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FEATURE: Capturing the moment of death -- for dogs

2012/02/19 16:19:19

By Christie Chen, CNA staff reporter

He usually walks the dogs first, or spends time with them before guiding them, sometimes carrying them in his arms, to the studio, where he takes pictures of them.

It can take a few minutes or several hours. He then accompanies the dogs to another room and stands by them as they are put to death.

Photographer-turned-animal rights activist Tou Yun-fei has been doing this twice a week for two years.

"I don't tell people what they should do. My works aren't propaganda or templates that instruct people, but I hope the images can inspire people to take action," Tou, a two-time winner of the government's Golden Tripod Award for photography, told CNA in a recent interview.

Government statistics show that 880,950 stray animals have been captured and sent to the 38 government-funded animal pounds in Taiwan over the past decade, and 718,814 of them have been put to death through euthanasia. A majority of them were stray dogs.

Animal rights groups have accused the country's animal pounds of treating and killing the dogs inhumanely and the government of failing to enforce existing regulations to protect the dogs. They estimated that government shelters kill more than 200 dogs per day.

Many people treat stray dogs as statistics, but Tou believes each one of them has a face worth photographing.

The photographer quit a well-paid job with a local magazine two years ago to photograph the stray dogs, an idea that he said began in his mind at least a decade or two ago.

Since then, he has photographed over 400 dogs before they are put to death.

"Each is an individual with emotions, and each has its own personality," said the 36 year-old, whose pictures of the dogs have appeared in a local magazine, newspapers, exhibitions, and on the Internet.

A humane euthanasia process involves giving the dogs tranquilizers, before giving them anesthesia and euthanasia drugs.

But Tou said not all dogs were given tranquilizers.

In some places, the costs of sedative tranquilizers have to be met by the veterinarians instead of the government, lowering the incentive for vets to use them during the euthanasia process and causing great suffering for the animals, said the photographer.

The fact that government-funded pounds often outsource the euthanasia of dogs to private vets and organizations also makes it hard for the public to supervise the euthanasia process and ensure that it's humane, said Tou.

There are an estimated 140 animal pounds in Taiwan, and animals sent to the 38 government-run facilities are put to death if they are not picked up by their owners or adopted within 12 days.

Since Tou was a child, he has been able to identify with the stray dogs on the streets.

"I know that they, like me, desire love. But most aren't able to get it," said Tou, who has had two dogs of his own.

After working for six years in the media and growing weary of the work environment, Tou said the thought of doing something for the strays resurfaced in his mind.

The photographer began contacting government-funded animal shelters that euthanize unwanted dogs and was able to obtain consent from four of the facilities to photograph the animals before they were killed.

Instead of taking pictures of dogs locked in cages or the environment of the pounds, Tou chose instead to take portraits of the dogs, which allow their faces and expressions to be clearly shown.

The dogs in Tou's photos have human-like expressions. Some look sad, some look proud and others look thoughtful.

He said he chose to shoot the photos in the form of portraits because it "forces people to look at them and see them as emotional beings after the cages, chains and collars have been stripped away."

"Even if you don't know what euthanasia is, I hope you will want to discuss the issue after seeing the images," said Tou.

His photos of the strays have been exhibited at the New York Photo Festival last March and have appeared on major news publications in Taiwan, including the Chinese-language Business Weekly, the country's largest business magazine.

Taiwan's top government watchdog, the Control Yuan, said last February that the Council of Agriculture has failed to monitor local governments' management of their stray populations as required by the country's Animal Protection Act.

Only around 60 percent of all dogs in Taiwan have implanted ID chips -- which identify the owners to prevent dog abandonment -- and only 30 percent are neutered or spayed, said the Control Yuan.

The independent watchdog agency added that 19 counties and cities have failed to issue any fines for four consecutive years for pet owners that have abandoned their pets.

Defining his work as more than just art, Tou said his ultimate goal is to create a social movement.

"If we only discuss the aesthetics of a photo, it can only go so far," he said. "But if we hold a press conference, or film the euthanasia process and publish it, it creates a social impact; it becomes a social movement. This is what I hope to create through my images."

The photographer is now cooperating with animal protection groups and activists to call for a more humane euthanasia process and better policies for animals.

Tou and his friends have also set up a third-party monitoring unit to oversee the shelters and the killings.

He has also recently been invited to a press conference in which he gave advice to animal management officials on how to improve the pounds.

None of this was part of his plan, said Tou. He added that the filming of the dogs, which he said will continue for another three years, had made him more aware of his role as not only a photographer but an activist.

"I understand that it takes time for our education, legislation and administration to improve, but while the dogs are being euthanized, we have the ability right now to ensure that they don't suffer," he said.

"The problem in the end is not about stray dogs alone, but about how we should treat and respect lives," said Tou. "As long as humans continue to see animals as subordinates, the oppression of animals will not stop."

When asked about his ultimate goal, Tou said he places his hope in the next generation.

"I hope my images can reach children and teach them about respecting lives. I hope they can see them and know that each animal has feelings. And when their parents tell them 'that is a bad dog,' they will think 'but that is not true.'"

"Then maybe in a decade or two, real change can happen," he said.