The word “pound” often conjures up images of cats and dogs being hauled away to what amounts to pet prison—locked up by the villainous dog catcher from Lady and the Tramp. But when photographer Roberto Guerra explored the San Antonio Animal Care Facility for his photo essay “Inhumane Society,” he discovered that the true crime is perpetrated by the people who fail to do their duty as pet owners. Here he describes the daily tasks, tragedies, and misconceptions he witnessed at the facility and the responsibility we all share to our four-legged friends.
texasmonthly.com: How did you become involved in photography?
Roberto Guerra: Though I never formally studied photography—except for a basic class in college—I always had an old Nikkormat camera since I was in high school. After college, I traveled for a few years and became really excited about photography, realizing that taking pictures was what I wanted to do.
texasmonthly.com: Have you had much experience photographing animals? What, if anything, made this assignment different from other animal photography you’ve done?
RG: I photograph animals from time to time as part of an effort to document the greater whole. People often ask photographers, “What kind of photographer are you?” or “What do you photograph?” My response is generally that I’m interested in photographing everything. I want to document whatever I find interesting.
texasmonthly.com: This is your first time working for Texas Monthly. Did creative director Scott Dadich give you any direction? How did you approach this assignment?
RG: Because the Animal Care Services project was something I started on my own and then showed to Scott later, I really didn’t have any art direction from him. The majority of this essay was already photographed when I brought it to him.
As far as approach, I basically set out to document everything that the Animal Care Services department does on a daily basis in San Antonio. I also wanted to document the Animal Care Facility itself, since it will be replaced by a new, more modern facility in the next few years. Though this photo essay focuses on the Animal Care Facility in San Antonio, it is important for the viewer of these images to understand that this is the situation in most metropolitan areas. The hope was that these images could show both the human dimension of what it’s like to work in such a thankless job, as well as inspire the public to take better care of its pets and adopt more homeless animals.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you spend at the pound? How would you describe the atmosphere there?
RG: Over the course of about three months, I spent a few days at the actual facility, as well as a few days divided between riding with an animal control officer, answering calls with the animal cruelty investigator, accompanying the department’s educators to their grade school presentations, and lastly, documenting some procedures at the Animal Resource Center, a low-cost-spay-neuter clinic. The images running in the magazine only represent what I photographed in the actual facility.
The atmosphere at the facility is honestly quite saddening. I think this is because of a few things: First, the facility dates to the forties, when the stray and unwanted animal population in San Antonio was a fraction of what it is now. Hence, the kennels are now very crowded, and a lot of animals are euthanized every day because of the lack of space and the fact that not enough people are adopting animals from the facility. For me, it was most saddening because one is confronted with the realization that much of the general public has utterly failed in its responsibilities as pet owners. I was truly shocked when I realized how many calls the facility gets every day from pet owners saying they no longer wanted their pets and would rather have them put to sleep than try to find a home for them. Similarly, I was shocked and dismayed when I saw some of the cruel treatment and conditions so many of these pets suffered through in their homes.
texasmonthly.com: You were able to capture some pretty heart-wrenching images. How were you able to get that kind of access?
RG: When I started this project, I said that I really needed to be able to cover everything in order to tell the story. Everyone at the facility was very helpful and accommodating.
texasmonthly.com: How would you describe the tone of these photos? What emotion are you hoping to evoke from the audience?
RG: The tone is pretty dark, but I hope that the last few images leave viewers with at least some sense of hope, as they do for me. The environment is stark, and this is a sad story; I tried to convey that in the photos, but I definitely hope that the viewer of these images comes away with a sense that this is not simply a municipal department’s responsibility but rather that we (the pet-owning public) have the even greater responsibility of preventing so many animals from ever ending up in these facilities. And, perhaps, more people will want to adopt animals from their own city’s shelters and animal care and control facilities.
texasmonthly.com: Which picture do you think makes the most powerful statement? Why?
RG: Honestly, it’s difficult for me to narrow it down to just one. I would have to say that the opening image pretty much sums up, for me, what many of the animals coming into the kennels are feeling and in many cases have been feeling for much of their lives—fear. The second image, the one of the kennel attendant wiping the sweat off of her brow, speaks of my impression of what a difficult and often thankless job the animal care officers and kennel attendants have. The final image, though somewhat lonely, is really, for me, one of hope because this dog is actually in the adoption kennel and at least has the potential of finding a good home.
texasmonthly.com: Is the subject of proper treatment of animals one that has always been important to you?
RG: The treatment of animals in our society has been an important issue to me since I was quite young. While in high school I became aware of the inhumane treatment that animals are subjected to in the meat industry, and I began to realize that in many ways this total objectification of animals was yet another symptom of the all too pervasive attitude in our culture that everything is disposable. The way we treat animals very often reflects the way we treat each other.