Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Euthanasia and waste

Photographer Shannon Johnstone with one of her subjects.
Here at SAT science dominates, but artists provide a very different viewpoint and may see things in a new light. Photographer Shannon Johnstone took on a remarkable project photographing death-row dogs at a landfill site to draw attention to the surplus of unwanted dogs that society doesn't see, and their ultimate fate. No dogs were harmed in the process, and in fact most enjoyed the entire experience (some took exception to the car ride). You can read Johnstone's thoughtful artistic statement here.

The images are beautiful but I must admit at first I found the terms of the project confronting at first. It is too easy to look away or deny the plight of these animals, and this project has offered hope. You can view the photos here.

Your project brings attention to two topics many people prefer not to think about - environmental degradation and the euthanasia of "surplus" animals. It’s a unique angle. How did you come up with this?

About four years ago, the former Director of Environmental Services contacted me about the landfill site being turned into a public park and suggested that it would be an excellent backdrop to photograph the animals. We went there together and he showed me around, and it was perfect! However, our meeting left me wondering why Environmental Services encompassed both the animal shelter and waste services.

After learning that animals are considered property under the law, and the government provides somewhere for us to bring our unwanted property, it occurred to me that this government structure reflected a societal value that not many people were aware of. I wanted to shed light on that.

In addition, I learned that in my particular county, the animal carcasses are disposed of in the landfill. This left me with questions about what happens to the euthanasia drug as the bodies breakdown? Is there a limit to how many lethally injected animals can be in one area? (The is one statute that says bodies have to be buried 3-feet, but I have not found any others). In NC, we euthanize approximately 250,000 animals every year. How many of those bodies are in our landfills? 

In addition, we spend $30 million dollars annually on housing, euthanizing, and disposing of these unwanted animals (not including the costs of animal control). Isn’t there a more economical solution such as spaying and neutering? How long can our current practices continue? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions yet, but I am still working on it.

Our current practices when it comes to dealing with animal overpopulation (i.e. no to regulations on breeding, spaying or neutering, but yes to euthanizing when the animal is no longer wanted) is not sustainable. As I dig further into these issues, I hope to find a more economical, ethical, and environmentally friendly solution to animal overpopulation, such as mandatory spaying and neutering.

How have people responded to the work so far?

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and people have really rallied around this work. I was not expecting that. So many people from all over the country have wanted to get involved and adopt these dogs. People have been writing to me to asking how I can ship them a particular dog. I am thrilled that people are paying attention, staying positive, and wanting to get involved.

But I also want to tell them “Hey, here is a secret. There is nothing special about these dogs. If you want your very own Landfill Dogs, all you have to do is walk into your county shelter and ask for the dog who has been there the longest. They will be just as spectacular.”  

Shelter animals everywhere are absolutely wonderful. We have four dogs and two cats, and I can honestly say that the only difference between my pets and the ones in the shelter is that no one has claimed the ones in the shelter.

Most but not all animals photographed have been re-homed. One of the big stressors of being a veterinarian, technician or shelter worker is meeting animals destined for death row. In a sense you've had to do this through your project. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

Before I started Landfill Dogs, I worked on another project “Breeding Ignorance” which looked at the euthanasias of the cats and dogs in our county shelters. I photographed the entire process of lethal injection for these animals, and it was very difficult. I am in awe of the compassion, strength, and dedication of shelter workers who do this on a daily and/or weekly basis. They are charged with cleaning up society’s mess with animal overpopulation and they are committed to letting these animals die with dignity.

With “Breeding Ignorance”, I thought if people could just see the entire process they would want to spay/neuter, and thank our shelter workers. But “Breeding Ignorance” did not have that effect. In fact, several times the photographs were taken out of context and used to accuse shelters of abuse.
I realized I needed a new visual approach. I wanted to work with this same idea, but I realized I needed to come about it from a positive angle. So I decided to photograph the dogs alive, and enjoying life. Not only does this make the dog more appealing, but it also gives the viewer a chance to change the course of this dog’s life before it is too late. Even if the viewer can’t adopt the dog, they can share his/her picture, and help in process of finding them a home.

I really like the interactive aspect of this project. It gets people involved in a positive way, and also hopefully gets them talking and asking questions, like “why photograph them on a landfill site? (i.e. well, animals are property under the law, and when you don’t want your property anymore, the government provides you somewhere to bring it. Many animal shelters are on actual landfill sites because it typically falls under the same division.)”

In developing Landfill Dogs, I chose to focus on the dogs who had been in the shelter the longest, who were the most overlooked, and also the most at risk for euthanasia. I never know what the outcome of the dog will be, and we never know if he/she will be euthanized. However, the thing I comfort myself with, if nothing else, at least they had one good long walk with some treats, love, and a few new sites and sounds.

A dog gets a cuddle in the car.
You mention that each dog involved gets around two hours of attention, treats and walks. How do they generally react?

Almost all the dogs love it. Some hate the car (my car has been puked in several times), and I have had one dog who did not like the path up to the top of the landfill. (We started walking up there, and he just turned around and pulled me back down the hill, so we hung around the parking lot instead.)
But every other dog has seemed to love it. I love watching them roll in the grass, run, and pounce play. My favourite thing is when the dog gets to the top of the hill, and just wants to sit there and look with the wind blowing in his/her fur. I just sit there with them, and it is really peaceful. It is beautiful place, and you can see for miles. Incidentally, Landfill Park is the second highest point in the county. I guess that is kind of sad that our trash is the second highest point in the county.

Photographer Shannon Johnstone takes a close up.
How has this project altered you as a person?

One of the biggest things that has changed for me is the assumptions I had regarding pit bulls. I was not planning on focusing on any particular breeds. Unfortunately, in my county shelter, pits and pit mixes are the dogs that no one seems to want. Before starting this project, I bought into the negative stereotypes about pitbulls. I thought they were unpredictable, untrustworthy, and scary. 

However, what I have found is that pits are some of the most bouncy, snuggly, obedient, and loving dogs around. The next time we have an opening for a dog (we have four dogs and two cats right now), we are going to consider a pit or pit mix. This realization reminded me to stay open and not too fixed in what I think I know.

In addition, one thing I always keep in the back of my mind since I started this work is that time is not infinite—not for these dogs, not for any of us. None of us know how long we have, so it is important to pay attention and enjoy the light that we have.

Thank you so much for your time Shannon. And thank you also to the wonderful Jan Allen, of AMRRIC, for passing on the link in the first place.