Room for Behaviour

scout hall

A room full of behaviour vets.


Women mainly. We are described as the ones engaged in the fluffy, feel good stuff, but make no mistake about the science. It is heavy. There is long-term potentiation, serotonin, biochemistry and neuroanatomy, enough to make your head spin. The desire to skip the hard stuff is slowly disappearing as the need to open it up and have it within my cells, known and understood takes over. Like learning a new language. They say when finally you’re fluent you dream in the foreign tongue.


I am feeling positive about doing my membership examination next year. Maybe for the first time. Most of us are buoyed by nearing the end of the course – feeling in a way that things are falling into place. Dr Caroline gives a talk on the brain and up flashes her slide “behaviour = protein” – she tells us it was an epiphany for her. Of course her epiphany is hers alone. They are personal connections. To her brain it makes complete and utter sense. Unless you are a behaviour brain nerd it probably doesn’t give the clarity she is aiming for. But it is a piece of the puzzle. Some bits we still have to put together for ourselves.


Analogies. Metaphors. Stories. Pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built and being likened to the architecture of the brain. They are all bits of the puzzle.


Epiphanies are being had all over the room. I have my own nonsensical epiphanies over the weekend. Dogs = prisoners. Owner = prison guard.  I think of how the prison workers I have met always correct the word “guard” preferring to be called “officers.” Because even though it is just semantics it is important.


Dr Jacqui steers away from the label of “problem behaviours” and calls them “training issues” and for dogs with the more serious imbalance of a “behaviour problem” as dogs with “mental health issues.” It helps me because the mere swapping around of the words “behaviour” and “problem” has never really differentiated the conditions enough for me. Language is how we communicate our world and with behaviour medicine so many words are already loaded, hijacked by life, before we come to them. Our words in behaviour are words we already use daily when we talk about children and spouses and all the other relationships in our life.


We are warned against using “commands” when we instruct our clients about their dogs. Another cog falls into place when we replace “commands” with “cues.” When we switch “leadership” with “working with.” The beautiful thing about behaviour medicine is that animals have a say, finally. Isn’t it what you wanted when you first chose vet science as a career? You wanted to care about how animals felt. What animals want is important to behaviour vets because we are not all about wanting control. We want peace. This is a different thing. It requires both parties to give some. We need to speak to people about managing their expectations of what they want from their pet. We need to understand the behavioural needs of animals.


Let’s think about not clipping the wings of birds and ridding them of their natural ability to escape. Maybe you shouldn’t have a bird if you want to confine it always to a cage too small for it and have it live with its natural predators looking on. And what about not picking up rabbits, since for a rabbit to be hoisted up off the ground predicts for them that they will soon be eaten. Instead train them to enter their carrier and move them this way. Perhaps buying a rabbit because it is fluffy and soft and good to cuddle fulfills the need of the human animal, but takes not into account what a rabbit wants and needs.


Behavioural medicine with the animals we share our lives with needs to be not just about what owners want but about animals in their care too. Good behavioural medicine gives animals the right to say No. It is a mind switch. Animals can tell us –I am not comfortable with that. I am frightened. It stops us labeling them vicious and mean and bad.


Just as a prisoner officer who worked in juvenile detention told me once; “Kids in here aren’t bad – just sad.” When you work with children who you perceive as being sad, as opposed to criminal, it makes an enormous difference to the way you treat them. Who punishes someone for being sad? The empathy channels are open when they are allowed to be.


Epiphanies – they force a crack open. Okay so maybe we are not having Isaac Newton type epiphanies here, but still. I feel just the beginning of the weakening of the shell, the wall. Soon the crack will widen and all the knowledge banked up beyond will flood into me.


The Shoe

This was how it was pronounced – the shoe. “He’s in the shoe.” What they were really saying was SHU – which stood for Special Handling Unit. It was the part of the prison where the real baddies were and it had an ominous feel about it. You should feel nervous about entering here. The SHU officers had straighter backs, tighter shirts, highly polished boots and elaborate and colourful tattoos down their arms. They had body art. Let’s be clear – inmates had tattoos – the black blue bleeding lines. LOVE. HATE. That kind of thing. These guys had shading and three-dimensional imagery on their biceps. Smiling at them you felt like they might say back, “It’s no joke.” “There’s nothing funny about the SHU.” There were no female officers in this part of the prison. When we visited it, Warwick and I went together or else Warwick went on his own. I often didn’t go at all, after the first few visits. It really scared me.

We were escorted by an officer through some heavy locked gates and down a race and then into a further locked area where there were a couple of administrative rooms before we entered the prisoner area.  Like going deep into the Russian doll. Layer after layer. If we had anything with us we had to put it in a locker. One room held the Santa suits – the orange outfits that labelled them as men of the SHU, as well as the riot gear that might be required one day. Before we could enter one side of the SHU where the ten or so prisoners were, the officers inside were told to put a certain prisoner away on the other side. He was not allowed any female contact. Not even to lay his eyes on one. He had once been in a medium security prison and armed with a knife had captured a female arts worker and held her prisoner, doused her in aerosol and repeatedly raped her over six hours. He had, in the years before the attack, gained people’s trust enough to become a cleaner in the Education Area, despite having twice assaulted female prison workers whilst in captivity. Caring people had been duped. From his position as cleaner he had tricked them into believing he had left the area, but had stayed behind to ambush the woman. She had been lucky to survive. Now he was never to be released and no one took any chances with him. His actions had deeply scarred the whole prison community. It pleased me to know he could not even see me. Once he was in his cell on the other side, we could enter.

But it was weird to know he was there. Adrenaline. “He’s away. Safe to enter.” Even behind the locks and the bars on the far side of the Unit I felt my heart speed up. This man was sitting in his cell. This monster. I had never really felt this way before about someone. Labelled them. It didn’t feel normal to feel this frightened of someone else. It turned them into something less than human. An essence of the fear he engendered hung everywhere. Monster. But having heard the story of his assault on the woman it seemed the only term for him. It seemed sensible too to be very afraid.

Men in the SHU didn’t usually put their names down on the flyer to see the prison visitor, but we went there anyway just to have it said out loud that we were there and able to hear anything they might want to say. Warwick seemed to think it important to make sure we had not forgotten them. The officer would announce us a little half -heartedly and stand in the back ground. “The prison visitors are here. Anyone want to speak to them.” If not in lock down the prisoners were free to roam the Unit. If they were in sight of us they might shrug and then turn away. Like they had boredom to get back to. Perhaps a “Morning Miss.” We would wander the corridor and poke our noses into their open cells and say Hi but mostly we were ignored. Mostly we chatted to the officers. Admired the body art. I positioned myself so no one could get behind me, just in case. Someone was teaching the drug cartel guy English and in return he taught them Spanish. Someone else was working out on the gym equipment. Someone else was doing the clean up in the kitchen. From the central area we were being watched by two unseen officers in the control room. It was that glass that you can’t see through. Each guy in the SHU had his own cell. There was no sharing in here.

One guy was in here for punishment. He was in lock down. Back in the Units when he had been doubled-up he had lost his temper and torn his cell-mate apart. The superintendent told me he had never seen a man so damaged by some one with no weapon other than his bare hands. The attacked man had had to have metal plates put in his face to repair it. This guy wanted to talk to me and was brought from his cell. We sat in a glass room with an officer outside watching us through the glass. The prisoner was in orange with shackles around his ankles and his wrists. Bare feet. The suits have no pockets. Nothing on their person can be hidden. The officer pulled the chair back for him so he could sit opposite me. He leaned forward to tell me his concern. I wrote down his complaint. I can’t recall our conversation now, but when he asked me what I did on the outside and I told him I was veterinarian he lifted his chin and said “and I’m a tiger.”

Another guy in the SHU was a serial self-harmer. He was in there for his own protection and perhaps because not many people could abide his strangeness. In the SHU he could be closely monitored and a kind officer was working hard to help him stop his self-mutilation. He had a habit of pushing razor blades up inside his urethra.

From within the SHU there was no view of anything outside it. Grey bars, grey walls, concrete. It was extremely claustrophobic and airless. The stainless steel kitchen was spanking. There was one exception; the small concrete exercise yard. If you looked up. Then you saw a patch of sky. Blue and pure and far, far away. Not a big dome of it like normal Western Australian sky. Just a smidgen. The exercise yard was bit like an old-fashioned Elephant pit. The concrete walls, spotty and black in places with fungi, reached to the sky, unscaleable. There were no windows out of the SHU. It was, and no doubt still is, very secure.

Not Just Any Wooden Chopping Board – A Prison Tale

Some years ago I got a wooden chopping board from Casuarina prison. I purchased it from the wood-working section when I was a volunteer for the Independent Prison visitor scheme run by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services.

As a prison visitor I would observe and speak to any prisoner who had scrawled their name on the pale green flyer pinned to their unit wall. It was our job to document their concerns and take it to the Superintendent. He was a man close to retirement. He had worked all his life with prisoners and you got the sense he really cared for them. He lunched at the prison on Christmas day, he told me. When not discussing the prison he wanted to ask me veterinary questions. He loved to talk of the heifers he raised on his hobby farm. If he was unavailable we would meet with the Deputy. Taller, grey-faced, smelling of cigarettes, with the nose of a heavy drinker. Afterwards, we would write a report for the Department of Corrections as they were required to respond to the prisoners concerns. We were a kind of weak-willed watch-dog, but we were also able to get some minor problems solved, as they arose, if the prisoners were unable to do it themselves. We could get them an appointment with the dentist or find them someone to explain their sentencing. The Super would just pick up his phone. They, of course, often had bigger concerns that we had no control over. Like “I am Innocent.” One man liked to detail his entire defence and how he was unjustly accused and convicted for the murder of his wife. He didn’t even believe she was dead. No body had been found. He couldn’t possibly have done it. His version was, to me, very believable, and he was reasonable company; often making scones for our scheduled visit. If his name was on the list, I would see him. Others, similarly, just wanted someone to talk to and would make up a reason to see the Visitor. One day I asked the Super if he thought the man had killed his wife. Of course, he said. No doubt about it.

The prison visits were conducted in pairs and I usually went with Warwick. He had done the job for a lot longer than me. And he went to more prisons. He was a retired Christian Brother and a good man. He wore a tweed jacket. He believed people, but was not naive. He let them talk, but also knew how to end a conversation that wasn’t going anywhere. Warwick would see some of the more difficult men or those deemed unsuitable for me to see. Or simply the ones that gave me the creeps. Like the guy who started commenting on my appearance. Your hair’s nice today, Nicky. It was in relation to him that I first heard the term Groomer.

We would typically have twenty or so names to see and we would divide them equally and head off in various directions to find our guys. They might be in their units, in education or working. We would be escorted by an officer, if we requested it, but after a while we just went on our own, knowing the lay of the land. Walking across the grounds of Casuarina, even with the sun out and the drone of lawn mowers, made me a little nervous. After all it was not just any garden and the men working on the flowerbeds not just regular gardeners. They were inmates. Granted, to be on the Gardening team meant you had to be of the Good Kind, after all you had the roam of the place and you had tools. You got to drive a little buggy and cart bins. But still. The price of an active imagination was walking across the grounds, whilst scanning for potential threats, locating officers whereabouts, imagining how I could use the flimsy exercise book as a defensive weapon.

Those not working would be in their units. Each unit was cordoned off from the general grounds by fencing and an electronic gate operated from within the unit. Men would loiter at the fence and watch you walk by. Morning Miss. Bouncing basketballs, doing chin ups. Putting muscles on muscles. What ya doing Miss? Any laughter was at me, I was sure. You needed to greet them and smile. It felt required. One time, an officer said to me, “You know they’re thinking of what they would do to you if they could.” That unnerved me. My heart was racing. It made me scared of the officer too. The way he said it. The way he wore his belt so tight. The way he thought I might be a stupid do-gooder for coming there in the first place and deserving of what I got. Who was thinking what in here? Always in the back of your mind, it felt dangerous. And I was a little on edge. Maybe that was a good thing.

Some officers made you feel that way – a Them and Us. But others had a different approach. Mentoring and helping.

Where men were working it felt more settled. People had things to do. The officers had a role to teach more than guard and it made for a better atmosphere. More like high school. My favourite was the Bakery. Men in white, aprons to their knees, and flour smudged and softened everything. Yeast and baking bread overrode the prison smell. My least favourite – veggie prep. Piles of potatoes for peeling. An overripe stench. Wet floors and gum boots. Hair nets. A man worked here who all the others despised. He had AIDS and they feared him. He picked the festering scabs on his face and they said he bled over stuff. It’s Unhygienic. The others wanted him removed. But it was a privilege to have employment. And he’d earned it. After all you have more freedom that way. You got out of your unit and walked in a group with a couple of officers the length of the grounds to the work areas. Tell him to quit picking, suggested the Superintendent.

So one day in wood work I bought a wooden board. I checked with the Super. It was okay, as long as I made sure I paid for it. An invoice was created and a cheque made out. No cash in prison.

When I use the board I think of Casuarina. The prison in the scrub, an oasis in sand, its perimeter razor wired and impenetrable. Driving away, past the Vietnamese market gardens selling strawberries by the roadside, past the new suburbs with their darkly tiled roofs, I began to breathe. I drove to the ocean and sat looking out. The ocean went on and on. So free, I felt. So grateful, and liberated, and free. I burst into tears. I didn’t know where the tears came from. I guess it was simply a release from the stress and fear. In the prison I had encountered madness. A young man was so clearly deranged that even I, with no training in mental health, could see he needed to be in hospital, rather than in prison. He believed the superintendent had implanted a monitoring device in his brain and was watching everything. Everyone knew of this young man. The prisoner was always on the list. We couldn’t help him. We nodded and tried to get away as quickly as possible. We wrote notes about getting the device removed. He was one of the forgotten. Young and pale, in his dark green prison attire, breakfast stains down the front of him. A face tortured with illness. Nails bitten away. His name sent eyebrows to the heavens and made officers groan, “What does he want now?”