HARRISBURG - As he leaves office, Gov. Rendell is already focused on a pet cause he hopes will help ease two problems at once: He wants to give pooches to prisoners.
The goal is to make a dent in the state's burgeoning stray-animal crisis, while giving selected inmates responsibility for dogs - a pairing that has worked well in prisons that have tried it.
Rendell told The Inquirer that he wanted to create a network of animal shelters at state prisons to respond to the rising number of shelters that no longer accept stray dogs and cats.
In what may be his first action as a civilian, Rendell, who leaves office Tuesday, said he planned to announce his shelter plan as early as this week.
"I hear it's worked well elsewhere," Rendell said. He vowed to personally raise money for the potentially costly network - no mean promise in light of Rendell's legendary gifts as a fund-raiser.
While the statewide network he envisions might be a first, using inmates as animal trainers and caretakers is not novel.
Prisons around the country - including at least four in Pennsylvania - have programs that match selected inmates with dogs. In some cases, inmates get special training, and in turn train the dogs to help the disabled or to serve as companion animals for families.
"It works for everybody," said Kelly McGinley, coordinator of the Hounds of Prison Education (HOPE) program, which has operated at the state's Camp Hill maximum-security prison since 2005. "It provides dogs with training and socialization, while foster groups work on placing them with families.
"At the same time, it has a calming effect on prisoners - even those not involved in the program."
Inmates qualify for the HOPE program if they have had no disciplinary infractions for at least a year. Those convicted of sex crimes or animal cruelty are not eligible.
In Phoenix, a full-scale, inmate-staffed shelter run by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office takes in abused dogs as well as those left behind when human domestic-violence victims enter shelters that bar pets. At a newly opened animal shelter in a prison in Jackson, La., inmates - much like those at Camp Hill - are to learn dog-training skills they can use when they are released, organizers say.
"The concept is sound," if expensive, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which helped build the Jackson shelter. "You are helping animals by activating existing institutions. There may not be an economic development or philanthropic model, though, so the challenges come in application."
The stray-animal crisis in Pennsylvania cropped up last summer when the Delaware County SPCA announced it would no longer accept strays after July 2011.
As of Jan. 1, it stopped accepting strays from 20 municipalities that do not help defray the cost. Now, other facilities in the state are taking similar steps, and some shelters are considering barring strays.
"These dogs are going to die horrible deaths on the street," said Tom Hickey, a member of Rendell's Dog Law Advisory Board, who met with the governor on the shelter issue last month.
Hickey said he had met with Mike Wenerowicz, superintendent of Graterford Prison, and found him receptive to the dog idea. Graterford has already opened its doors to animals, launching a horse-rescue program last year at the former dairy on the prison's 80 acres.