Beautiful Animal Advocacy

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs.  Mistletoe. Impoundment #81087 ©2012

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs. Mistletoe. Impoundment #81087 ©2012

Every day when I login to Facebook, I find my newsfeed sprinkled . . . sometimes drenched . . . with photographic content that I would just as soon do without most days.  I call this my McLachlan feed.  Yes, the part of my newsfeed dominated by my many animal welfare friends and acquaintances, and reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan’s now infamous ad for the ASPCA in which shots of sad, mistreated animals roll across the screen while tv viewers everywhere either pick up the phone to donate, or dash for the remote in an attempt to change the channel.  That one.

Unfortunately, the content in my newsfeed is never accompanied by the melodious sound of McLachlan’s voice singing “Angel” nor is it nearly as well-crafted and thoughtfully produced as the ASPCA’s commercial, which was so wildly successful that it raised over $30 million in less than two years after it first aired.  The commercial works . . . because it’s well done and the proof is in the $30 million pudding.  As for my newsfeed full of “Urgent case” dogs on the brink of euthanasia and picture after picture of tortured horses and abused cats . . . well, the jury’s still out on that one.

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs.  Rose. Impoundment #82564 ©2013

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs. Rose. Impoundment #82564 ©2013

When  you work or volunteer in animal welfare, you inevitably reach that media saturation point when you either grow numb or impervious to the constant barrage of disturbing content you’re met with everyday, or you find ways to create emotional boundaries and intellectual boxes, or perhaps avoid the content altogether.  Which is unfortunate, because every once in a while you stumble across something unique and truly exquisite, and you wonder, why can’t more folks share things like this?

That’s how I feel about Shannon Johnstone’s recently launched Landfill Dogs project that continues into the fall of 2013.  Each week, Johnstone, an art professor at Meredith College in North Carolina, takes one shelter dog on an afternoon outing and photographs them playing, wandering and living at the state landfill where many of them will end up after euthanization.  Click here to see the most up-to-date set of photographs from the project.  As Johnstone explains:

These are not just cute pictures of dogs. These are dogs who have been homeless for at least two weeks, and now face euthanasia if they do not find a home. Each week for 18 months (late 2012–early 2014) I bring one dog from the county animal shelter and photograph him/her at the local landfill.

The landfill site is used for two reasons. First, this is where the dogs will end up if they do not find a home. Their bodies will be buried deep in the landfill among our trash. These photographs offer the last opportunity for the dogs to find homes.

The second reason for the landfill location is because the county animal shelter falls under the same management as the landfill. This government structure reflects a societal value; homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream. However, this landscape offers a metaphor of hope. It is a place of trash that has been transformed into a place of beauty. I hope the viewer also sees the beauty in these homeless, unloved creatures.

As part of this photographic process, each dog receive a car ride, a walk, treats, and about 2 hours of much needed individual attention. 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. This project will continue for one year, so that we can see the landscape change, but the constant stream of dogs remains the same.

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs. Nala. Impoundment #81134 ©2013

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs. Nala. Impoundment #81134 ©2013

Johnstone’s dual talent as a volunteer/advocate and artist/photographer is stunning.  Her pictures don’t make me sad or stressed.  They don’t keep me up at night, and they don’t make me feel helpless in the fight against homeless pets, as so much of my Facebook newsfeed often does.  These photographs are empowering, heartwarming and full of potential.  Because they juxtapose the ugly with the beautiful.  How can you help people learn to see the shelter animal problem with new eyes?  Make it hauntingly beautiful.

For me, what has been even more powerful about this material is that it’s accompanied by a sister project titled Breeding Ignorance, in which Johnstone intimately documents the euthanasia process inside the shelter where she volunteers.  The photographs in this project are not for the faint of heart, nor perhaps for those made of steel.  But, like the Landfill Dogs, this project is beautifully executed and shaped with a commendable understanding of America’s shelter animal problem and the need to find new and productive ways of addressing it.

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs. Rejoice. Impoundment #82216 ©2013

Shannon Johnstone, Landfill Dogs. Rejoice. Impoundment #82216 ©2013

Ironically, I didn’t find this beautiful project on Facebook.  I found it buried in a wonderful blog post titled Animals, Art and Death by Margo DeMello on the Animals & Society Institute’s page.

Note to self:  Spend less time on Facebook.  And more time looking for original sources of good content.  Or perhaps I could flood my friends’ Facebook feeds with the kind of content I long to see on my own?

About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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10 Responses to Beautiful Animal Advocacy

  1. I love this! Thanks so much for sharing this professor’s project. It really hits me where I am today, getting more absorbed in helping our rescue maintain its web presence, update dog bios, answer questions from adopters, etc…. These photos make you just stop, breathe, and remember the dogs.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Abby. I think most of us in animal welfare are at a very real and daily danger of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Too many dogs, too little time tends to dominate so much of what we do. This project is an excellent reminder of the importance of maintaining a “one dog at a time” and “quality vs. quantity” as a way of keeping ourselves accountable, I think. Reminds me of Anne Lamott’s book about the writing process, “Bird by Bird.”

  2. jhgeorgi says:

    A beautiful post that needs to be shared. Unfortunately, I followed the link to the other photographic project. It is sad, but makes a powerful point.

    • Yep, it took me a few days before I went ahead and checked out the other project. Because I am not one to handle that type of content well at all. But it was manageable and more powerful because I was able to come to it on my own terms, through the Landfill project photos. And you really have to take your hat off to someone like her, who is able to maintain composure, compassion and perspective while engaging in this work. I’m sure taking those photos, maintaining an artist’s eye and orchestrating such projects, all while volunteering at the shelter, keeps her up at night in ways I never imagined. I’m not sure what’s more powerful: the photos, or that she made them possible in the first place. It’s really something.

  3. crystalpegasus1 says:

    Wow…that’s beautiful…I do love these photos. I take photos for the shelter I volunteer at (which could never be as profound as these), and we always try to get the dogs outside and in the grass, it’s much more appealing on a wide scale. The disturbing trend I’ve noticed though is that those sad pictures on FB (my feed is full of them as well) seem to move people more sometimes than the ones that are beautiful. I see these sad, scared dogs and people are sharing them thousands of times and yet the pictures I post of our shelter’s dogs fall down on the group without comments. It’s like – if the dog looks happy then it has more appeal to the regular person who is looking to adopt a happy, cute pound puppy, but the rescue community seems to almost have this thought that the dog must be doing fine and the shelter may have more resources to do these kinds of photos. Does that make sense? I don’t think it’s at all the case and it is something I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently, so I’m really glad to have read your post and found this beautiful project!

  4. Yes! I think you’ve managed to put your finger on two very real and unfortunate problems that characterize so much of animal welfare work and advocacy right now. In fact, these are two of my biggest pet peeves. So glad to hear that I’m not alone in my frustration. 🙂

    Your first point about sad and depressing pictures getting more “Likes” and “Shares” than upbeat content is an important one. I notice that same trend as well. But, more likely, that’s more a symptom of the identity of animal rescue as it exists inside the Facebook community and other similar social media than it is in the real world. Facebook is a land of inaction and lack of focus, where most folks are unwilling to look at or consider anything that they are required to read carefully or spend time on. Clicking Like or Share is quick, easy and mindless, so more folks are willing to do it. The question though is, do those “likes” and “shares” actually result in more animals being saved and rescued? I’d like to see some hard data on that, because I’m guessing the answer is a resounding “no.” Clicking “share” probably offers some temporary relief or a sense of control and allows people to feel like just for that moment, maybe they can help this one dog by sending its sad picture out into the Facebook universe and hoping it lands in front of the right person at the right time. But I would argue that much more purposeful and direct action is what actually gets dogs saved. This is why on-the-ground, door-to-door campaigns are so crucial to winning elections and getting petitions signed. People don’t want to feel like one in a million. They want to feel like you’re talking directly to them and that they are asking you specifically for help because you matter as an individual. Personally, if someone directly sends me a Facebook message or an email, rather than just sharing something, I’m always going to take it more seriously and consider it more carefully.

    Your 2nd point about the happy vs. sad photos thing is such a huge one and really hits close to home for me. I know exactly what you mean. When I first started volunteering for a “pit bull” rescue several years ago, they were using black and white trifold flyers and business cards with generic photos of sad, incarcerated and malnourished dogs. I was horrified. So I started taking a ton of quality photos of the dogs and invested some money in designing new business cards and flyers in color, along with a bunch of other new marketing materials. One of the board members immediately objected and said that if we print things in color then our donors will think we’re wasting their money. It was such a depressing, startling and unproductive way of thinking and it was the kind of perspective I had to push back against over and over again until I finally had to leave. I explained that if the goal is to broaden our potential adopter network, and get more dogs adopted and into good homes, how can anyone argue that the money was wasted? If one of the fundamental issues in pit bull advocacy is that so many people are misinformed about and afraid of them, why in the world would we create materials in black and white which will inevitably make them look even scarier? The problem is that so many people in rescue make the mistake of trying to do things and share things that people just like them would want to see. But that’s actually the exact opposite of what we want to do. We want to speak to the folks who are aren’t already aware of the issues and who aren’t already willing to foster or adopt or donate whenever they can.

    Well, can you tell you brought up some topics of interest to me? Thanks for the comment!

  5. Donna Baker says:

    Emily, thank you so much for sharing these images and this project — it is amazing and the photography is breathtaking. I love your comment about Facebook being a “land of inaction and lack of focus.” I know for myself, I just can’t see the point of those endless posts and pictures about dogs that are half a country away and in need of placement. Maybe once in a blue moon (to use an old phrase of my grandmother’s) this process ends up actually helping a dog, but I’ll bet in almost all cases it is just an exercise in fruitless clicking and sharing. (As an aside, I am getting sooooo tired of all the “cutesy” animal pictures that clog up my Facebook feed as well, but that’s another subject.)

    I followed the link for the other project as well, with some trepidation. Also amazing, in a different way of course. As always, on seeing photos like that, I felt like my heart just stopped for the entire time I was viewing them. As many times as I have seen similar images, the intensity of their impact remains the same. I’ve been in rescue for over twenty years and seen a lot, but I was brought to tears looking at those devastating pictures. In a weird way, that made me feel good — sometimes it helps to know we are not as jaded as we may think.

  6. Lindsay says:

    Beautiful photos, and this post is so true. I can barely stand to scroll through my feed these days. I am definitely numb to it. Very well written. Thank you.

  7. Beautiful post. My FB is the same thing, a newsfeed of sadness.

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