Jeanne Selander oversees the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm at the Stock Island Detention Center — believed to be the United States’ only facility of its kind on jailhouse property — and the care of 150 animals including 17-year-old Mo the Sloth.
She’s always been an island girl who loves animals. Selander grew up on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina, a descendant of two of its 12 founding families.
As a child, she nurtured a small menagerie of animals and got her first pony at age 7. She was an equestrian team member at the College of Charleston.
During the past 15 years, “Farmer Jeannie” has mentored more than 1,500 low-risk detention center inmates who assist her with animal care. While the farm is a USDA-certified zoo, it’s really more of a sanctuary for abused, neglected and abandoned animals that become “forever residents.”
Animal farm charges include an ostrich, an emu, lemurs, kinkajous, horses and countless others. Selander has done five solo caretaking stints of two to four weeks each during the last 18 months of the pandemic.
Through the years, she’s spent nights hunkered down in a sleeping bag in an on-site shed during approaching storms. She’s coaxed horses and alpacas onto an elevator in the detention center, where the animals were sheltered in cells (the inmates were evacuated) and under her solo care for 28 days during and after Hurricane Irma.
Selander, who admits she gets bored really quickly, has trained horses and been a scuba diving instructor, environmental consultant, shrimp farmer on an aquaculture farm and zoo aquarium diver. While on a dive boat in the Bahamas, she learned she had landed a job at the Key West Aquarium.
Eventually, veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader convinced Selander to accompany him on rounds at the sheriff’s facility, which evolved through local word-of-mouth as residents dropped off various animals. It had gotten its start in 1994, when a deputy suggested rounding up neighborhood ducks that were crossing the road from a nearby golf course and moving them underneath the jail for protection from cars.
Selander saw its potential and today is dedicated to sharing it with others.
The farm, which survives primarily on donations, is currently closed but the reopening date is to be announced soon. “Farmer Jeannie” is implementing facility upgrades including the installation of pavers.
Selander’s dedication to animals doesn’t just infuse her professional life. In her spare time, she fosters and provides hospice care for senior Chihuahuas. She currently has seven Chihuahuas and one Yorkshire terrier.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Jeanne Selander: In 1992, for a coral reef biology class while at the College of Charleston. I moved to the Keys in 1998 with a degree in marine biology, and was the assistant curator of the Key West Aquarium for seven years. I completed my dive instructor training at Florida Keys Community College.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
JS: My favorite aspect is that we are rather isolated. I love the small, close-knit community — that we help each other out and, no matter where you go, you always see someone you know. The best part is that this is such an animal-loving community.
KT: What inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys?
JS: The beauty and uniqueness of the Keys is what inspires me to protect it — the mangrove islands, the coral reef and its diverse array of marine life, and our native wildlife, several of which are endangered species.
KT: How does that passion influence your work?
JS: I strive to educate others, especially children, about the uniqueness and fragility of our flora and fauna.
KT: What are some of the ways that you help protect the local environment?
JS: Through constant outreach and education.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
JS: I’m always challenged, but it’s not just a job. It’s my passion; it’s a labor of love. It’s something I do that matters and makes a difference every single day, not only in the lives of the animals but also the inmates and our community.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
JS: I hope that others will develop a passion for saving animals, protecting our local environment and helping those in need.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
JS: My mission for the farm is to advocate for being responsible pet parents by spaying and neutering your pets, keeping in mind that animals are not disposable — they are a commitment for THEIR lifetime. At the farm, I practice what I preach. When animals arrive here, they are home.
KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
JS: Rescuing senior dogs. I take in those that no one wants, that either have behavioral or chronic health issues. I care for those that need a safe place to land for their final days, and I promise to give them only their best days.
Mo, the 17-year-old sloth, munches on a corn cob.
Farmer Jeannie hopes others will develop a passion for saving animals, protecting our local environment and helping those in need.
Animal farm charges include an ostrich, an emu, lemurs, kinkajous, horses and countless others, including a snake or two. Image: Rob O'Neal