Saving lives… one photograph at a time

There is something compelling about a dog’s face – its physical contours, its expression.  And the eyes – the eyes seem to have so much to say. I often stare into Galen’s dark brown eyes, wanting desperately to know what she’s thinking.

I recently came across some photographs that resonated with me more than any I’ve ever seen, for they are as powerful as the dogs they feature. Just drink in these faces.

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Each of these dogs is a shelter dog, and each portrait is part of an on-going series called Landfill Dogs. Since being photographed some have been adopted. Some still sit on the canine equivalent of death row.

The portraits are the work of photographer Shannon Johnstone, who is crusading to save dogs’ lives one photograph at a time. Each week, she takes a dog that’s been in North Carolina’s Wake County shelter for at least fourteen days – that will be euthanized if not adopted – to a landfill-turned-county-park to be photographed for the shelter’s website.

“Each dog receives a car ride, a walk, treats, and about two hours of much needed individual attention,” she writes on her website. “My goal is to offer an individual face to the souls that are lost because of animal overpopulation, and give these animals one last chance.”

I saw Shannon’s photography for the first time in late 2012, after she had completed Shelter Life and Discarded Property, two series chronicling life and death in North Carolina animal shelters. According to her site, North Carolina euthanizes more than 250,000 dogs and cats annually simply because they are homeless.

The photos in the Discarded Property series are graphic – close-ups of dogs and cats being anesthetized, dead dogs splayed on a shelter floor beside their feces, a freezer piled with cat carcasses, a large black garbage bag filled with dead kittens.

“Those pictures are hard to look at,” Shannon said when we spoke by phone. “They ended up repelling people as much as they attracted them.”

That’s, in part, why this latest project takes a different approach to telling the story of the state’s overpopulation problem. Shannon hopes that these portraits will inspire adoptions and increase awareness of the plight of homeless animals.

After all, from awareness comes change. And change could lead to fewer dogs dying in North Carolina’s shelters and in shelters across the country.

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I encourage you to visit the Landfill Dogs facebook page and Shannon’s website to see more of her work chronicling the canine and feline costs of animal overpopulation.

Give up or Give in?

Galen and I took a walk today.  If she were any other dog, there’d be no need for this post; walking is what dogs do.  But Galen’s not just any dog.

I gave up walking Galen months ago, because we never got very far.  After several yards, she would suddenly lie down in the direction of our house and refuse to go on.  One can only tug a sixty pound dog so hard, for so long, before her stubbornness carries the day.

Kevin wasn’t prepared to give up.  He decided to see what would happen if he took Galen off the leash.  His discovery:  What Galen doesn’t like about walks isn’t the walk itself, it’s the leash.  Set her free, and she’s not just a happy little soldier, she’s a quite disciplined one.

I’d been hesitant to walk Galen off leash.  What if she waded too deep onto a neighbor’s lawn or chased a deer?  Would a neighbor call me out for not having her on a leash– I’m sure that violates some municipal code.

But our backyard was a swamp following an explosive rain, so I decided to unleash my dog.  She impressed me.  Most of the time Galen stayed by my side.  Every now and then she fell behind to sniff a bush or patch of grass, but then she’d catch up.  Once she half-heartedly darted toward a gopher, but as the critter ran away, she put on the brakes and returned by my side.

Raising a dog isn’t that unlike raising children.  Either way, there needs to be a core set of rules that must be followed.  But there should also be space to experiment, to push limits, even to fail.  That’s how they learn, how we all learn.

Perhaps I was too quick to give up on Galen.  By giving in, Kevin learned that we had done a darn good job of raising her, and that given her freedom, she flourished.

Currently I’m writing a book about Galen’s Southern roots and canine homelessness.  Perhaps I now have the subject of my next one:  Everything I learned about raising children I learned from my dog.

Or has someone already written that?

Galen, leashless,  in the Sourland Mtns.

Galen, leashless,
in the Sourland Mtns.