Like any animal photographer, Tou Chih-kang likes to capture expressions and personality. He creates the kind of pictures any pet owner would love. But, the dogs in his photos aren’t pets, and no one will ever see the animals again. The canines in Tou’s works are among the thousands of homeless shelter dogs in Taiwan – and they’re all on death row. After he photographs them, the animals are taken away to be euthanized.
“I believe something should not be told but should be felt,” says Tou, 37. “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.”
His photographs are like formal portraits, designed to bestow dignity and prestige upon the subject. In many of the dog portraits, the animals are placed at angles that make them look almost human.
This year Taiwanese authorities will euthanize an estimated 80,000 stray dogs. Animal welfare advocates say the widespread nature of the problem – 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. Many Taiwanese care for their animals, 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.
The dogs who wind up in the Taoyuan Animal Shelter are picked up by roving patrols, funded by local governments, of workers equipped with large nets.
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. 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 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.”