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.

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Louie, Louie

If Louie could talk, perhaps he’d tell us how he and two friends found themselves wandering along Franklin Blvd., the main thoroughfare through Gastonia, North Carolina, on a hot day in August. But since Louie is a dog, unless someone comes forth to claim him, all we know is that Louie is a stray.

Vet techs at Gastonia’s lone low-cost spay-neuter clinic, located on a busy stretch of the thoroughfare, spotted Louie and his two friends, a female Labrador Retriever mix and a male Australian Shepherd mix, navigating their way through parking lots and traffic. Three techs grabbed leashes and corralled the dogs into the safety of the clinic.

That’s where Louie and his friends said their good-byes.

Kathy Cole, a clinic employee and long-time animal advocate, had little trouble persuading Lucky Labs of Charlotte to take Louie’s female friend, and she placed the Aussie with a mixed breed rescue. But she couldn’t find any takers for Louie. Perhaps, she says, that’s because she first identified him as a Chow, a breed with a reputation for being aggressive. Kathy’s since revised her initial assessment and now thinks Louie may be a cattle dog mix, but without DNA testing, there’s no knowing for sure.

Galen

I met Louie when I was in Gaston County researching my own dog’s background. I adopted Galen almost two years ago in New Jersey, but she’s a native Gastonian. She and her siblings were pulled from the county shelter and transported north thanks to two women who devote much of their time and some of their own money to rescuing dogs and cats from kill shelters in the South.  My reporting led me to the clinic, which is the brainchild of the Animal League of Gaston County, a non-profit animal welfare organization.  The group hopes that clinic veterinarians will spay and neuter so many dogs and cats that there will be fewer litters, like Galen’s, that end up in the county’s shelter, where they have a better chance of being killed than adopted.

Louie, at the Animal League of Gaston County’s spay/neuter clinic

I’m no dog expert, so I couldn’t add much to the discussion of Louie’s lineage. The color of his thick golden-brown coat is as Chow-like as it is Golden Retriever-like, and he has a big block head with a line of white fur from his forehead to his snout.  His dark eyes lack the sparkle I so often see in Galen’s, and his demeanor is gentle, his facial expression sad.

When I first saw Louie, he was in the rear of the clinic in one of the metal cages that house dogs and cats recuperating from surgery.  The clinic was serving as a temporary shelter, while Kathy and the other vet techs called everyone they knew to find him a foster home.

If I found a stray dog in my central New Jersey neighborhood, I would have no qualms taking him to St. Hubert’s animal shelter. My town outsources animal control work to St. Hubert’s, which is a non-profit animal welfare organization, and I know the folks there would do all they could to find him a good home. First, per New Jersey law, they would hold him for seven days to give his owner time to find him. Then, if no one claimed him, they would put him up for adoption and work tirelessly to find him a forever home.

Kathy Cole won’t turn Louie in to Gaston County Animal Control, because, she says, he will be killed. Unlike St. Hubert’s, the county’s shelter is simply a holding facility and a very crowded one at that. As a stray, Louie would be held for three days, and if no one claimed him, he would likely be killed to make room for newcomers. It wouldn’t matter that Louie is neutered – Kathy had one of the clinic’s veterinarians take care of that – and that Louie has all his vaccinations – she took care of that, too.  In other words, it wouldn’t matter that Louie, who Kathy guesses is about two-and-a-half years old, is a perfectly healthy, adoptable dog.

Perfectly healthy, adoptable dogs are being killed in Gaston County and throughout large swaths of the South because too many people cannot afford to, or will not, spay and neuter their dogs, and too many shelters are not equipped to be adoption centers for reasons ranging from a lack of money and staff, to old and decrepit facilities, to a fatalistic view by some shelter directors that there are simply too many dogs to save.

The good news:  There are people in many of these communities who will no longer accept the killing of healthy animals and who are taking actions to address the problem, people like the folks at the Animal League of Gaston County whose three-year-old clinic has already spayed and neutered more than 10,000 dogs and cats.

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As I write this post on Sunday afternoon, September 9, Kathy Cole is driving the streets of Gaston County looking for Louie.  She found him a foster home a little over a week ago, but within an hour of being there, Louie jumped the fence and ran away; the foster found Louie sitting under a tree three days later.  Louie returned to the clinic and lived there until Friday, when again, Kathy placed him in a foster home.  Again, Louie stayed an hour before running away. At least now Louie is wearing a dog tag with the animal clinic’s name and phone number, so we can only hope that whoever finds him contacts Kathy, not Animal Control.

If only Louie could talk, he could tell us who he’s looking for and where he wants to go.