler adopts an animal they work with, are becoming more common, Rowland said. Bigler’s case was the third this year.
“It’s one of the best outcomes for a cat of this program,” Rowland said. “He’s going home with somebody that he’s known for months on end,” Rowland said.