Poor Dead Dog in Bag

Shannon Johnstone

Shannon Johnstone

Shannon’s work is tough. Hard to look at, hard to even think about. Powerful stuff. I find her really courageous to take on the subject so visibly. Having a dog and two cats that I am so so attached to, I can’t bear to think of what would happen to them if they weren’t with me.

This work is important, and as rough as it is to get through, I commend her for putting herself out there. Thank you.

Poor Dead Dog in Bag

After dogs have been euthanized, their bodies are placed into large black plastic bags and their kennels are sanitized.

Loud Kitten

A feral kitten is picked up by an Animal Control Officer (ACO).


Dogs who have demonstrated aggression, such as used for pit fighting or biting a human, are destroyed.


Cats and dogs are anesthetized before they are euthanized. Although the sedation does not hurt, many fight because they are scared.

Cats in Freezer

Cat carcasses are stored in a walk in freezer until they can be picked up and disposed of.

In her own words:

With this work I explore the tragedy of the massive overpopulation of cats and dogs in my community. In North Carolina, every year over 250,000 dogs and cats have to be euthanized because there is no place to put them. That is almost 700 every day, which I find shocking and heartbreaking. Although heroic efforts are made daily by animal control officers, shelter employees, veterinarians, and volunteers, they are faced with a Sisyphean task. These photographs explore the animals and aftermath of this epidemic, focusing on what remains when there are no regulations on breeding, spaying or neutering.

After adopting two dogs, I wondered why dogs are “purchased” at all, and began volunteering at a state-owned animal control facility. I was stunned to learn they receive over 8,000 animals annually, but can only hold 275 animals at a time. This results in thousands of euthanasias at this facility alone. Equally stunning, I learned many potential owners oppose the 100% sterilization policy. After months of volunteering and listening, I decided to respond photographically.

On my first visit to photograph the euthanasias, the lead veterinarian pulled me aside saying she had one rule—if I needed to cry, I had to leave the building. She explained the need for professionalism, and that crying was not allowed. Alternatively she offered, “You leave here, then you cry, and you love the animals you have. That is what I do. That is what we all do.” Another vet offered, “The tragedy is not that we euthanize animals. The tragedy is that we HAVE to euthanize. There is no alternative.” With this in mind, I decided the project should focus on the animals and the aftermath—but not the workers, whose identities I purposefully blocked. I hope these photographs call attention to the tragic epidemic of animal overpopulation, and illuminate what happens when we don’t spay and neuter our cats and dogs.


Mary Shannon Johnstone received her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (’96), and MFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology (’01). She has had solo exhibitions in Chicago, Durham, Raleigh, and Rochester. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including three Best of Competition awards in the North Carolina Annual Photographers Exhibition. Her work has appeared in American Photo, Outdoor Photography, Popular Photography, and Peterson’s PhotoGraphics. Her work was also selected by Algonquin Books as the cover image for “If You Want Me To Stay”, a novel by Michael Parker. In 2008, Johnstone was chosen as one 15 photographers for the highly competitive “Pause, To Begin” photography project. Most recently Johnstone was awarded the 2009 Carter Foundation Scholarship from Maine Media Workshops. She is also one of Photolucida’s 2009 Critical Mass Top 50 photographers, which was awarded by vote from over 200 gallery directors and curators nationwide. Johnstone is a tenured Associate Professor of Art at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC.

All images copyright Mary Shannon Johnstone. Used with permission.

One thought on “Shannon Johnstone

  1. Thanks for putting this out there! We are a terribly consumptive society and too many people view pets as disposable items. Change will only come with education of the young, IMHO.

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