BY HEATHER DAVIS
PHOTOS BY WALLY SANTANA / ASSOCIATED PRESS
You may have seen his photos circulating the internet recently: stark, honest images of dogs lost and unwanted in this world. Many folks online have been criticizing Taiwanese photographer Tou Chih-kang for taking photos of shelter dogs just moments before euthanasia, saying he should put those skills to use in trying to find them adoptable homes.
One comment on Facebook reads, "What I want to know is, why isn't he taking photos to help get them adopted, instead of waiting till just before they are put down? It seems like he is taking advantage of the dogs."
However, I see Chih-kang's work as a devoted ministry; a heart-wrenching labor of love to tell the stories of the dogs who have been cast aside by society, to let the world know that they were here. That, moments before death caused by the irresponsibility of humans, each one was a living, breathing soul with his own unique story.
If you dig deeper into the story, you'll discover that the outrageous number of strays in Taiwain guarantee certain death for many of these dogs, that there are simply no homes for them. And as you examine the problematic situation, Chih-kang emerges as a kind and compassionate spirit offering us awareness and insight to the plight of these animals we have created and then discarded.
The Associated Press - This year Taiwanese authorities will euthanize an estimated 80,000 stray dogs. Animal-welfare advocates say the relatively widespread nature of the phenomenon – Taiwan’s human population is only 23 million – reflects the still immature nature of the island’s dog-owning culture and the belief among some of its majority Buddhist population that dogs are reincarnated humans who behaved badly in a previous life.
It would seem, judging by the many stores in Taiwan that sell fancy dog clothes and other baubles, as if Taiwanese fawn over their animals, and some do. But others abandon pets to the streets once their initial enthusiasm cools.
“Animals are seen just as playthings, not to be taken seriously,” says Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director of the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Activists say that some 70 percent of dogs in Taiwanese shelters are killed after a 12-day waiting period, despite government efforts to find them homes. Gabriel says dogs in U.S. shelters are less likely to be euthanized, though millions of cats continue to be put down there each year.
The dogs who wind up in Taoyuan are picked up by roving patrols, funded by local governments, of workers equipped with large nets.
The dogs come in all sizes and shapes. Some are young and active, others grizzled, listless and battered. After Tou photographs them, veterinary workers take them for a brief turn around a grassy courtyard before leading them into a small, clinical-looking room where they are killed by lethal injection.
As an animal lover, rescuer and guardian to three rescued dogs, I of course find the situation - and the images - utterly heartbreaking. Yet, I also find compassion and kindness in the way Chih-kang honors each of these animals in their last moments, honoring them each as an individual life and spirit rather than each becoming just another "euthanasia statistic".
AP - Tou, who uses the professional name Tou Yun-fei, says he began his project because the Taiwanese media were not paying enough attention to the dogs’ plight. He says he doesn’t believe in having pets, but the problem had long plagued his conscience.
He says that while some of his friends refuse to even look at his photographs, others say the images taught them to take pet ownership more seriously.
A handful of the some 40,000 dog pictures Tou has taken are due to be exhibited this August in his first full-scale show, at the Fine Arts Museum in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.
A few photos already are on display at Taoyuan city hall, part of a bid to raise citizens’ awareness of the responsibilities that come with raising a pet.
“I am a medium that through my photography, more people will be aware of this issue,” he says. “I think that’s my role.”
According to the Associated Press, Chih-kang has been documenting the last moments of canine life at the Taoyuan Animal Shelter for two years. He has captured the images of some 400 dogs, most of which were pets abandoned by their owners. To him the work is distressing, but he’s trying to spread a message of responsibility.
Chih-kang told the press, “I believe something should not be told but should be felt, and I hope these images will arouse the viewers to contemplate and feel for these unfortunate lives, and understand the inhumanity we the society are putting them through.”
In this way, Chih-kang brings to this worldwide epidemic an honest face, one dog, one life, and one death at a time. I find it to be noble and heart-filled work and I applaude the fact that this photographer is willing to take on such a painful role in order to try to make positive change in our world.
Will it affect hearts and thoughts enough to impact the outcome of dogs down the road? One can only hope. Until then, I think it is worth sharing the vital message.
Thanks to Gregory Byerline Photography for bringing this story to our attention.