This is one of the original paintings currently on display at my shop unit (Suede Galerie) inside Red Brick Market, Liverpool. This is the story behind ‘The Survivor’:
This is one of the most personal pieces I’ve painted – I was once a dog warden back in 2009, working for a private company who were contracted by the local council to collect any stray dogs found by members of the public. We then either took them back to their owners or, if they weren’t microchipped, to a temporary holding facility in a “rescue centre”. Sounds like a dream job for an animal lover like myself. I soon realised it wasn’t.
Whenever we took a dog to the temporary holding facility, we were told (and were also instructed to tell the people who’d found the dog) that what would happen next is the dog would be held for 7 days and, if the owner didn’t come forward within that time, then it would be eligible for rehoming. I really thought I was making a difference and saving lives.
Unfortunately, space was limited and I was one of two wardens bringing in between 5-10 dogs EACH PER DAY sometimes! So I started asking a few people at the temporary holding facility, where do they put the dogs when space runs out? I got some answers I really didn’t want to hear or believe. But then it really knocked me for six when I popped in one day (when the facility was closed to the public) to check on some of the dogs I’d brought in the week before, to if see any of their owners had picked them up.
There was nobody around, so I walked straight into the holding kennels (which were like narrow jail cells) where the dogs were held for the 7 days. Most of the kennels were still occupied and I went to say hello to my little mates I’d dropped off the week before. And then I saw. Pieces of paper pinned to the door of most kennels, with the initials “PTS” written on. PUT TO SLEEP. I immediately felt sick. At that moment, it suddenly dawned on me that I was complicit in the killing of perfectly healthy, good-natured loving dogs for no reason other than overcrowding!
Also around this time, the “dangerous dogs act” was being strongly enforced and it meant that any “pit-bull type” breeds were banned (unless you had approval from a court). I hadn’t much experience of pit-bulls but we were made very much aware of them in training and how deadly they can be. I was actually quite fearful of them after what had been drilled into us, but I soon realised they are just as loving and loyal as any other breed.
So, when I noticed that the majority of the dogs sentenced to death on this particular day had been re-classified as “pit-bull” types, even though they looked more like Staffordshire bull terriers (which is what I had logged them down as when booking them in the week before), I understood what was happening.
From that moment on, I knew that every time I got a message to say “dog found – pit bull type – secured, ready to collect” on my work phone, I would be taking this dog to its death. An innocent dog, who had done absolutely nothing to warrant this fate. Killed because the authorities demanded that they be wiped out…”dangerous”. It tore me apart and mentally scarred me, so I tried everything I could to save these poor creatures.
I set up a YouTube channel and filmed every dog I brought in, hoping an owner might recognise their lost dog, a new owner might be found, or a despicable ex-owner might be guilt-tripped into taking back the poor dog they threw out like a piece of rubbish! Despite the efforts I was making, it was essentially futile most of the time.
I would feel physically sick driving through that gate and down the path that I would call “the road to hell”, always having at least one, two or three “pit bull types” on board the van every day. For me, a person who loves animals more than most humans, the situation was unbearable. I can only describe it as an animal holocaust. Hence the reference to Auschwitz in the painting.
I still think about it often. You can’t forget being involved in something like that. I always made sure that I gave every dog (where possible) lots of attention, strokes etc before booking them in, and would always give them a brief run/walk around the grounds, knowing it would probably be their last. Heartbreaking.
I included my beautiful dog Sam in the piece, God rest his soul, as an example of the type of breed that would always find a way out of that place.
A ‘survivor’, whilst so many others with supposed “dangerous” genetics were killed. It’s a powerful and, to some, a shocking piece. That’s the intention. That’s how it felt. It shouldn’t be sugar coated – for every puppy being sold by illegal farms or independent breeders, there is a perfectly fit and healthy, loving dog caged in a rescue centre who might only have days before “space” is needed.
If you or anyone you know wants a dog, ADOPT – DON’T SHOP. And please discourage anyone who is thinking of breeding puppies for a bit of extra income, not to. The more puppies born into this already overpopulated dog community, the less spaces there are likely to be in rescue centres. In short, the more life created = the more killing has to be done. It’s got to stop.
Incidentally, if anyone recognises the rescue centre in question that features in this piece, it’s worth noting that strays no longer get taken there and haven’t done for many years.