Photo Essay

Going to the Dogs?


I've never owned a dog personally. But there was this one dog - Brownie - who lived at my grandparent's house in Malaysia, a sort of fluffy dog, yet lean, hairier than a Collie but of the same build. They used to let him wander the grounds alongside them, fed him roti kaya with their hands, laughed when he barked, claiming it was the sign of a happy dog. And he was a happy dog, full of energy and excitement, hungry for life. A few years later and no one was able to look after him; I came back one summer to find him frustrated and desolate, kept imprisoned all day in the sweaty monsoon heat in a cage barely bigger than he. None of us could go near him; he terrified us with his exposed teeth and gums whenever we passed the cage, for snarling and growling was all he knew to do now. At night they let him loose, unhooking the cage as quickly they as he could then rushing out of his way - but he never ran in their direction. Always he ran away from them, towards the open gate that would free him into the garden and patio and driveway. I could hear him from my bedroom, his frenzied scatter of paws creating small, sharp stutters that ricocheted in the thin night air. When a new family moved into the house they let Brownie loose. Opened the gate to the road and he was gone.

I see so many stray dogs when I go back to Malaysia. Lying in drains, head curled into their bodies as the monsoon rain drenches their thin hair. Awkwardly flung at the side of roads, knocked down by careless drivers. Whimpering at the delicacies displayed at road side stalls, trying to steal a kebab or piece of fruit. Snarling from the shadows at passers by walking their domesticated dogs along the hot tarmac streets at night. I wonder why they are there, what's going to happen to them; it doesn't take much guessing.

Luckily in England, animal rights are of more concern to people than the majority of the population of Malaysia; of course this is a generalisation, but organisations for animals in Malaysia just lack the funding to raise awareness about animal care, and the fact that a lot of dogs are bought for the sole use of guarding the house means that many view them less as 'pets' than over here. I've hardly seen any stray dogs in England; in fact I don't even think I've even seen one, but the idea of kennels reminded me too much of Brownie's caged existence, and when I finally visited one I still couldn't decide whether they were much better than what Brownie was confined to.

I took all of these pictures on my first visit to the RSPCA kennels in South Mimms. The minute I walked into the first kennel I set my camera to black and white, and though I did try a few shots in colour later they just didn't fit with the atmosphere; the blandness and sparseness of the photos reflect the place in both architecture and mood. Many of the pictures feature the little door at the back of a 'cell', but it was such an important part of the dog's lives, this tiny portal to the outside world, that it should be visible in most of the shots. And the dogs, although different breeds and surely of varying personalities, all seem to have the same feel to them; the expressions of tired curiosity or even bored indifference feature on every dog's face.

However, the thing that is different for these dogs to the ones in Malaysia, like Brownie, is that they have hope. They are cared for; they are given basic necessities and maybe even the occasional luxury; they are given time; these dogs have a big chance of being re-homed and of being part of a family again, if not for the first time. The RSPCA do a great job and the kennels I photographed do lots for the dogs; the visiting people are always welcome to take them for a walk as well, so they do get space and exercise. Kennels like this help mistreated dogs to begin again, whereas those in Malaysia hit a dead end. But it's nothing compared to what loyal owners could do for these dogs.

The message is this; kennels should not need to exist. Every person thinking of buying a dog should understand and accept the challenges this new addition will bring them; if you are not prepared to put in all the effort of owning a dog the answer is simple; do not get one. But every person thinking of getting a dog should also be aware of all the joys and rewards having a dog can bring, as long as it is treated with the care and respect it needs. A dog is for life, so think of how rich and wonderful your life could be with a well looked-after dog by your side.

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