Imagine coming home on a Friday after a day at the office. You turn the car off and step out, and you walk up to the door and the first thing you see when you open it is your little puppy jumping up and down to greet you. Maybe there’s a tiny kitten rubbing herself on your legs while letting out the softest, tiniest “meow” you’ve ever heard. So many people dream of this and so many animals do as well. Unfortunately, countless animals don’t get the privilege of living in a loving home. What’s even worse is that some of these animals do get picked up by a loving owner, but then a month into their new living arrangement, the owners realize that they cannot afford to feed their pet or pay for its medical bills; maybe they don’t have the time to potty train their puppy, or the freshly upholstered sofa is more important than the welfare of their kitten. Sadly, these are only a few reasons that many of these animals are abandoned at a shelter or thrown out on the street. Here lies the work of the shelter: they need to get their animals nursed back to health (if need be) and adopted out to loving homes as quickly as possible; however, this proves to be more of a struggle than all the “animal lovers” of the world might think. If animal shelters focused on visual literacy in advertising and promoted their animals as being happy and lovable rather than weary and sad, they would be far more successful at adopting them out to their forever homes.
What I’ve noticed to be a common trend is that shelters mainly appeal to one’s pathos. If someone feels sorry for an animal that’s essentially in prison, there is a chance that the animal will be adopted, but there is still a huge struggle to get them all adopted out and safe from euthanasia due to the competition between the shelter facilities and professional breeders. A breeder works to make their “product” the best of the best; the perfect specimen. This gives them a higher chance of going home with a lovable owner because people like their “products” fresh, not “second-hand.” According to Erin McKenna, who wrote Pets, People, and Pragmatism, “In 1986, there were an estimated 48 million dogs in the United States, and [in 2013] that number is roughly 74.8 million,” (McKenna, 134). It has now been three years since then. That is approximately a 55.8 percent increase. Out of those 74.8 million animals, only about 7.6 million companion animals enter shelters every year. We do not know what happens to the animals that are unaccounted for. Out of those 7.6 million animals in shelters, however, 31 percent of the dogs that enter through those doors are euthanized (ASPCA). This is an insane amount of lives that we are losing because of a lack of people that are willing to adopt, or even foster at the bare minimum. We did not always have this problem, however. The philosopher Rene Descartes “declared all animals to be soulless and unworthy of concern” in the seventeenth century (Alger, 2). This general idea about animals only began to change around the eighteenth century when the French upper class started drifting towards an alternate and humane opinion of companion animals (Alger, 2). The people that were educated began to write about their beloved pets, and by the nineteenth century, “writers were no longer discouraged from discussing … companion animals as worthy friends with their own personalities and endearing traits,” which tends to be the same opinion we have about our pets today, although it does not remain true for the entire U.S. population (Alger, 2).
The organization I chose to focus on is the 4Life Animal Rescue, a non-profit 501(c)3 approved organization based in Orange County, California. The rescue was founded in July of 2012 with the simple mission to “provide care and resources to animals in need” (4liferescue.org). The rescue offers services that include pet adoption, fostering, training and animal rehabilitation. They even offer prevention and intervention services to families that are going through harsh times to ensure that their pet can remain part of the family instead of the grim alternative of surrender. This organization is completely reliant on its volunteers and the support it receives from donors and through fundraisers (facebook.com/4LifeRescue). Like many organizations, the fundraising and donations they receive are put directly back into the company, but for many shelters in particular, this is often just not enough of a budget to accomplish the goals that the organization has set out to do.
What I found particularly interesting is that this organization is not based out of one specific building, but rather, it is 100% foster based. This means that all of their animals are in a foster home with someone that loves them and cares for them while they search for their forever home. There are endless benefits to having the animals in foster homes: one is that they’re not locked in cages. Think of it as an animal prison. Being locked up for most hours of the day affects a person’s mental health and stability while also affecting their behavior. If people can lose their minds in an overcrowded prison, why would an animal be any different? There have been multiple cases of unusual behavior in animals at shelters recently, two, in particular, involving dogs. One such case happened at a Greensboro, NC shelter. A black Labrador Retriever, Cash, has his face in the corner, sitting terrified in a puddle of urine. Cash was abandoned at the shelter 24 hours prior to when Tammy Graves, founder of the Haley Graves Foundation, witnessed this dog groveling in fear. She explained that “it smells like death, and doors are banging shut all the time. Animals walk by and never return. And he has no idea his fate. All he knows is he didn’t ask to be here. He didn’t even ask to be born to irresponsible owners,” (FOX 4). Another case, this time involving a Pit Bull, happened at a shelter in Carson, CA. This dog, who has no name, was abandoned at a shelter in late August, which “can be considered a lifetime,” to an animal who is waiting to be adopted, especially at a shelter infamous for its euthanasia rate (Smith). When an animal is placed on death row, they have just days to live from that point on. This nameless soul has nothing but a “cold concrete slab, where he spends his nights crying, hoping that the end, which he can sense is near, doesn’t come true,” (Smith). These are only a few examples of depression in animals and keeping them locked behind bars does not help their behavior. Shelters in New York have found that, among other things, having “playgroups” allows their animals (specifically dogs) to let off excess energy so that they are better behaved when they are waiting to be adopted (Naudziunas, Newman). Another benefit to this method is that the animal can become socialized with people more quickly than if it were stuck behind bars. Their caretaker will be able to give it the attention and affection the animal deserves and therefore, warming it up to the idea that it will live with people for the rest of its life. Another plus side is that the foster parents might have another pet, perhaps a dog or a cat or some other kind of animal. This helps the homeless animal socialize with other animals of (potentially) different species and gets them acquainted with the life ahead of them.
Besides placing animals in foster homes, there are multiple other ways to rehome them. New York shelters can be seen as “pioneers” that are paving the way to getting more animals adopted not just by giving them more playtime or time to socialize, but they are also bringing in more admissions counselors, who have talked about 1,700 people out of surrendering their pet since 2014. They are also providing health care and pet food pantries to owners in need, and they are even bringing the animals to the people with mobile adoption centers. If the animal is brought to the people, it is therefore getting more exposure and is more likely to get adopted. These mobile adoption centers have been able to place over 700 animals in new homes just in 2015. With these methods, “the euthanasia rate for animals at three city shelters has plummeted to 13 percent, from more than 60 percent in 2003.” The video can be seen here (Naudziunas, Newman). In contrast, the commercials done by the ASPCA featuring Sarah Mclachlan have not raised a massive amount of money. In the commercial, it shows a slideshow of a handful of abandoned and depressed animals that are clearly in need of help; however, in a 2015 interview she did with People Magazine, McLachlan had revealed that these advertisements had raised approximately $30 million. This sounds like a lot, but when it is broken down, it is a relatively meager amount of money. These ads first aired in 2006, so in the nine-year span between the first gut-wrenching commercial that was aired and this 2015 interview, these ads raised about $3.3 million per year. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) raised $98.3 million in 2015 solely from its individual donors. This is only 34 percent of the operating revenues that they acquired. Revenue from other operating revenues include “In-Kind and Other: 24%, Government Grants: 17%, Foundations: 8%, Other Non-Operating Contributions: 7%, Network: 6%, and Corporations: 4%” for a total of $289,429,524 raised in one year (WWF).
When I asked some pet owners why they chose their pet over another one, I found that many of them had said that the main reason they had chosen to adopt their pet was because that animal was one of the few, if not the only, that would come up to a gate or directly to a visitor and “beg” to be taken into their loving home. I even experienced this myself when I was in third grade, around eight years old, and my family got its first cat from a rescue based out of Mill Valley, CA. We originally visited with the intent of adopting a cat named Sabrina, who unfortunately had ringworm so she was unavailable at that moment. After we discovered this, we walked around the area looking for another cat to rescue. The only one that would walk up to us and rub up against our legs was the one we immediately adopted without any hesitation. Terry is still in our home today as a sixteen-year-old cat and is still acting as young as she once was when we first brought her into our home. Since then, we have adopted two more cats and one dog, all who were on “death row,” so to speak. One cat was too old to appeal to families, whereas the other is completely deaf, was born feral, and has a heart condition. Our dog is an eight-year-old pit bull that was previously used for breeding so much that the nutrient deprivation caused her to lose many of her teeth with the exceptions of one canine and some molars. These are all animals that were once deemed “unadoptable” and “disposable” and that is because families do not want to adopt a pet that could possibly pass away any minute from old age, a heart condition, or they simply do not want it because of the breed and the history it might have.
This brings me back to my original statement that if animal shelters focus more on how they can positively portray their animals to the public eye, then they will have a much better chance of adoption. Sophie Gamand is a photographer that feels just as strongly about this need to alter the public’s opinion on shelter animals as I do; however, she focuses specifically on the connotations associated with Pit Bulls. I first heard about Gamand when she released her series Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution. In this photo series, she uses shelter dogs as her subjects, all of them wearing a beautiful flower crown. By photographing these dogs as if they were wearing the flower crown filter on Snapchat, she is able to portray these animals as happy, joyous, and even contemplative. Gamand is helping redefine the connotations that come with the term “pit bull” simply by advertising these dogs as equally deserving of a loving and affectionate forever home as the fluffy, palm-sized Yorkie next door. By photographing these “bully” dogs donning a flower crown, she is familiarizing the public eye with the notion that pit bulls are not bad dogs; there are only bad owners. On her website, Gamand explains that she wanted to “infuse a softer energy into their imagery,” because they are “equally victims of prejudices that associate them with ultra-violence and make them disposable dogs.” Through her unconventional photo series, she hopes to positively influence how these animals are portrayed and ultimately how they are treated. She used the flowers to portray the “ephemeral quality of life, reminding us that these creatures are fragile and precious,” which directly relates to Barthes’s notion of the coded iconic message within an image in his Rhetoric of the Image. Gamand states that “by shortening the emotional distance with the subject, my images question our own humanity.” This is a call for people to look within themselves and determine if it is ethically and morally “right” to view these dogs as disposable, or even to treat them with complete and utter disrespect. Since 2014, Gamand has succeeded and is continuing to succeed in altering many people’s opinions about pit bulls because many of her canine models have already been adopted. She posts many success stories of the pit bulls she has photographed on her Instagram account (@sophiegamand).
In recent news, however successful Sophie Gamand might be at altering the popularly negative opinion of pit bulls, it has been reported by The Huffington Post that Montréal has adopted a ban on pit bull type dogs, which include American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, or “any mixed breed dogs including those or bearing similar physical characteristics”. This law states that there will be “a ban on new pit bull-type dogs as of next month and restrictions on those currently in the city,” and already-owned dogs will have mandatory restrictions. These restrictions include: all dogs will have to be registered by the end of the year and owners will be screened for a criminal record, and proof of sterilization, microchip tracking, and vaccination against rabies is required. If a dog that falls under the prerequisites stated above and it is outdoors, it needs to be muzzled and on a short leash; otherwise, they are subject to seizure and immediate euthanization (Banerjee). Montréal clearly has a biased opinion against dogs that fall under a certain demographic, regardless of why this law came into act. Although the world does have artists like Sophie Gamand to positively impact the lives of many dogs and people, there is only so influential it can be without adequate support. Her efforts to portray pit bulls in a positive light did not affect Montréal’s decision to place a ban on these dogs, but this news has definitely brought together a vast amount of people who are rallying for the benefit of these voiceless animals. These rally cries have made such an impact that as of October 3, 2016, a judge has placed a temporary suspension on the law, the same day it was to come into effect (CBSNews). If more people saw shelter animals as lovable and kind rather than “sloppy seconds,” we might not even have this issue of banning a specific breed.
Despite their predetermined breed, puppies and kittens and other baby animals have a much higher chance of adoption due to the fact that they are still babies. Many young couples adopt or purchase an animal from a breeder so that they can raise it from birth to “practice” what it might be like to have a child. Young animals are just as much maintenance as an infant, but what many young adults do not realize is that the animal needs to be trained. For a puppy, it needs to be trained to urinate on pee pads and then it graduates to urinating outside when it figures out how to navigate through a doggy door. A kitten might need to be taught to urinate in a litter box if its mother is not present, or it might need to learn that it is not acceptable to scratch up the furniture. Even though it is an innate behavior, it can be reigned in and diverted to a scratching post or a cat tree. No matter what animal is brought into a home, there is always some level of training required, no matter its age. As I had stated earlier, my dog was already eight years old and well into adulthood when we had adopted her last year. She has no hair on her elbows from laying on concrete for many years, and I can only assume that once her litters were born and weaned off, they were instantly taken away without her being able to protect them. When we brought her into our home, she began sitting on our feet. We thought this was an act of affection and thought nothing of it. When the trainer that my mother had hired had come for a visit, she noticed Sheila sitting on our feet and said that we need to immediately stop that behavior. That was her way of showing that she was protecting us, and since she couldn’t protect her babies from being taken away, she will not allow us to be taken away as well. Had Sheila continued this alpha dominance behavior, she could become aggressive because she would be protecting her pack from intruders. To stop this behavior, all we needed to do was push her off our feet. We were not allowed to move because we needed to act as the alpha. We needed to show her that she was the one being protected and not the other way around. Even though this is a simple trick to assert dominance and allow the animal to feel safe, many people do not know this and they don’t bother to hire a trainer. If a dog becomes aggressive because its owner is allowing it to be alpha, then the animal is not at fault when it attacks; it is just doing what it was intended to do in nature, and that is to protect its pack. Unfortunately, the animal’s aggression can lead it to being abandoned at a shelter, and a shelter does not have the time to train aggressive dogs and they are therefore euthanized. To think that all of this has the potential to stem from not knowing the signs that the dog is asserting its dominance and not taking action to curb this behavior through adequate training. Whether it is a puppy or a senior, the money spent on training is worthless in comparison to the animal’s life.
There are so many different viewpoints about shelter animals and if they are “worthy” of being a family pet. Their past might be a mystery, they could be utterly terrified and therefore not acting like their usual self, they can have a medical condition that is incurable, or they are simply just too old to where most families would not take them in to live out their final years in comfort and solace. Unfortunately, these are all reasons that people have for not adopting a specific animal among countless others; however, through a more positive and illustrative take on advertising their animals to the public, a shelter might be able to get their animals into their “fur-ever” home. Sophie Gamand has made a significant impact on the lives of pit bulls just by photographing them with flower crowns on, and thankfully it has only conveyed a positive message about this “bully” breed. Unfortunately, they are not the only animals in need of help, and even though the voiceless creatures are depressed or act irrationally from being behind bars, there is still a way to show them off in their best light to people looking to adopt an animal. By doing things such as putting a flower crown on them or even dressing them in funny clothes and cute outfits, people can’t help but catch the “aweee” factor whenever they see something like that. When my dog was in the shelter waiting for us to come pick her up, there were photos posted online of her wearing a little raincoat. This is evidence that some shelters are already working with this idea of refocusing how they illustrate their animals to people, but not enough shelters are doing this to make a lasting impact. If we all rallied together and worked on this goal, I believe that we can end animal shelter overpopulation, unnecessary euthanization, and successfully adopt out these animals in need.
In my personal and professional practice, I want to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of these animals. I want to be able to change people’s minds and eliminate any preconceived notions that exist about shelter animals. With this idea in mind, I am gathering images of animals who are in need of a permanent home. From these photos, I draw my lovely subject in all their glory. With my representations of these animals, I am going to place the image in a shadow box-like frame, and insert a sheet of glass with printed accessories on it. For example, my image of my dog, Sheila (below, left), will be layered behind a sheet with a monocle and old school tobacco pipe on it to make obvious her intelligent yet goofy nature. For Turtle Dove (below, right), I plan to put a party hat on her. These are just the drawings I have completed up to this point, and I plan to make a few more drawings to help anthropomorphize these creatures. In addition to the images in the shadow boxes, I want to compile them into a book. The book will be planned so that it works hand in hand with the framed images. There will be a short bio about the animal on the left page of a spread, and on the right side will be one of my drawn images. Keeping in mind my goal of anthropomorphizing these animals, I will have a layer of acetate between the two pages with each animal’s corresponding accessories printed on it. I want to create this book so that my project can live in different environments. For example, I could display a copy of this book at the library, maybe at a farmer’s market, or at the front desk of an animal shelter. There has been a constant struggle to get shelter animals into loving homes due to the shelters’ losing battle with breeders. Many people don’t want a “second-hand” pet, and will therefore choose a pet from a breeder before even considering an animal that is on death row. Unfortunately, shelters are grossly overcrowded so many animals do not even get the chance to be adopted. Instead, they are euthanized to make room for more abandoned animals coming through those doors. Through my depiction of these wonderful and playful creatures, I hope to anthropomorphize these animals to help bring their personalities to light and help them find their forever homes.
I have compiled these words together in the hopes that people might see the difference between adopting a shelter animal and purchasing a pet from a breeder. There are so many animals in need that the ones that are being bred are “killing” off the ones waiting in a shelter. By this, I mean that the breeder’s “products” are being chosen over a “recycled” or “second-hand” animal, and these are the creatures that are suffering deeply and being euthanized due to a number of reasons. The competitiveness between shelters and breeders is so high and unfortunately, the underdogs rarely ever win. Before I felt truly moved by this topic, I never felt any kind of social responsibility to make art that speaks about an issue we have in our society. This particularly resonated with me because I have four animals (three cats and a dog) that were all rescues, and without us, they would have been euthanized. I can’t imagine my life without them. They bring me such joy, happiness, and give me endless love and affection that many people may only dream of. Animals are only capable of love. As the adage goes, there are no bad animals; only people who make animals do bad things. This, unfortunately, gives some animals a very bad reputation, and therefore, they are far more difficult to adopt out. I believe that through my art, I will be able to anthropomorphize these animals so that people will be able to better understand that they have a vivid personality and emotions, just like we do. For example, I imagine one of my cats, Terry (previously pictured), as the regal queen of the savannah (or house) that she is. She wears a cape that covers her furry back and a jeweled crown, slightly tilted to one side, adorns her head. When I imagine my cat wearing these items, she instantly becomes more “human,” and I fall even more in love with her. If people were able to literally see my illustrations of these shelter animals wearing goofy accessories, I think my viewers would be just as impacted as I am, and therefore feel compelled to give at least one of the potential companions a loving home. As a result of anthropomorphization, we would reduce overcrowding in shelters and in turn, the euthanization rate would go down as well. If there are fewer animals stuck behind bars in a shelter, fewer will be senselessly terminated. As I continue to think about the countless animals that are to be euthanized today alone, I become even more eager to get this message out to the masses through my art, and I hope that what I have said throughout this essay has resonated with my readers as much as it has resonated with me.
“4Life Animal Rescue | Facebook.” 4Life Animal Rescue | Facebook. N.p., n.d. Web.29
“4Life Animal Rescue in Orange County California.” Web log post. 4Life Animal Rescue.
N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.
Alger, Janet M., and Steven F. Alger. “The Myth of the Solitary Cat.” Cat Culture: The
Social World of a Cat Shelter. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003. N. pag. Print. This
book was published in 2003 but it is relevant to my work because it gives a history
on the subject and history does not change. It explains the history of how opinions
changed towards companion animals. The two authors are Sociologists Janet and
Steven Alger and it was published by the Temple University Press. The purpose of
this information is to inform people of how the bond between people and animals
came to be.
Anderson, Danielle. “Sarah McLachlan Reveals How She Really Feels About Her ‘Brutal’
ASPCA Commercial.” PEOPLE.com. Time, Inc., 28 Dec. 2015. Web.
ASPCA. “Pet Statistics.” ASPCA.org. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals, 2016. Web. This information was published in 2016 by the ASPCA
(American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), a reputable
organization. This article gives me statistics on animal shelters such as how many
animals enter shelters every year. This is authored by the ASPCA, and there are
multiple sources listed. The purpose of this is to sway people towards supporting pet
adoption and responsible pet ownership.
Banerjee, Sidhartha. “Montreal Bans Pit Bulls After Heated Debate.” The Huffington
Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.
Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image,” Image-Music-Text, Ed. and trans. Stephen
Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
CBSNews. “Montreal’s Pit Bull Ban Temporarily Suspended by Judge.” CBSNews. The
Associated Press, 3 Oct. 2016. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.
FOX News. “Depressed Dog Dropped at Shelter Hides in Corner.” FOX 29. FOX 29 News,
21Sept. 2016. Web.
Gamand, Sophie. “Flower Power.” Sophie Gamand Photography. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct.
McKenna, Erin. “Dogs: Respecting Perception and Personality.” Pets, People, and
Pragmatism. N.p.: Fordham UP, 2013. 134. Print. American Philosophy.
Naudziunas, Jessica, and Andy Newman. How New York’s Shelters Keep Animals Alive.
Dir. Andy Newman and Jessica Naudziunas. The New York Times Company, 2016.
Web. All of this information was published in 2016 by the New York Times Company.
This video is relevant to my topic because it lists facts about how New York’s
shelters are reducing the euthanasia rate. There is no bias in this video because it is
just stating facts but it does have a positive message. The information is trying to
sway viewers into supporting the pet adoption process to further reduce the
euthanasia rate in New York and possibly educate other shelters on how they can
reduce their needless deaths as well.
Smith, Eric. “Utterly Hopeless Pit Pull Dumped At High Kill Shelter, Seems To Know He’s
Running Out Of Time.” Web log post. Fido4Ever. Fido4Ever LLC, 21 Sept. 2016.
WWF. “Funding and Financial Overview.” WorldWildlife.org. World Wildlife Fund, 2016.
Web. 30 Sept. 2016