double tap picture to expand gallery
In December 2013, HSUS state director Kim Alboum and photographer Shannon Johnstone hit the road during a rare Southern snowstorm to visit eight rural animal shelters throughout North Carolina.
Their goal: to highlight often forgotten shelters—groups that are doing terrific work with little money or support—through Johnstone’s compelling photos. These little shelters have worked to accomplish big things, like getting rid of gas chambers and combating serious animal cruelty. And even the little details the pair saw along the way told a big story: spotless enclosures, hairbrushes zip-tied to the sides of enclosures for kitties’ rubbing pleasure and cat condos made from cutout cardboard boxes.
“There are so many amazing people in these little rural shelters with virtually no resources,” says Alboum. “And nobody was telling their story.”
The road trip was part of the North Carolina Shelter Project—a collaborative effort between advocacy groups, including The HSUS, to increase support and visitations for rural shelters in the state. Johnstone’s photos were exhibited in Raleigh last February to a turnout of 200 people. Shelters received $500 from proceeds and donations such as food, toys and cleaning supplies. A second exhibit took place in October.
During photo shoots, Johnstone tried to capture each shelter’s spirit by focusing on the natural light and interactions between staff and animals. “I wanted to see where people walk into the shelter,” she says, “where the dogs live and where they leave.”
It worked. Shelters and participating organizations posted the photos on social media sites, boosting adoption interest. Rescue groups took in dogs, cats and even a potbellied pig after attending the event.There was Jax, a little brown dog adopted from the Stokes County Animal Shelter by a friend of Johnstone’s in Arizona after she posted his photo on Facebook. And Tank, a wounded stray cat adopted the day after Chatham County Animal Shelter shared his photo.
Bill, a lovable boxer/American bulldog mix with a basketball-sized head and tank-like body, had been at the Chatham shelter for four months. He, too, was adopted the day after his photos were posted.
“We had 27 animals adopted directly from the shelter during that event [and] 18 animals … pulled by rescue groups,” says Chatham County shelter director Leigh Anne Garrard. “This event was a lifesaving benefit to us.”
The project, Johnstone says, opened her eyes to the caring spirit of shelter employees. In Chatham County, for example, people working behind the desk kept photos of dogs they’d grown fond of. One had been euthanized. “I thought that was so sad,” she says. “But it was also beautiful, that they loved and honored that dog. That the dog died with dignity and is remembered.”
These shelters are not just places for housing animals, she says. They’re places where people and dogs can take walks together. They’re places to meet others with similar interests, and a great resource for advice to help owners solve problems rather than surrender their pets.
Shelter workers were shown “in a different capacity than the way most of their community views them … doing extraordinary things: rescuing animals, being the first point of rescue in the community.”
For Alboum, it felt pretty special to watch shelter employees walk through the exhibit and see their pictures on the wall. “They were up there in a different capacity than the way most of their community views them,” she says, “… doing extraordinary things: rescuing animals, being the first point of rescue in the community. Not these beaten-down shelter directors who people are angry with because they have to euthanize animals.”
In the middle of the exhibit was a beat-up doghouse with a giant chain attached. The chain had been confiscated by Duplin County Animal Control during a cruelty case. “We took animal control tools and put them around the room and then put up all the pictures,” Alboum says. “It was amazing. I watched some people stand in front of pictures and cry. I heard people walk out saying, ‘I never would have known that our shelters did all of this had I not come to this exhibit.’”