HILAND MOUNTAIN PRISON - A graduation ceremony for dogs wearing pink and blue mortarboards isn't expected to rise to the level of tears.
But tell that to Alaskan Betty Conklin who fell for a dog named Bilbo when she read about his troubles and sweet nature in the paper; and to Michelle Philman, an inmate at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center who spent the last several weeks believing in Bilbo. The two strangers embraced in a lasting hug and blushed at their own public tears over a dog that otherwise would have died.
"I held off crying until those pictures were brought out," said Philman in her yellow prison jumpsuit. When Bilbo, a Border Collie, Whippet mix, was found near Trapper Creek chained outside his former owner's house, he was all ribs and hip bones, as a graphic photo shows. He weighed half the weight he is now.
Today Bilbo graduated from an obedience class with four other dogs as about 50 female inmates cheered and applauded, and an inmate sextet played the Pomp and Circumstance march. The dog graduation was the first of its kind in the state. About a dozen inmates at the Eagle River facility volunteered to train the unwanted pets as part of a partnership between the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the state Department of Corrections.
Called SPOT, Shelter Pet Obedience Training, the pilot program helps the MAT-SU reduce the number of animals in its crowded shelter. Last year, 517 adult dogs and 32 puppies were euthanized. The inmates are taught how to teach the dogs skills that are valuable in the real world, among them: how to be house broken, kennel-trained and a few tricks as well.
The program helps the Department of Corrections because it gives inmates a boost in morale. Superintendent of the prison, Dean Marshall, was met with laughter when he told the crowd, "It's just tremendous to have these animals here." On cue, the floppy-eared German Shepherd mix rolled on her back, pushing a hairy belly into view.
The MAT-SU's Chief Animal Care Officer Dave Allison told the crowd that it's really easy to adopt out puppies and kittens, but very, very hard to find a home for an adult animal.
"When we received them, some of them we didn't know if they would live or die," Allison said.
Today the dogs exude health and playfulness. The program has gotten off to a successful start. All five dogs found homes before graduation day was over.
Sammy, a Rottweiler mix, was the last to find a home. Tisha, the German Shepherd mix, Max, a white Husky, Gurley, a white Husky, and Bilbo will not be returning to the animal shelter. The timing for adoptions couldn't be better. The shelter is under construction for upgrades right now so more than half its dog kennels are inoperable.
"We have to make decisions right now, which dog stays which dog goes," Allison said.
The lucky ones will get a second chance at life through this program. The pilot program has garnered enough interest and support to expand from five to 12 dogs.
In the coming days, two inmates for each dog will be chosen. "Half the crowd are ready to be handlers," Allison said.
For more information, contact Chief Dave Allison at (907) 745-5343.