Unlocking History

San Quentin pet duck was therapy animal for terminal patient

A clown is walking a pet duck at San Quentin.
A San Quentin clown walks a duck, most likely Oscar, at the 1930 Little Olympics. (Marin Public Library Anne T. Kent California Room.)

Before days of therapy dogs, San Quentin doctor pioneered concept with pet duck

When an early 1900s incarcerated patient at San Quentin was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the doctor prescribed a pet duck as a form of therapy.

In his book, “My Most Memorable Convicts,” Dr. Leo L. Stanley recounts the story of terminally ill patient Scotty. The man was well-liked by staff and others incarcerated at the prison, so Stanley wanted to keep him in good spirits. Today, therapy animals are common, but in the first half of the 20th century, they were a novel concept.

“(Scotty) was always apparently happy, although he had a fatal disease and we knew he wouldn’t live out his sentence,” Stanley wrote. “He was a great storyteller, (fashioning) some of the most astonishing tales of adventures at sea.”

Nicknamed Scotty because of his “most pleasing Scottish brogue,” Stanley asked him to care for the prison’s pet duck. Having been brought to the prison the previous Easter as a duckling, the now grown animal was ready to help.

Circus act sparks idea for therapy animal

Having seen a duck pulling a small wagon in a circus act, Stanley believed Scotty could benefit from training the animal. The doctor believed if the patient could replicate the act, it would give him hope in his final months.

“Scotty did make a little cart. He got Oscar the duck out of the pen, fed it, allowed it to roam the lawns, and eventually trained it to pull the small vehicle,” Stanley wrote. “Whenever visitors came to our hospital, we always had Scotty get out his duck and show what it could do.”

When Scotty passed away, another incarcerated resident penned a tribute.

“An aura of gloom hung over the Infirm Ward. Oscar, the hospital duck, was strangely quiet in his pen. For Scotty, whose patience in training a tame mallard duck had made it an attraction to all visitors to the hospital, whose Scottish burr was almost a part of the prison hospital, was dead.”

Stanley’s plan worked and Oscar the pet duck provided comfort to those incarcerated at San Quentin.

Stanley’s book, “My Most Memorable Convicts,” was published in 1967.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Learn more about California prison history.

Follow us on YouTubeFacebook and Twitter.