TORONTO - Cows and chickens may not be wanted at some Canadian prisons that are closing their last prison farms, but cats are OK at others.

About 17 feral cats who've made their home at the Bath Institution, a medium-security prison near Kingston Ont., are thriving thanks to the efforts of local animal welfare groups.

The wild cats, who by some estimates have lived on the prison grounds for about 20 years, faced an uncertain future until a deal was worked out in March with prison officials to have them spayed, neutered and vaccinated.

Mary Shaw, a veterinary technician in Kingston and the director of the Spay Neuter Kingston Initiative, was one of the people who spearheaded the deal, which was put into effect earlier this year.

Shaw said she was told at a meeting with a prison official last spring that the cats "had to be removed -- period" from prison grounds.

"Options that were available at that time, according to the assistant warden of operations, included trapping and removal to a veterinary clinic or the pound, which guaranteed their death, as shelters cannot and will not attempt to rehabilitate ferals," Shaw said.

Corrections Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A former prison worker, who is now retired, said she was told by the acting warden last January to get rid of the cats.

Suzanne Stevenson said she refused and started looking for a solution. She got in touch with Shirley Steward of the Lennox and Addington Feline Fixers who got the ball rolling. The Spay Neuter Kingston initiative eventually took the lead role.

Stevenson said inmates also circulated a petition among themselves, gathering 300 signatures out of about 345 inmates.

"The inmates loved them," Stevenson said. "They're very attached to these animals."

Stevenson said she and her co-workers were afraid getting rid of the cats would put the prison workers in danger because it could increase tensions in the prison.

"You never know, they get so upset that anything could happen. It doesn't create for a good situation."

The cats received veterinary care and special year-round shelters have since been installed on the prison grounds for the felines to live in during the winter months. As of Aug. 2 all of the adult cats from the prison had been operated on, treated for fleas, vaccinated and dewormed.

All but four kittens born in spring litters have been adopted by residents in the area.

Shaw said the inmates were vocal about wanting the cats to remain on the prison grounds. She got an earful during her first visit to the prison to see the cats in March 2010.

"As we were being shown some of the cats that were hanging around the back of the kitchen, there were men... standing along the fence yelling 'Save our cats. Save our cats. Save our cats,"' Shaw said.

"It was quite touching."

Shaw said seeing prisoners treat the cats with tenderness and affection challenged her perceptions.

"You see these guys going absolutely mushy over cats," Shaw said.

"It changes your whole way of thinking when you recognize that you can actually introduce someone to the concept of empathy and compassion using an animal, and see how it changes their lives."

The rehabilitative nature of animals had been one of the arguments of the Save Our Prison Farms activists, who have been campaigning against the closure of six Canadian prison farms.

Protests were held over the summer to mark the closing of the prison farm program at the Frontenac Institution in Kingston. A couple of dozen people were arrested on Aug. 9 when protesters tried to block trucks carrying livestock being removed from the prison to be auctioned off.

The Conservative government had opted to close down the six prison farms across Canada, saying they were no longer useful.

Figures from the government showed the farms generated revenues of $7.5 million, but had expenses of $11.6 million, for a loss of $4.1 million.

Federal plans called for about 8,000 chickens and 300 cows to be auctioned off from the Frontenac farm.

But a Save Our Prison Farms organizer -- and one of 24 people arrested during the protest -- said the decision to save the cat colony at Bath Institution shows Corrections Canada understands the effectiveness of animal therapy.

"I think this just helps to prove what we've known all along," Andrew McCann said.

"The Correctional Service of Canada itself understands that one of the most important tasks it performs is to correct, to help inmates be prepared to reintegrate into society."

Save Our Prison Farms isn't giving up its fight to keep the prison farms. It's planning on releasing a public service announcement about its campaign that will feature authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje as well as musician Sarah Harmer.

Those arrested also have a court date on Sept. 14 and McCann said many are planning on pleading not guilty. He said most have been charged with criminal mischief.