Australian prisoners are rehabilitating animals that have been injured, abandoned, or even seized during police raids, in a unique program run through New South Wales Corrective Services.
Up to 250 animals -- including kangaroos, wombats, emus and snakes -- are kept at the Wildlife Care Center inside the John Morony Correctional Complex, located about an hour's drive northwest of Sydney, which houses both maximum and minimum security inmates.
Twelve minimum-security prisoners are carefully selected to participate in the program, which officials say teaches the inmates life skills and fosters a sense of responsibility and caring.
They "learn all the ethics that people take for granted in society, so we're talking about learning about wages and income, team work, ownership, responsibility," Ian Mitchell, the officer in charge of the center, told Kyodo News.
Inmates also work to build new enclosures, such as the long-awaited koala enclosures that are expected to welcome their first tenants in the coming months.
One such inmate, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said working with the animals has "changed him."
"As kids growing up we thought snakes were bad, but they got a place in society too. You just love em all, eh?" the 57-year-old senior caretaker said, adding, "I noticed a lot of caring in me that I never knew I had."
The inmate said that seeing injured animals recover has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
"When they (the animals) come here in a bad way, you give 100 percent to fix their problem," he said. "Some don't make it. Some might die. But the majority of them we rehabilitate and release them back into the wild."
He is one of only two inmates who have special privileges to live outside the prison walls, in an honor house close to the wildlife center, and has extended working hours to feed nocturnal animals such as wombats and possums.
"Every morning when I go feed them and do me rounds, each corner you turn, you're greeted with each and every animal in its own way," he said. "The ones that can talk, they'll say 'hello,' but the others, they make a sign to say 'G'day'."
While most of the animals at the wildlife center, such as Cynthia the hairy-nosed wombat, are recovering from injuries sustained in car accidents, others are brought in as seizures during police operations.
A jungle python was recently treated at the center for having methamphetamine in its system. The snake was seized during a police raid on an ice lab and required six weeks of detoxification.
"To watch an animal rehabilitate from something like that is another dynamic," said Mitchell, the center's overseer.
Spending 12 hours a day, every day, with the animals, the inmate who serves as senior caretaker pays special attention to those that have had a difficult history with humans.
"Some of them, they got psychological problems, they been mistreated," he said.
"We got one bird here, all he does is screech all day, but he's starting to come good now. I spend half an hour with him and he's started to mellow out. Time heals them."
The program not only helps the animals, but inmates too.
Anecdotally, program participants have a "very low" recidivism rate and appear to benefit from increased mental health, Mitchell said.
"Some of these men have had no visits because of their crimes... but animals are nonjudgmental," he said.
The wildlife center also has a close relationship with the local technical college, and inmates who participate in the program for at least 12 months have the opportunity to gain certified qualifications in animal care.
Walking through the center, it is clear that inmates have developed a close relationship with the animals, and Mitchell said the program tries to foster those connections.
"We move them around to give everyone a bit of variety with working with different animals, but if there are a couple of boys who really like the possums, for example, we don't move them on."
But the inmates are not the only ones who grow fond of the animals. Mitchell has a particularly special relationship with a juvenile emu called Koota.
"I actually named him -- I never thought I'd name one of the animals in the park," he said.
Koota's name was inspired by some Indigenous inmates whom the overseer had previously worked with.
"They called me 'Koota'...meaning 'you're a good guy, you're a good boss'," he said. "So I named him (the emu) Koota, because he's a good guy."
"He's my mate, I love him."
Several inmates who have worked at the wildlife center have gone on to work with animals "on the outside" and the senior caretaker has similar aspirations.
"I would do this same job if I could," he said. "If they asked me to continue this job and come back from where I live outside, I'd come and do it."
"I'm going to miss it, eh? I'm going to miss this place," he said.