Sonia Horon, Global Animal

“Breeding Ignorance,” a powerful and gut-wrenching collection of photographs shot by Mary Shannon Johnstone, features an intimate look into the harrowing realities of animal shelters forced to deal with overpopulation. Johnstone, an Associate Professor of Art and a photographer, is an advocate for spay/neuter laws and has shed light on these issues resulting from the major lack of these laws. Her work has been part of the Top 50 Critical Mass for 2009 and 2010, and was exhibited as part of the 2010 Lens Culture Awards Exposure awards.

Sad shelter kitten. Photo credit:
Photo Credit: Shannon Johnstone

Animal overpopulation, from lack of spaying and neutering, is a major cause for high euthanasia rates in shelters. A declaration on Johnstone’s website reads, “In the time it takes for you to read this statement, fifteen pets will have entered into life in an animal shelter somewhere in the United States. Ninety percent of these animals are not spayed or neutered. Approximately half will be euthanized.” Many states are trying to pass more no-kill shelter laws, but it’s a slow and difficult process, and there are no easy answers. Check out our interview with the photographer and visit her site for more graphic photos.

The title of your project, “Breeding Ignorance,” seems to be a very strong/provocative statement. Can you explain what it means?

In the United States, we euthanize 3 to 4 million companion animals every year. Yet, each year we continue to breed more cats and dogs. There are simply more companion animals than we have homes for. So far our solution to this problem euthanasia, rather than curb the problem from happening in the first place. The title refers to the hidden tragedy of pet overpopulation in our community, and the lack of awareness about spaying and neutering.

Photo credit:
Photo Credit: Shannon Johnstone

A lot of your photographs are simply heartbreaking. As someone who obviously cares about animals how hard was it for you to document such a tragic subject matter? Did you get emotional?
It was extremely hard working on this project. I cried every time I went to photograph, and it is still difficult for me to look at the work from this project. My husband is not even able to look at the photographs. On my first visit to photograph the euthanasias, one of the lead veterinarians pulled me aside. She explained the need for professionalism, and said that if I needed to cry I had to leave the building. She said, “you leave here, your cry, and you love the animals that you have. That is what I do. That is what we all do.” I have so much respect for shelter workers. They have a heroic job, and serve the public and the animals with grace and strength. We are all indebted to them. They are much tougher than I am.

When/why did you decide to spotlight shelter animals? What first sparked your interested in the project?

I adopted my first dog, Lula Belle (a walker hound mix), from a rescue group about 10 years ago. I didn’t know anything about animal overpopulation, or shelters, or euthanasia. I just wanted a dog, and I knew I didn’t have time for a puppy. My neighbor, who volunteered at the animal shelter, saw that I had adopted a dog and assumed I was much more knowledgeable and passionate about animal overpopulation than I was. She invited me to come with her, and I began volunteering. I learned that the shelter receives 40 new animals everyday, which was hard to understand. I kept wondering, “where do all these animals come from?” This was the foundation for the project. I wanted people to see the results of unregulated breeding.

You advocate for spaying/neutering, in what other ways do you think we can decrease animal populations in shelters?

A beagle waiting in a cage. Photo credit:
Photo Credit: Shannon Johnstone

Adopting rather than purchasing animals is one step. But spaying and neutering is the only way to stop “the bleeding”, so to speak. Ideally there would be mandatory spay and neuter laws, as Rhode Island has put into place.

In your time spent with shelter animals, what touched or surprised you the most?

What has surprised me the most is that there is no easy answer for why people surrender their animals, and that the people surrendering the animals are not the cause of animal overpopulation. I used to feel judgmental and silently accuse those surrendering their animals as irresponsible. But it is not that easy. I watched one man spend 30 minutes saying good bye to his dog. He was crying his eyes out. He had lost his job, his home, and was going to live in his car. He literally could no longer care for his dog, Sammie-Ray. The dog seemed to be crying too. It brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it.





  1. "the people surrendering the animals are not the cause of animal overpopulation."….really? that's news to me. i am in rescue and i foster. we get a 9 yr old into rescue simply because 'she can't hear' or 'she peed in the house' ….do you think these people don't go right out & get another dog? because THEY DO. that was one of the dumbest statements i have ever heard.

  2. Control and penalize puppy mills and the breeding for fun, in Midwestern states and you can take a BIG CHUNK of the overpopulation problem out of the shelter. Right now spay and neuter isn't working successfully enough. It helps but until Puppy Mills (who produce MILLIONS of pups per year) are stopped nothing will change. The Mills crank out a gazillion pups per year that in turn are purchased by more people that breed and breed. Multiply that by 20-30 years and you can see what the problem is. AKC will go belly up with out Puppy Mill breeders so they protect them by lobbying against any legislation to end the practice. AKC needs to be replaced with a breed registry more responsible to the animals. It should be mandated that ANYONE that has a litter of pups cannot sell-adopt-give away the pups UNTIL they are spayed and neutered. It would be quite to isolate the ads on Craigslist-Oodle sites-puppy sites and report the breeders. No pup should be sold/given away intact.