• Shannon Johnstone

Landfill Dogs

A photo essay about homeless dogs and their discarded brethren at a landfill in Wake County, North Carolina.

In 2009, Wake County’s former director of environmental services contacted me about an old landfill site that was being turned into a public park and suggested it would be an excellent backdrop to photograph the animals. I had been doing this as a volunteer at the animal shelter for several years. We went there together and he showed me around. He was looking for unique ways to market the animals and thought it would be a good backdrop. It was perfect. However, I found myself lingering on the idea that he was in charge of both the landfill and animal shelter. Like most people, I didn’t realize that the animal shelter and the landfill are managed in the same government division. The thinking behind is this is that under the law, pets are considered property, and when you don’t want your property anymore, the government provides a place for you to bring it. Literally, homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream. Additionally, in Wake County, NC (where I live and where all the Landfill Dogs come from), euthanized animal carcasses are are taken to the landfill to be buried. I wanted to use this space to visualize this connection.

Landfill Park was an active landfill for 14 years, from 1996–2008. During this time Wake County Animal Center brought its euthanized animals here. There are an estimated 25,666 dogs are buried in Landfill Park. If each euthanized dog weighed an average of 50 pounds, almost 700 tons of dog is buried in this hill among 4.8 million tons of trash. Keep in mind this number does not include cats or other animals, and that this is just one animal shelter, in a state with 100 counties. I think of Landfill Park as a burial ground.

But this project is not about the dogs who have died and who are buried at Landfill Park. This project is about the dogs who are still living and who are most at risk for euthanasia. Each week I take one dog who has been in the shelter the longest, and I photograph him/her at Landfill Park. During our time together, they receive a car ride, treats, a long walk, and two hours of much-needed attention. Through these photographs I want to honor the dogs in this place that is simultaneously sad and beautiful. There is sadness below the surface at Landfill Park. It seeps out through the methane pipes. The sadness smells like sulfur. The smell is a sharp juxtaposition to the beauty this place holds. The landfill rises 190 feet and covers 43 acres. It is the second highest point in Wake County, and you can see for miles in all directions when standing on top of the hill. Over the sadness, grass and wildflowers grow, birds fly, and deer roam. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It is here, at the top of Landfill Park, where I hope to honor the dogs most at risk for euthanasia. 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, broken promises, and other sour remnants of home.

Just as Landfill Park transformed trash into beauty, I want to make something beautiful from the sadness in the dogs’ eyes. 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. I want to participate in the feeling of being free, even if only for an hour. This is how Landfill Dogs began.

To date, I have photographed 153 dogs. Of that group 133 dogs have found homes or been sent to rescue. Six are still waiting, and 14 have been euthanized for various reasons.


It started with a Beagle. We had a beagle when I was a child, and as an adult I wanted a dog that looked just like her. I promised myself that when I finished graduate school, I would get a dog. My first year of teaching full-time left me much busier than I had imagined, and I quickly realized that training a puppy would require more time than I had. This is the only reason I adopted a dog instead of buying one. If I could have walked into a store to buy a full-grown dog, I would have. I never even considered adopting from an animal shelter. I knew nothing about them. So, when it came time to look for a dog, I did a Google search, much as I would if I were buying a washing machine or toaster. I typed “Beagle Triangle” (Triangle is the nickname of the area where I live). The first result was “Triangle Beagle Rescue.” That’s where I found my first dog, Lula Belle.

I began going to the shelter with Barbara every Wednesday. I cleaned cages, walked dogs, and took pictures. The first thing that struck me about the shelter was its high turnover rate. Every week presents a new set of animals. In fact, the shelter receives approximately 39 new animals every day. It is overwhelming. I kept thinking, where do all of these animals come from? Why are there so many?

After a few months, I concluded that two reasons explain the high volume of animals: accidental breeding and intentional breeding. Accidental breeding occurs when people fail to spay or neuter their pet. This inevitably leads to an unwanted litter, and one cat or dog suddenly becomes 11 or 12. Intentional breeding means litters that are planned. This is for people who are searching for a particular breed, a hypoallergenic coat, or specific features such as long floppy ears, spots, or shiny fur. This demand creates a market for breeders, a surplus of puppies and kittens, and fewer homes for the accidental litters.

I noticed that many of the dogs in the shelter were not spayed or neutered. Someone said to me, “If you want a particular breed, you can’t go spaying and neutering it. Besides, people will pay a lot of money for a certain type of dog.” I felt angry at the selfishness embedded in this belief when so many animals are dying in the shelter.

But then I remembered: I had wanted a beagle.

I provide this story because my photographic work with homeless animals is not made from a place of righteousness, nor are the images created for shock and awe. On the contrary, they were born from a place of trying to understand and to see with new eyes, to make visual a hidden tragedy—one that we know exists but try not to think about.

I created this work for people like me, who perhaps should but do not know better. My hope is that we will do better in terms of spaying and neutering, and that we will put more pressure on our lawmakers for tighter regulations on the spaying, neutering, and breeding of animals.

I also hope that we collectively reconsider how we think about homeless animals. They are more than property, yet that is all they are in the eyes of the law. To further that point, when we no longer want our animals, we send them away like garbage, and their bodies end up in our landfills among our household trash. I hope that by documenting the entire process, we will rethink who these animals are, what their lives are worth, and what they mean to us.

Please visit Shannon's website here to learn more about her photography and projects.

#dogs #animals #NorthCarolina #landfills #animalgeography #pets #coordinatessociety

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