McNeil's menagerie: Unusual pets bookend history of now-abandoned island prison | KNKX

McNeil's menagerie: Unusual pets bookend history of now-abandoned island prison

Feb 12, 2019

Put simply, Charles Scanlon is an animal guy.

Like many families, the Scanlons had a dog — a German shepherd — that roamed freely during their years living on McNeil Island, where Charles worked as a federal prison guard.

But, as his son Terry can attest, growing up on McNeil in the 1970s meant life was different — and so were the pets.

“We had an amazing menagerie,” Terry said.

He’s not joking. The number of animals taken in by the Scanlons and others over the years, before McNeil’s prison was forgotten, could rival a Disney movie. And perhaps the best mascot for this story resembled Bambi.

Charles fondly recalls when one of his neighbors on the island discovered a fawn in the road, unharmed but alone.

“He put it in their car and took it home with them,” Charles said. “They were feeding it canned milk.”

That was until the canned milk upset the fawn’s stomach. Luckily, another set of neighbors had past experience raising a buck and knew the cure: store-bought milk and crushed Terramycin tablets.

“We named her Cricket because she was always jumping around and playing around,” Charles said. “She used to play with the kids.”

We named (the deer) Cricket because she was always jumping around and playing around. She used to play with the kids.

Keeping a deer as a pet had its complications, of course. Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted an island-wide count of the deer to assess the population. Charles says about 25 to 30 of the animals would be killed annually to maintain herd balance, and the meat was used to feed the prison inmates.

“They'd serve it on the main line,” he said. “It was a big treat for the convicts to have venison.”

Cricket was safe at first; the Fish and Wildlife hunters didn’t go near her territory. But eventually, the men in charge became strangers to Charles. He didn’t want to take any chances.

So, Charles did yet another unusual thing. He took a trip to a hardware store in Lakewood. He bought a can of fluorescent yellow paint — the kind nobody could miss, even in pitch-black night. And he made his mark.

“I painted a great big N-O on her sides,” Charles said, “on both sides.”

Cricket survived as the Scanlons’ unorthodox pet for about four years. Son Terry says the deer followed the family everywhere on the island, and even knew and responded to her name just like a dog.

My mom used to go to the little library they had in the school down there, and we would walk down to that school and she would walk with us, into the library with her hooves clicking and sliding on the linoleum.

“My mom used to go to the little library they had in the school down there, and we would walk down to that school and she would walk with us,” Terry said, “into the library with her hooves clicking and sliding on the linoleum.”

Then one day, Cricket disappeared.

“She just vanished,” Charles said, adding that he’s certain she wasn’t hit by a car. They suspect someone lured and killed her. “It’s kind of a shame because that was really a nice pet.”

Still, there were other domesticated animals who followed Cricket’s lead.

An undated image of an unknown man with two young deer on McNeil Island.
Credit Courtesy of Washington State Archives

“We had raccoons as pets, too,” Terry said. At one time, they had three: Rocky, Rachel and another one with a name they’ve since forgotten. “They were like dogs and would play with our old hound dog.”

In fact, generations later, raccoons continue to offer companionship at the Special Commitment Center, which still operates on McNeil and houses the state’s so-called “sexually violent predators.”

One resident there says three raccoon families visit every day, offering companionship in exchange for food. And they eat well, she says: “They’ll come right up to you. They’ll crawl in your lap. You can hand-feed them.”

Similar to the residents currently committed to the center, former inmates of McNeil Island’s now-abandoned prison say the raccoons made them feel more normal — even if just for a little while each day. People outside prison walls raise cats, dogs and other domesticated animals. These men treated the raccoons the same.

When you spend enough time in prison, very seldom do you run into anybody who's really glad to see you. And I'm gonna tell you, those raccoons were glad to see me.

Timothy Pauley says it’s a memorable experience from his time at the island prison. He’s currently incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex, but he was at McNeil between 1989 and 1991, then again 2008 to 2011.

“It was just a very cool experience, interacting with the wildlife like that,” said Pauley, who is serving time for murdering three people in 1980 at a SeaTac tavern.

“When you spend enough time in prison,” he said, “very seldom do you run into anybody who’s really glad to see you. And I’m gonna tell you, those raccoons were glad to see me.”

Pauley said he looked forward to hand-feeding them through the window each day. Sometimes, he added, he’d spend half his paycheck feeding them.

“It really made my life a lot better,” he said.

This story is the result of research from a yearlong project in partnership with the Washington State History Museum. It supplements Episode 4 of the podcast Forgotten Prison, a six-part series from KNKX Public Radio hosted by reporters Simone Alicea and Paula Wissel. Subscribe via AppleGoogle or anywhere you get podcasts.