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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Conduct Unbecoming

I wanted to share with you one of the saddest things I have ever encountered. When I began my project years ago, I had thought the hardest thing about this would be knowing that the animals I would meet and make work about would die. My subjects have died and continue to do so, but what has me the most upset are the people.

In November of 2007, I gave my first interview for the project. I did interviews for the paper, radio and then the TV news arrived. The day I met with a local reporter, I had just lost my Grandmother. I remember how excited I was when the shelter had told me that the channel 10 out of Knoxville had contacted them and wanted to meet with me. It was scary since the project was still new- at that point I was still trying to find the best work and had a few drawings, a ton of photographs, and a trash bin full of rejected art. I had hoped to have a bigger and better body of work before I went in front of a camera, but I couldn't pass it up-- after all, it wasn't just about me and my work- it was about the dogs and cats in the shelter-- the interview could help save them. At the time I had lived an hour away from the shelter so I got up that day and cried over my Grandmother, got in the car with my few meager drawings and drove to the shelter. It was hard, talking about death and not being able to say anything about the loss in my family. I also hate being on camera, but I had to promote my work and more importantly I had to promote the animals.
This is a digital image I have created for my upcoming show. I do believe that this particular dog was either adopted or taken to a rescue. I print my photos and digital images in numbers of 52 to represent the 52 weeks a year that animals lose their lives due to not being adopted or rescued. 

At the same time I was meeting with channel 10, another news station got wind of the situation. Instead of coming to me about my work, they took the overcrowded shelter angle. I never met with them, instead I saw their report on t.v. and talked with the shelter staff about their experience afterwards. The other station had showed a story about a small town shelter dealing with overcrowding and at one point the reporter held up an elderly yorki mix and proclaimed that the dog would be killed. The shelter directed had told me later that the dog actually had a rescue to take it- but when asked if the dog could be killed she had said yes, since- until they leave through the front door- they do have that chance of being euthanized. She could have shown a number of healthy and wonderful animals that needed homes and explain how they would have made wonderful pets- but, she did not.

I went to work the next day and my coworkers all had seen the stories and it was exciting to be able to talk to them about it. I had such high hopes. There had been press and the world was told about the dogs and cats needing homes- they had been told about the urgency-- people knew and they could do something about it.

Feral Cat #1- a digital image taken from a photo from MDAS.  This cat was probably the most terrified animal I have met while doing the project- it was killed shortly after I took photos of it. I believe this image makes it look peaceful.. my goal in the digital work is not to capture their terror- but, to work to capture their beauty.
Due to my finances and distance from the shelter, I was not able to go back until a week later. When I walked into the shelter, I was smiling and excited to hear about all the adoptions that most certainly would have occurred due to all of the press. What I was met with was something I had never expected. The shelter had not been inundated with people whose eyes had been opened and had come in to save a life. Instead, the shelter was inundated with call after call from people who wanted to call them murderers and killers. They had people call to tell them not to kill the elderly yorki mix. No rescue groups came out of the woodwork to sweep in and take a van full to a no kill. Instead the shelter was fielding calls and dealing with angry people- they were not adopting- they were only yelling. I was told one man had driven over from Knoxville - an hour away- and he adopted two kittens- aside from that they said that they had more intake than they had seen in a long time and less adoptions.  They had a huge number of owner surrenders. I felt like someone had reached inside of my chest and had grabbed a hold my heart and squeezed the last bit of life out of me. I felt more sad over that than I had for every single dog and cat who had died- animals continued to die and all anyone seemed to want to do was yell.

Things are different now. I make work not just about the animals that die- my focus is just on the animals in the shelter. I go to Miami now for my subjects. However, there is the same problem. People go into a frenzy when an animal is killed- yet, there is no frenzy to adopt. Because I now post my work online, I follow the comments and stories about the ones I post- but also of the rescue community in general. Nothing upsets me more than when I post a dog and month later that dog is still there. No one came for it and very little is done until it is killed. When it dies people become angry (as we all should) and they point fingers and blame the shelter. They call the shelter workers murderers and killers. I am tired of the name calling.

Digital image created from a dog from MDAS. I do not know the fate of this dog.  I work to remove their bars while not completely removing them. This is one where I have left much more of the bars/chainlink. When I take the photos, sometimes it is very hard to truly see the dogs and cats behind the cage walls- this is my way to better show them. 

 Recently, I had been called a cancer when I was questioning one group who was causing some confusion in their postings on facebook. It is all conduct unbecoming. If people spent half as much time figuring out ways to save the lives instead of going insane when they are lost- imagine how much progress could be made. I wish those involved in rescue would realize that by constantly putting out there such horrible words such as murder- they are pushing some people away from ever stepping foot into a shelter. After all, who wants to walk through the door of a place full of murderers? I wonder if that reporter had not held up that dog and proclaimed it was going to be killed... if people would have responded differently. Maybe.. maybe not. Words matter and to those outside of the rescue community who are looking to adopt will see those words. Do we want people to adopt in a panic merely to be able to save a life- or do we want people to adopt because they want a new member in their family?

We can all say the shelters are the ones killing the animals, because physically they are the ones who are giving the lethal dose. But, what about the lethal dose that is put upon a shelter when it comes to public perception? We should always be honest, but should we not want to promote that there are tons of happy and healthy animals in the shelter? By using such language and attacking those in the shelters- and people such as myself who are involved, it can turn off a public who might otherwise want to do the right thing by adopting. We need the public to adopt- not to be horrified- we don't need a knee jerk reaction - we need a way to bring more responsible people in and not scare them away from the shelters.
Snow and Flakes are two dogs who were abused and ended up at the shelter. At the time I write this- they are still in quarantine from the distemper outbreak. From what I understand, is that there is a rescue will take them once they are cleared. This digital image is one that I especially wanted to create since I had a hard time getting a decent photo of them. They were in the west wing- a more isolated part of the shelter- not as well traveled by adopters and the kennels have a tight chain link that is hard to work with in photography. 

I almost quit the project when I heard about the lack of adoptions and the huge number of people harassing them. But, there was that one man.. that one man who drove an hour to get there... and he adopted two kittens. He got it. He understood and knew action speaks louder than words... so, whoever that man is.. he is why I continue to do this.


nolarierie said...

I just came across your blog and this post in particular really resonated with me. There's a certain group on facebook that I used to follow but with all the name calling and lack of accountability on dogs that were pulled, I had to remove myself from the group. Anyway, I really enjoyed this post and I look forward to reading more about your work and seeing your art.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog today after following the link on your picture of Beula with the pro-adoption message. I shared the picture of Beula with others because I think you are making an important statement with your work. Please continue trying to help people understand.

Mary said...

Thank you for your comments. I do think we can all do better when we communicate with one another online. Anonymous- thank you SO much for sharing the Beula message! I love seeing it when people pass it on!

Anonymous said...

Read this with a tear in my eye, as a shelter worker/volunteer/board member, we are constantly trying to balance what to share with the public and what brings people in and what scares them away.

You are correct, the panicked message of "death immanent" does NOT bring in adopters, people don't want to visit the shelter and see an animal(s) they know may die. They don't want to be that emotionally invested only to be devastated.

Images like yours are important. Shelters need to work it, work it, work it! photos and more photos, tell their story, engage the public, make them realize "hey, this is the perfect companion for me". With Facebook this epiphany has come to me, that they are "we", the sharing and cross-posting DOES make a difference. I want them to know that we are all rescuers and we can all make a difference.

Shelters have to really build their outreach programs. Many are so insular. I understand it can be overwhelming at times. It's exhausting dealing with the emotional and physical needs of the animals...and then turning round and dealing with the emotional needs of the public, but it HAS to be done.

In my experience being honest, and asking for the help (and accepting the help) has almost always worked for us. I visited your site as I shared your digital on "Matisse" the senior dog" when I saw it posted on another rescue site. Will be sharing the link to your artwork as well.

Gail Flaherty
Charlotte County SPCA
St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada