Inmates, Animals, and Art: Creative Expressions of Hope

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In my Roots & Shoots class at the Boulder County Jail students do amazing work

By Marc Bekoff

For more than 15 years I've been teaching a class at the Boulder County Jail that centers on animal behavior, conservation, and humane education(please see "Animals and Inmates: Science Behind Bars" and "Nature Behind Bars: Animal Class Helps Prisoners Find Compassion"). It is part of Jane Goodall's global Roots & Shoots program.

The class and the students' artwork give me hope, and in their drawings, sculptures, and writing, they express hope and trust. The work they do provides a forum for deep and informative discussions about other animals, nature, their connection to the outer world, and themselves. They also have written many beautifully composed essays and poems that express close connections with other nature. Many of the students find solace when they talk about animals and are outdoors. 

This essay is the third in a series of pieces concerning hope for the future. The first, "My Basket of Hope I: BeaRtrice, Oscar, and Asian Moon Bears," dealt with how the plight and recovery of bile bears in China adds to my "basket of hope" for future generations, and the second, "The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise," considers the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, the only U. S. civil rights organization working to achieve legal rights for members of other species. 

Animals are "safe" because they don't judge the students and they trust them.

Here, I simply want to show you some artwork from some of the men who have taken my class at the jail. When we talk about it, many of the guys tell me how nonhuman animals were their only friends when they grew up or how, when they get out, they want to work with animals. They often tell me how they felt the animals trusted them and didn't ever judge them. I'm including one of Gordon's motorcycle and a soap sculpture of the Buddha, because they show just how creative the students can be. (For more information on Gordon's motorcycle, please see Note 1 below. The sculpture took months to complete and was formed from hundreds of tiny bars of soap that were warmed up in the artist's hands.) Gordon's motorcycle also is an expression of freedom and his "human zoo" (sixth from the top), not surprisingly, generated a good deal of discussion about life behind bars.

The fifth drawing from the top, by Cody, is of a classic picture of Jane Goodall. The bottom picture, by Michael (who drew it in 45 minutes!), is of Jasper, a moon bear who lived at Animals Asia's moon bear rescue centre outside of Chengdu, China. You can read more about this most amazing bear being in my essay called "My Basket of Hope I: BeaRtrice, Oscar, and Asian Moon Bears" and links therein.

All in all, these pieces and other artwork and many essays I've received, speak for themselves. I thank, with all my heart, the wonderful men in my class for sharing their art, their feelings, and their words of wisdomover the years. I hope you find their work as incredible and inspiring as I do. The guys and their art give me hope for a better future, and I know our discussions about the importance of humane education and compassion do the same for them. 

Note: Gordon's motorcycle sculpture was inspired by the Eagles' songs Take It to the Limit and Hotel California, and was made as follows:

  • HUBS: toothpaste caps and tops of tubes

  • RIMS: combs and cardboard

  • TIRES: folded edges of rags turned inside out - stuffed and dyed with colored pencils and shavings

  • FRAME: plastic spoon and a few dead tree twigs -- covered with stained pieces of rags and toothpaste

  • ENGINE: shampoo container, tooth paste tubes for pistons; heads from bar soap, toothbrush handles, chip bags inside out for pipes and push rods, glue caps for air intake and battery

  • SEAT: cardboard wrapped with dyed rags and toothpaste

  • LIGHTS: caps wrapped in chip bags and candy wrappers for color

  • FORKS AND SHOCKS: pencils wrapped in chip bags inside out 

  • WHEEL FENDERS: straps from old shoes dyed and plastic strips for shape

  • HANDLEBARS: dyed twigs wrapped in chip bags inside out

  • HAND GRIPS: foam earplugs

  • GAS TANK: deodorant containers

  • SIGNS: pencils, light cardboard, colored paper

  • CACTUS: tube edge of rags stuffed and dyed and tooth paste

  • FLOWERS: rags and toothpaste dyed to color

  • RABBIT: rags 

  • TOP HAT: eraser wrapped in colored paper

  • SNAKE: wrapped up paper colored with tooth paste

  • SKULL: carved bar of soap

  • ROADWAY: cardboard, black marker for line; brick red colored pencil, lines yellow colored paper, road gravel and sand

Read Full Article in Psychology Today

Marc Bekoff