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At the Keys jail, animals bring connection, love and sometimes loss

Mo the sloth with monroe county sheriff's office farmer Jeanne Selander.
Ralph De Palma
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Farmer Jeanne Selander took Mo the sloth to as many community events and meetings as she could, to spread the word about the Monroe County Sheriff's Office Animal Farm.

Update: On Jan. 3, 2022, the Sheriff's Office announced the animal farm will re-open on its regular hours starting Sunday, Jan. 9. The farm is open the second and fourth Sundays of the month from 1 to 3 p.m. and is free.

The Monroe County jail in Key West has some unusual residents. There's an emu and an ostrich, along with five miniature horses, two hedgehogs, two lemurs and a kinkajou.

About 150 animals altogether live underneath the elevated jail on an animal farm that opens to the public twice a month when it's safe to do so.

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The animal farm recently lost its best-known resident when Mo the sloth (short for Molasses) died at the age of 18. Farmer Jeanne Selander spoke with WLRN about the farm, and moving forward without her frequent ambassador.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

SELANDER: There are very few things for children to do in the Keys. The nearest zoo is the Miami zoo up on the mainland. So we're the closest facility where you're probably going to see some exotic animals and farm animals and get to actually touch them.

WLRN: Does anybody ever give you a hard time that one of the best things for kids to do in the Keys is go to the detention center?

No. One of my things I've tried to do in the 15 years that I've been at the farm is make it feel like you want to come to the farm and that it's not scary to come and it's not like you're coming to the jail. In order to do that, I got an old beat-up, broken-down horse trailer and I had it fixed up and I started traveling all around the Keys with my animals. And people would say, "Where are these? Where can we see these animals? Where did you come from?"

Who takes care of the animals? Do the inmates help out? What role does the farm play for the jail?

So the inmates come down every day and they feed, water and clean and they get to interact with the animals. They follow me on vets' rounds when the veterinarian comes. They get to watch the feet being trimmed on the horses. They assist with trimming the nails on the goats and the bunny rabbits and anything like that.

I realize they're not therapy animals but we've seen how much help working with dogs can be for people with PTSD. Do you find that working with animals is helpful for the inmates' emotional welfare?

Definitely. I see some real changes in the inmates and they are very appreciative to be able to work outside and be able to work with the animals. I see them bonding with different animals. They look forward to seeing their favorite animals every day. They get one day off a week but the majority of them actually come to work on their day off because they don't want to sit upstairs. They actually enjoy being on the farm.

And when they get out, some of them even come back and bring their families to visit their favorite animals. And they keep up with me on Facebook and ask "how is Thunder is doing, or how is the donkey doing?"

I was going to ask if you had a favorite animal. Of course, Mo is the one that comes to mind — Mo the sloth that we lost recently.

Mo and I were pretty bonded. It was really special to be able to share him with everybody. And there would be kids that might be afraid to come up and touch him and I would always say, "how often do you get to pet a sloth?"

Is there another animal now that you can imagine becoming the ambassador that everybody knows? I adore those photos of the lemurs but it's hard to imagine them at a Rotary meeting, for example.

Yeah, that's not going to happen, unfortunately. The next one probably would have been Chanel the skunk because Mo did have days where he really wasn't interested in being held. Because just like people, he would have good days and bad days. And if Mo was not wanting to be held that day, Chanel the skunk was always my backup. But Chanel is almost 11 years old now and is starting to have some back problems. So we've just been real gentle with her and not picking her up.

I believe the right one will come along. But right now, I can't even imagine that any animals that I have could take Mo's place or even try to.
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The Monroe County Sheriff's Office opened to the public again early in December, for the first time since the pandemic started. Selander said the Sheriff's Office plans to re-evaluate conditions at the end of the year and decide whether to resume its normal open hours, 1 to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

Want to keep up with the latest stories out of the Florida Keys like this one? Sign up for The Tieline, our newsletter focused on all things Keys and Monroe County. The newsletter will arrive in your inbox twice a month and is written and curated by WLRN’s southernmost reporter Nancy Klingener. She shares her reporting, the latest news out of the Keys and much more. Head here to sign up.