This is not a happy blog post. Last week a friend posted on Facebook a tribute to Angelo, a dog I once met who suffered a horrible injustice. He was twice a victim of animal abuse – once by his owners and then again by a callous judicial process. My friend’s reflections stirred up my own memories.
For the last couple of years I have volunteered in local animal shelters to produce high quality pictures that will catch the attention of potential adopters and, ideally, lure them to come and visit the shelter. There are a lot of happy endings (beginnings, actually) at my local shelters. Sadly, though, there are also plenty of heart wrenching stories. Angelo’s is probably the most heart wrenching of them all.
In October 2011 I was asked by Dottie Reynolds, president of the Friends of Southern Ocean County Animal Shelter (FOSOCAS), to photograph Angelo. Dottie wanted to use the photographs to bring attention to the tragedy that Angelo was enduring. The two hours I sat with this beautiful dog is something I will never, ever forget.
Here’s the short version. Angelo and several siblings were seized by the SPCA when their owners were charged with animal cruelty. The allegations were that the dogs had been neglected and abused, and there may have been fighting involved. Classic animal abuse. Per a court order the dogs were quarantined at the local animal shelter. They were not allowed to have contact with each other, with other dogs, or with humans other than shelter staff. Their incarceration lasted for months. Eventually permission was granted to allow the dogs to spend less than an hour a day in outside runs. They still couldn’t interact with people or each other. They could feel the sunlight and smell the air. For an hour. And then were returned to their 6×10 cages for the remaining 23 hours each day.
When Angelo entered the shelter he was scared and timid. He showed some aggression. Given his experience of abuse that was not a surprise. Over time he began to show positive signs. He became less fearful. He was curious, even excited, to see humans. He became particularly attached to a volunteer named Lisa who brought him treats and toys. There was hope that Angelo might have a good outcome.
But the court case dragged on. And on. And on. Days turned to weeks which turned to months. In October, a full three months since he was taken into custody, Angelo began to show signs that the stress of his environment was taking its toll. His behavior changed dramatically and worsened everyday. His interest in toys disappeared. He began biting the fencing of his cage. Looking into his eyes it was clear he was losing his mind. And yet the court case dragged on. Angelo was slipping away, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
When Dottie called she asked me to photograph Angelo in a way that would illustrate his suffering. Before I sat with him I had ideas about how to do that. Images that show the sterile conditions of a shelter. Gray, cold light that conveys isolation and loneliness. And so on. As soon as I sat on the floor outside Angelo’s cage I knew I didn’t have to do anything to highlight his condition. I just had to show Angelo. The look in his eyes was one of horror. His soul was in a constant state of torture. He was trapped in his cage and trapped in his mind. He would chew on the fencing until his mouth bled. He would paw at the door as a sad plea to be released. Then he would turn away, deliberately facing in the other direction and stare into space. His behavior was not aggressive. It was desperate. I had seen plenty of dogs who were stressed by being in the shelter, but I had never seen anything like Angelo. His confinement had made him insane. He was a tortured soul.
Less than two weeks after these photos were taken Angelo was euthanized. A part of me felt relief for him, and imagined his soul taking a deep sigh as he passed. He was finally free of the torture. And a big part of me felt rage. Rage toward the humans who put Angelo in this situation. Rage toward the system that callously ignored the fact that a life was suffering in a cage because “the wheels of justice” only go so fast. And another part of me felt a deep sadness. I still feel it. I have tears in my eyes as I type. This tragedy didn’t have to happen. Angelo didn’t have to suffer. It wasn’t his fault.
As I write I’m realizing that I’m doing so to deal with the rage and sadness. It hasn’t gone away. I haven’t been able to compartmentalize it like I often can. Angelo lives somewhere in my spirit. His horror and unnecessary death stand as a reminder that we have so much work to do to make the world a better place for our animals. If Angelo’s story and images speak to you I hope you’ll allow him to live in your spirit as well. And that you’ll honor that place he holds by joining the forces of good for animals. Take action against animal cruelty. Encourage your government leaders to strengthen laws against abuse. Volunteer at a local shelter or rescue. Donate money or resources to organizations working in support of saving animals. Do something. Do anything. It won’t bring Angelo and the millions like him back, but it will help move us closer to a day when there are no more Angelos who have to endure animal abuse. That will make the world a better place.