We’ve all seen a stray dog or cat on the streets — sometimes, depending on where we live, with sad regularity — and many of us have us done our best to handle the dismal situation in a way that results in the animal winding up in a safe and happy environment. Sometimes that means capturing the animal ourselves and bringing him or her to a reputable no-kill shelter. Or sometimes we accidentally find ourselves with a new family member — whoops! Seeing stray felines might also instigate us to alert a feral cat group, so we can make sure that the animal becomes part of a “trap neuter return” program. Regardless of how we act when we see these homeless individuals foraging for food, if you’re like me, you lose sleep about it — even if you’ve done your very best to help. Indeed, even the happy endings can create sad repercussions for us, because although it brings us joy that one individual has found her way, we know the rest of the rest of the story, and it ain’t heartwarming.
A few years ago, I came across an injured pigeon here in NYC, and was able to get him to a facility that took in wildlife. He wound up in the very good hands of a wildlife rehabber, and was eventually re-released into the wild. That right there is a happy ending. And yet, I still think about this particular pigeon all the time. And with him in mind, I obsess about how maligned these truly extraordinary animals are, and how hated they have become — for absolutely no good reason.
Then there was Tips, the dog I helped rescue during a trip to Puerto Rico, where malnourished, stray dogs are pretty much everywhere. Our friend and travel-mate, Joan, had found Tips trembling in a bush. One of his front paws had been flattened, probably from being run over by a car. We wound up bringing him to a very kind vet (after several hours of trying to get him safely out from the bush). Then, the incredible folks at All Sato Rescue kept him there while he became rehabilitated. Luckily, since I had my Flipcam with me at the time of the rescue, I made a video about it — resulting not only in necessary funds for Tips, and donations to All Sato Rescue, but it also led to a forever home for him in Florida, where he is living luxuriously. (Admittedly, I am now on a campaign to get myself adopted by Tips’ new family. He has a pool, you guys!)
Part of the heartbreak that comes with finding strays — even if, like Tips, they wind up in loving homes — is that the problem is so much bigger than just one animal. That’s not to say that rescuing one animal doesn’t matter. In fact, that’s an entire world to him or her (same goes for farmed animals, which is why we shouldn’t eat them — in doing so, we take away their entire world). And there are so many incredible organizations working tirelessly to end animal homelessness, approaching the issue from a systemic level.
But in order to get the public behind campaigns to end dog and cat homelessness, they have to first bear witness. And as I learned full well with my short, no-budget documentary of sweet Tips, video footage goes a long way — especially when it comes to awakening the public about the oppression of animals. Another important strategy is highlighting the stories of individuals, as opposed to speaking in general terms about strays. This kind of focus on the individual has proven extremely effective in fund- and awareness-raising. Take a look at Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt-A-Farm-Animal Project, or heck, even Children International’s child sponsorship program. Both of these perfectly demonstrate how when you focus on one story — on”someone, not something” (to quote a Farm Sanctuary campaign) — you can really make a huge impact. Stories reach people, just as video does.
With all of that in mind, one of my favorite new online media campaigns is American Strays, a project of World Animal Awareness Society. American Strays is a web-based show highlighting the people and animals that the World Animal Awareness Society comes across “while counting stray dogs in the city of Detroit as we try to solve the mystery of just how many strays wander the streets on any given day.” Airing every Tuesday — and streaming the same day as the filming — American Strays directly tackles the crisis of 50,000 stray dogs throughout the city. The website explains that “the viewer will witness the inner workings of present day animal rescue in Detroit by those on the front lines.” Some of the episodes are nearly impossible to bear, covering topics such as Highway Statistics, Puppy in Peril (documenting the sad story of a stray puppy stuck in a pipe), and Penny Goes to Prison (documenting the story of Penny, a beautiful but tragic 6-month-old pit bull mix). Even though some episodes are hard to watch, this show — and this campaign — is strong, effectively shedding light on a problem that many citizens simply don’t think about.
Even if you don’t have a camera crew, capturing and publishing the stories of individual animals can really pack a punch. Even back when I made the video of Tips — 3 years ago, almost to the day — I was using a simple Flipcam. And now, most Smartphones will produce a high quality video, no fancypants tech equipment needed.
Just this morning, I came across an inspiring project called Invisible People, which features short video interviews with America’s homeless population (the human variety). I instantly became enamored with the stories of these people and how they wound up on the streets, and I immediately wanted to do something to help them. That’s yet another testament to the power that comes when mixing the story of the individual (be they human or non) with some very basic video capabilities. Though I’m the first one to talk about the importance of using a multi-pronged approach when it comes to changing the world for animals, I’ll also be the first in line to say that creating short videos like these might be the very key to unlocking a future that embraces and demonstrates compassion for all.