“Landfill Dogs is a project with three overlapping components:
fine art photographs, adoption promotions, and environmental advocacy.”
The Landfill Dogs Project packs a wallop of a punch. It is a powerful, multifaceted project that incorporates art, animal welfare and social activism, and it’s concept is incredibly simple. Every week, artist Mary Shannon Johnstone picks one dog from her local animal shelter, the Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh, NC, and takes him or her to the county landfill for two hours of exercise, treats and playtime, during which she takes photographs of these dogs in action.
These dogs are all bound for euthanasia if they do not get adopted. For many, this may be the very last day of fun they’ll ever have. Heartbreaking stuff, yet every time I come back to Landfill Dogs, the dogs reach out to me, the photographs inspire me and the project itself, firmly rooted in optimism, compel me to believe again. To understand why this is one hell of an accomplishment, I need to back up before I begin.
In my mid-thirties, in the autumn of a particularly bad year, I realized that I had spent too many years working a series of jobs that were neither dead end nor inspiring. I had been feeding my belly but not my soul. Since I was already in the midst of reimagining and reconstructing my life, I decided to make a different and better choice: I wanted to work with animals in need. Sheltering, rescue, investigations, I wasn’t sure. I just knew that there were millions of animals who needed an advocate and I wanted to try to be a voice for them. I enrolled in a local veterinary technology program and I excelled.
In massive textbooks, lectures, live animal labs and marathon study sessions, I found my calling; I could make a living, albeit not a great one, and make a difference. Belly full, soul fed. When I graduated, I did so with honors and I never looked back. I took my first job in a small, private veterinary practice, and waited for a position to open up in a local animal shelter. I was a bit of a Pollyanna going in, but not anymore.
We may be driven into this field by a sense of hope and optimism, but a funny thing happens to those of us in animal welfare. It changes you, for better and for worse. You can only see a finite number of senior dogs surrendered, frightened and confused, by the only people she has ever known because her family is moving before you get a little jaded. You can only tug and coax a certain number of dogs away from the family that no longer wants them before you can elevate sardonic wit and bitter quips to an art form. You can only euthanize a fixed number of debilitated, dying animals because a twenty-five dollar vaccine was declined before your circle of animal friends grows larger than your dwindling number human friends. You can only see so many cases of neglect and abuse before you are pretty sure the whole human race is overrun with asshats. Walking kennel after kennel of terrified, sick, abused or abandoned animals day after day takes it’s toll. An earnest hope and sense of belief is quickly replaced by dismay and tears. Once the tears dissipate, distrust, anger, hopelessness and frustration sets in, and then you begin to develop the coping skills to continue doing this work. Or you get out.
Speaking in generalities here, most of us who have done this work for more than a year or two have lowered our expectations of the human race so low that we’re pretty sure nothing will shock us, and for the most part that is true. We’ve seen it all and, frankly, we’d rather wrangle a rabid, feral cat into a carrier than have a casual beer with non-animal welfare people. You people are weird and need to get your head checked. We may be covered in dog hair and smell like cat pee and anal gland secretions, but we know the meaning of life: When God closes a window, someone locks the door. Our world view is not upbeat, but how can it be?
“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. 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.”
Despite the realities of the work, we press on. We clean the wounds of animals tossed in our dumpster instead of our lobby. We confiscate hundreds from multi-state dog fighting rings that have lived their whole lives on a chain, then we try to earn their trust. We bottle feed puppies ripped from their mother because her owners didn’t spay her nor did they want puppies. I could list ad nauseum the animals we save and don’t.
The important thing here is, we keep doing it and I’ll whisper the reason why. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we still believe that we are making the world a little better place. We know viscerally that this is important work. The animals deserve at least some dignity and kindness. For every hundred cases, we meet one special animal who overcomes, against all odds, has a happy ending and makes us believe once again. This doesn’t happen often enough, but it does happen, so we press on.
Viewed from this perch, Landfill Dogs moves me to tears. Ms. Johnstone doesn’t sugar-coat things. She, too, is no Pollyanna. She is a true artist, laying out the ugly truth for all to see, in hopes that we all learn from the errors of our ways. These dogs are thrown away like trash, and if they aren’t adopted they will be euthanized and then thrown away again- in the county dump. Insult meet injury.
Ms. Johnstone is also correct when she notes, “(T)his government structure reflects a societal value: homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream.” The problem of homeless dogs and cats is enormous, overwhelmingly so. Our culture of disposability where something old with a little less sheen- shoes, cell phones, computers, cars- is traded in for something new and shiny is pervasive in this country. Unfortunately, for dogs and cats in the shelter system, the consequences of pathological consumerism and irresponsibility are life-threatening. Millions die every year for no reason other than someone, somewhere, had something better to do.
There is happiness in these photos, and hope. You see absolute joy in the eyes of these dogs. You see freedom, however temporary, from kennels and disinfectants and cage doors and hour after hour of deafening barking that echoes and echoes and echoes (sit in a kennel for an afternoon and you will understand how maddening it is). You see happiness as they walk, smell, run and take in a few hours of sunshine. You see them as they should be: free.
The Landfill Dogs project is rooted in the belief that at least some of these dogs will be adopted and have a happy ending. If not, if their story takes a different turn, then at least they have had one great fun day filled with treats and scratches and belly rubs. If we can’t save them all, we can at least do that. Yes, there is a hope in this project that is, for me, infectious. It makes me want to believe just a little bit more and maybe tomorrow I will. In the mean time, I will hug my dogs, I will kiss their faces and I will promise, for the millionth time, that I will keep them safe, warm and in my heart for as long as they grace my life.
I encourage everyone to visit Landfill Dogs for yourself. Absorb it, learn from it and then spread the word. Lives will be saved.