There are 250,000 stray dogs in Puerto Rico, a US Commonwealth about the size of Connecticut. The stray population keeps on growing and no humane solution has as yet been found. Puerto Rican stray dogs, called “Satos” by locals, are often seen as vermin and live short lives of neglect and abuse.
The first time I stepped onto Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico, I had no experience photographing stray dogs. I mainly work in the studio—glossy, sleek, polished dog portraits; glamorous dog haute couture—bedazzled silk dresses and feathered hats on docile Chihuahuas. Dead Dog Beach was definitely out of my league. A dumping ground, it is known for its stray dog population, and the abuse that has occurred on the isolated beach including gang rituals, target practice, and cars running over helpless dogs and puppies. Dogs are dumped here everyday.
Wearing work boots and dirty clothes, I ventured under the harsh sun with Chrissy Beckles, founder of dog rescue group The Sato Project. From a distance, we spotted a shape on the ground. Chrissy tensed up. After several years of rescuing dogs from Dead Dog Beach, she is used to finding dead bodies and horribly abused animals. We approached and discovered a small orange dog so emaciated and weak it barely breathed and refused to eat. I had never seen anything like this. Pointing my camera at his face, I felt disgusted with myself for photographing this horror. I photographed over and over as Chrissy rushed him to the vet. My hand was trembling holding the flash. I did not know whether I should put the camera down and help, or keep on shooting. And then, as I pressed the trigger one more time, I captured Angel’s last breath. He looked straight into my lens, exhaled and passed away in Chrissy’s arms. She was hysterical, screaming and crying. I decided to keep the camera rolling. I filmed and photographed until there was nothing left of the moment.
This was one year ago. Since then, I have returned to Dead Dog Beach multiple times. Some of the dogs I see are very frightened or completely feral. Others have lived in homes and follow people around the beach, wagging their tails, looking for their owners, food, or just a gentle hand. Some dogs are in a state of shock. Others, reconnecting with their deep wild nature, organise themselves into packs in their battle for survival.
As I am photographing, I sometimes wonder: could the dogs of Dead Dog Beach survive on their own? If not, why can’t they? Has our bond with dogs made us so codependent that we feel the need to rescue them, and has it made dogs unfit for life in the wild? The pursuit of these questions is what fuels my photographic work.
We are thrilled to introduce Dog-Friendly, a collection of city guides for dog-loving people, created together with our long-time contributor, photographer Winnie Au, and fellow enthusiasts, indie publisher Hoxton Mini Press. Available for purchase here.
August 25, 2021
Have you ever imagined Amy Winehouse or Nick Cave as a Chihuahua, Neil Young as a Vizsla, or PJ Harvey as an Afghan hound? That’s exactly what San Francisco-based artist Michael Gillette has done through his unique illustration project, blending beloved, iconic music legends, both past and present, with their dog counterparts. Pack of Dogs, our first foray into book publishing, is a celebration of pup and pop culture for music and dog lovers alike.
August 25, 2020