“There is sadness below the surface. It seeps out through the methane pipes.
The sadness smells like sulfur – a sharp juxtaposition to the beauty this place holds.”
The place Shannon Johnstone describes is Raleigh’s Landfill Park. For several years, Johnstone has been using this location as a backdrop for her photography project, Landfill Dogs. While Johnstone’s photos are gorgeous, detailed, and vivid, the purpose is not just for arts sake. It’s about saving lives. The dogs she highlights are at a high risk of being euthanized. The photos offer an opportunity for potential adopters to see them at their best and happiest. It also gives the dogs a chance to run and play, socialize, and breathe fresh air. It gives them freedom, even if fleeting.
But the stark reality is never far from mind, considering that Landfill Park is where Wake County buried its euthanized animals for 14 years. Johnstone says there are over 25,000 dogs buried there. “Almost 700 tons of dog is buried in this hill among 4.8 million tons of trash,” she says. “I think of Landfill Park as a burial ground.”
The fact that the county disposed of its waste and shelter animals in the same manner really struck Johnstone. “It occurred to me that this government structure reflected that homeless animals are just another waste stream. I wanted to shed light on that.” The light she shed shone bright enough to attract national attention – the project was featured on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. Thus, what began as an 18 month project is still going strong. The Landfill Dogs Facebook page has nearly 35,000 followers, and Johnstone posts new photos on a regular basis.
While the setting may be grim in theory, she says it is quite beautiful, full of green grass and wildflowers, nature and wildlife. She reminds us that “this project is not about the dogs who have died. This project is about the dogs who are still living and are most at risk.” The sadness and beauty she sees in Landfill Park is parallel to what she sees in her Landfill Dogs. “I want to present their spirits as alive, happy, and running free. I want to give them one more chance to find a home before they end up buried in a landfill with our broken dishwashers. I want to make something beautiful from the sadness in the dogs’ eyes.”
She has more than exceeded this goal with her photo series. And the results are in the numbers. Of the 140 featured dogs, 120 have been adopted or sent to rescue. Another 8 are still available, and 12 have been put down. That part is difficult, Johnstone admits. “It is hard for me to look them in the eye, and watch them frolic and make some gesture that is all their own and not fall in love with them.” She is already one dog over her “three dog family” limit, and she and her husband have agreed no more.
Euthanasia is the reality we have to live with, though she is quick to point out this is due to the rules made by elected officials and shelters aren’t to blame. In fact, she commends the dedicated staff and volunteers for their efforts. They make Landfill Dogs possible.
Johnstone contends that her project is really about freedom: the brief respite she offers the dogs from their confinement. “I want to feel free with them, to dream with them at the top of the hill, to look out at our country, and make a wish,” she says. “I want to participate in the feeling of being free, even if only for an hour.”
Though the project no longer has a definitive end date, Johnstone hopes others will follow suit. “My dream is that it would inspire others to do similar projects that advocate for the most overlooked animals in their own communities. I would love to see a Landfill Dogs movement across the country.”
For more information about how you can help visit LandfillDogs.info.