Like many of the important things in life, this film came into ours unexpectedly.
In 2009, Aimee and I went to New Orleans as travelers, explorers, one might even say as tourists who had long been interested in this town. We had no intention of making a film, no expectation of finding the story we did.
On one of our last days there, we got into the car and headed toward the city’s 9th Ward, the area most severely affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We were both hesitant to go peering into the remnants of others’ suffering, but in the end felt that it was important to come face to face with the place we had seen over and over again in the media — a place in which severe damage had occurred, and even more importantly, blatant neglect of a neighborhood and its people had happened again and again. We were met with an eerily quiet landscape; it was almost as if the scattered residents who were there were pioneers settling into a new harsh land, greatly lacking in proper infrastructure.
Both of us animal lovers, we also immediately noticed a large number of roaming dogs. One, then another, and then another… Some wore collars and obviously belonged to people, but there were many who did not; they were trotting down main boulevards, dodging cars, ducking in under houses and into tall brush, emaciated, injured, and visibly frightened.
One of those dogs ended up approaching us. (It may have helped that we had leftover fried chicken from lunch in the car.) She had an open gash on the side of her face and her big head rested on a ribby body. She was hesitant to come too close, but the fried chicken must have tipped the scales in our favor. Upon finishing her feast, she stood there and looked at us. And we looked at her. And then we looked at each other.
We named her Tula, and as I write this at my desk in Berkeley, California six years later in the year 2015, she is snoring softly in the dog bed behind me.
Through meeting Tula, we quickly became familiar with the greater problem of dog (and cat) overpopulation and the resulting animal neglect in New Orleans, as well as across the nation. Initially trying to find her a home in New Orleans, we took Tula to the Louisiana SPCA. We soon learned that the euthanasia rate there is around 70%; unless the dog is “perfect”, he or she has very little chance of getting out alive. This is by no means the fault of the Louisiana SPCA; they have a state-of-the-art facility and the staff is thoroughly dedicated, but there simply isn’t the funding to handle the sheer numbers of stray, abandoned, and owner-surrendered dogs coming into their shelter day after day, hour after hour. Because the number of stray and abandoned dogs is so high, many smaller private rescue organizations have grown out of this need. We were in touch with a lot of these organizations in our quest to find Tula a home, and finally met Kelly Gaus, then director of a small grassroots rescue group based in the 9th Ward, appropriately called Dogs of the 9th Ward. We were struck by her dedication and her matter-of-fact way of getting stray dogs off the street, rehabilitating them, and finding them loving forever homes. We wanted to know more about how and why Kelly did what she did, more about people who were doing the same type of work she was doing, and most importantly, about how this work affected the lives of these once discarded street dogs. It was at this point our film was conceived.
It was not without certain challenges that this film came to be.
One of our first challenges was to determine the scope of the piece. The 9th Ward is a complex place, a historically predominantly African-American neighborhood, at once culturally rich and also plagued by poverty and institutional neglect. It seems fair to ask why we would focus on dogs struggling while there are so many humans struggling amidst an unjust environment. For us, the two struggles share common ground. In a landscape that is impoverished because of larger, deeper societal and institutional structures, all residents, whether human or non-human are affected by it. We, as filmmakers who essentially happened upon this place, do not imagine ourselves to be experts, but we do know that we were moved by how people, both dog “rescuers” and “everyday” residents, came together to care for other living beings. We wanted to tell a simple story, a story we felt qualified to tell — one of what can be, of how caring for another being creates hugely positive results in the lives of both the dogs and humans involved, on a very concrete level, as well as on a heart and soul level.
Another challenge in making a film based around a grassroots group is that these types of organizations ebb and flow, even disappear and are reborn with different names, different people. Often run solely with volunteers, and on a small donation-based budget, these groups deal day in and day out with what is seemingly an endless task of finding homeless dogs homes. Burnout, needless to say, is common. In the case of our film, we followed Kelly Gaus’s group Dogs of the 9th Ward during 2011&12. During the process of editing the film in the following years, Kelly’s group became much smaller and less active as an organization. Many of the members, including Kelly, continued to be active in animal rescue, yet not in such an organized capacity. While Dogs of the 9th Ward Rescue still exists today, its size and shape remain in flux. As filmmakers, we grappled with how much information to give the viewer about the inner workings of the group. We ended up opting to not delve into this part of the story as the film’s focus increasingly became the individuals’ actions and the results those actions had on a certain group of dogs and people. The truth is, the same issues exist today, and there are often new crops of individuals and groups that come along to do similar work.
The final major challenge we faced was deciding whether the film should take on an activist angle, or keep to more of an observational one. It’s undeniable that there are layers upon layers of societal wrongs and disfunction that result in thousands of homeless dogs roaming the streets of a major US metropolitan area. It’s also undeniable that the issue of animal neglect and abuse is by no means specific to the 9th Ward of New Orleans, and sadly reaches into every corner of this nation. There is a lot one would like to change. It takes people, many people, understanding and acting on many complexities to create these shifts in society. Before such a large problem, we came to think that perhaps the best way we knew how to encourage change was to keep the film’s scope small, personal and for it to lean toward the observational, telling a somewhat simple story of people creating that positive change on an individual level. In the film, we have also included some very basic, yet important steps that all dog guardians can take to help the overpopulation and resulting neglect and euthanasia problem. Under the HOW TO GET INVOLVED page of this website, we have listed more extensive ways of contributing to the solution, specific to New Orleans, as well as in your own neighborhood and beyond. We hope this website serves as a continuation to the film, and to your involvement in creating a kinder, more just world.
~ Silvia Turchin & Aimee Bosschart
Co-directors of Dogs of the 9th Ward