|Traer Scott’s Shelter Dogs
By A.J. Mistretta
This is a series of portraits that resulted from frustration, opportunity and loss. The first line of the introduction to Traer Scott’s book Shelter Dogs sums it all up with graceful simplicity. A photographer and lifelong animal advocate, Scott could not stand to see dogs in shelters—would tear up whenever she tried to volunteer at one. There’s a certain irony then that it’s she who has put a face and story behind the fraught populace of American shelters.
Shelter Dogs (due out this month from Merrell) is Scott’s tribute to those she spent so much time with. “These dogs were an inspiration to me,” she says. Now the book she has penned seeks to give back to the voiceless masses.
A few years ago Scott was asked by the editor of a regional animal magazine to write and photograph a story on Katenna Jones. Jones was the director of a program launched at Brown University aimed at teaching volunteers to train shelter dogs in the art of obedience. In accepting the assignment, Scott knew she would have to visit the place where Jones conducted the program, a city-run shelter in Providence, RI. “Meeting her, I sort of fed off of her strength,” Scott says. “I had a face to associate with this positive program and I felt very strongly about what she was trying to do.”
So strongly in fact that Scott joined the ranks of Jones’ volunteers teaching dogs everything from “sit” to “shake.”
“It’s funny,” the author says, “for some reason everyone who goes through a shelter looking for a dog will walk up to a cage and say ‘sit.’ It never fails.” Recognizing this mentality, Jones’ program aimed to increase shelter dogs’ “value” by teaching them a few of the basics and making them more controllable. But the grant that funded the program eventually ran out, leaving Jones to find full-time work at another facility and scattering most of her volunteers. Suddenly Scott and another volunteer were the only ones left to carry on the work at the Providence shelter. “I really felt obligated to stay because I couldn’t just abandon the other volunteer,” she says. “So I stayed and I took on more responsibility. It became much harder because I had to be there more and I felt much more responsible for what would happen to these dogs.”
Not long after, shelter officials found out that Scott was a photographer and asked her to devote more of her time. Now, to increase the dogs’ chances of finding a home, she was taking pictures of those up for adoption to be posted on the facility’s Web site.
Somehow taking pictures helped relieve her anxiety over being in the shelter. “When I have a camera in my hand I’m not afraid of anything,” she says. “I don’t think anyone who calls themselves a photographer can just take snapshots. If I’m going to bother to take a photo, I’m going to do it well.”
Scott wound up with piles of shots, many intriguing close-ups of expression-filled mugs. They were the kind of images that connected human with animal—the kind that would tug at heartstrings and get dogs adopted. “As the number of images grew, one day I realized that there was much more there,” she says.
It was an instant epiphany. For so long, Scott had endeavored to find new ways she could help the four-legged and voiceless. Now her other passion, photography, would facilitate a great effort. “I knew that not only would this make a visually amazing book, but it also educate people. That’s the key.”
Photos of dogs in shelters often illustrate their sorry circumstances, showing them behind cage doors or being drug along by a handler. Scott wanted to show another side. “What I was able to do was capture the dogs away from all of that,” she says. Taking the animals outside and allowing them some freedom of expression, Scott seized images of the dogs the way they might want to be seen. “Suddenly these animals that in their cages looked pitiful … they became very beautiful.”
Once Scott began thinking of the photos as a book project, she ran her idea by friends who agreed she should pursue it. To make sure she was seeing all sides of the picture, she visited another Providence shelter, this time a private facility. Most of the book was shot in those two shelters over several months.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Scott wanted to find dogs that had been rescued from the New Orleans area, particularly pit bulls. After much searching, she discovered a shelter in Albany, NY that had taken in 10 pits. She traveled there to photograph them for the book. “They had been beautifully rehabilitated; all of those dogs had happy endings.”
Not all were so lucky. Scott says she has the strongest memories of the dogs in the book that wound up being euthanized. Like Bailee, an 18-month-old Great Dane mix that was picked up and brought to the shelter. Her owner claimed her after a few weeks, but a month later she was back. This time the owner turned Bailee over to the city and she was put down not long after. “There were a number of instances where I didn’t agree that that should happen, but the fact is there is severe overcrowding [in the shelters] and it has to be done.”
There are more happy tales. Like Adonis, a two-year-old pit bull, shy upon arrival. He spent only a month at the shelter before getting transferred to the New York Animal Farm Foundation where he earned his Canine Good Citizenship and became a certified therapy dog. It’s those like Adonis that prove dogs that come from the street can become wonderful pets, Scott says.
Scott is quick to point out that while shelters are not always pretty places, the people running them are often doing the best they can. “City shelters are very limited in funding and always a little bit understaffed. They are really a business necessity.” On the other hand, private shelters operated by people whose primary motivation is to help animals find homes are usually more inviting. “If you walk into a shelter where all the animals are wearing bandannas and sleeping on dog beds you do get a much better feeling,” she says. “It’s a different presentation.” But such shelters also have more choice in which animals they accept than their municipal counterparts.
Meanwhile, with presales brisk and interest mounting, Scott has high expectations for her book. “I’m hoping that this reaches out to a broad audience,” she says. What does she hope it tells them? “That wonderful dogs looking for homes can be found in every shelter and that people should always first pursue adopting.”