Every day, the yard at San Quentin State Prison is bustling with wildlife activity. While inmates run the track and play tennis and basketball, a grass field attracts birds, geese, seagulls, pigeons, and blackbirds. Sometimes hawks fly over the yard looking for prey.
In the corner of the yard by a fence, an inmate sits on the ground, surrounded by birds. That inmate is Dean Thomas, who answers to the nickname “Birdman.”
“They call me Birdman, because I’m always interacting with the birds. I have a relationship with them,” he said. “They are my friends; they like to flock to me.”
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Thomas has been caring for the birds over the past seven years on the Lower Yard since he arrived at the prison. He said he has taken care of European starlings, redwing blackbirds, Brewer’s blackbirds, and sparrows. When they are injured, he gets them help.
“Sometimes the birds get entangled in strings around their body or around their foot. I’ll then untangle them and free them. For some reason, the sick and hurt birds, especially the pigeons and the little birds, find their way to me,” Thomas said, adding that if the injury is serious, he asks the yard officer to call the fire department or animal control officer.
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Thomas, who was convicted in 2001 for first-degree burglary, said he liked birds even as a young boy. He said it was a way for him to connect with nature and learn more about them.
“I’ve learned their habits, ways of breeding and how they migrate,” said Thomas, who has been incarcerated for 16 years. “Sitting with the birds has been educational and therapeutic in so many ways.” He added that he has also discovered that birds have memories, thoughts and personalities. He said each bird is different in its own way be it looks, mannerisms or markings.
Thomas said that he uses his Mindful Meditation class on Fridays to meditate with the songbirds.
“This has helped me to listen to everything around me,” he said. “This connection to nature is what is missing in much of society. …For me, nature and animals are necessary for my healing.”
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He added that the people are not very different from songbirds.
Thomas said he grew up in a family with divorced parents, and caring for the birds helps him emotionally and psychologically as he deals with life challenges.
“It’s therapeutic for me. It makes me feel loved and accepted [which was] something I was deprived of growing up,” he said. “These animals make me feel like I have a purpose and connection.”
As long as he is here at San Quentin, the birds will always have a friend to take care of them, Thomas said.