The Lost Dogs of Ciudad Juarez

(via Reuters’ Photographers Blog)

By Jose Luis Gonzalez

"As a photojournalist living and working in Ciudad Juarez I’m used to seeing dead people being picked up off the streets.

The last few years have been brutal, with violence and shoot-outs every day and dead people everywhere. But it is much calmer now and corpses lying in puddles of blood are not as common a sight as they used to be. Nevertheless, some weeks ago I drove through a neighborhood and saw a couple of men dressed in hooded, white coveralls picking up another kind of corpse: a dead dog. They threw it into a container pulled by a truck and when they took off I started to follow them.

They stopped every so often, picking up another dead dog from the streets and throwing it into the container. They were collecting a lot of dead animals and when I approached the truck, I could see that there was a whole pile of them.

Maybe we have become so used to seeing death around us that we have become desensitized to the enormous number of dogs that die daily in the city. Local authorities believe that up to 100,000 stray dogs roam the streets of Ciudad Juarez. Recently, local workers have been picking up the remains of between 40-60 every day, with 4,970 dead dogs retrieved in 2012, according to the city’s head of clean-up efforts. Authorities believe the dogs died of starvation, extreme temperatures, from being hit by vehicles, or simply expired next to their owners former homes.

I decided to follow the “levanta perros” (“dog picker-uppers”) as the municipal workers who collect dead dogs are commonly called. I went to one of the low-income neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city where hundreds of empty houses stand abandoned by some of the estimated 200,000 residents who fled the city at the height of drug-related violence in 2010 and 2011. I saw so many dogs with terrible signs of malnutrition wandering around or lying outside empty, vandalized homes. They seemed to be waiting in vain for their former masters to come back.

In every poor neighborhood I went to, I saw the same picture: dogs and more dogs. Some of them were living skeletons and there were a lot of dead animals whose remains were lying in the entrances of what could have been their former houses. Some dogs managed to survive on scraps of food that people gave them – people who probably don’t have enough to eat themselves.

One day, the “levanta perros” picked up 17 dead dogs within a matter of minutes. Some of the animals still had their collars on with their names engraved in them. I started thinking that each of these dogs had a story too. They might have lived with a family, with children who played with them, with people who fed, hugged and loved them. And then everything changed; no more food, no love, no home. Instead they just faced a struggle to survive, to escape angry people throwing stones, or to avoid being hit by cars only to end up at the municipal dump, surrounded by more dead dogs and garbage, with a bulldozer unceremoniously covering them with dirt.

Hundreds of stray dogs are picked up by the city’s anti-rabies unit and put into a shelter, but if nobody comes for them or takes them in for adoption, death awaits them anyway after 72 hours. There were around 40 dogs at the shelter when I went. They looked sad and lost.

When I saw how the dogs were being caught and thrown into the cages, it caused me pain. It’s a spiral: the violence caused by drugs causes more violence on all levels. People lose their loved ones, children are orphaned, jobs are lost, animals are hurt, homes are abandoned; it’s a story of destruction from beginning to end.

A few people have tried to help. They pick up the dogs and actively try to find homes for them, but they rely on donations for food and vets. I can only hope that my pictures are able to move some more hearts to help men’s best friend in its moment of distress.”

Photographs by Jose Luis Gonzalez, January 2013.

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