|Directed by||Cynthia Wade|
|Produced by||Cynthia Wade|
|Music by||Simon Gentry|
|Edited by||Geof Bartz|
|Distributed by||Films Transit International|
Shelter Dogs is a 2003 documentary film directed and produced by Cynthia Wade about animal welfare in the United States and the ethics of animal euthanasia. Following a particular Upstate New York animal shelter and its staff over a three-year time span, Wade gives her audience a complex, honest look at the situations that arise when it comes to homeless animals and some of the difficult, controversial decisions that must be made within them.
Millions of stray and unwanted dogs are born into the world everyday. When these animals have nowhere to go and no one to care for them, it becomes a situation that society needs to make a decision about. Animal shelters have become one solution for the issue of these homeless animals, but then the question becomes, what do we do with them then? This question is controversial, in that not all of them can be adopted. As a result, many animals are euthanized, a fate extremely controversial in itself.
Sue Sternberg, the founder of an animal shelter in rural area in upstate New York, does her best to help alleviate this issue. Sternberg and her staff take on countless animals brought to them for shelter and are forced to find ways to deal with making difficult decisions when it comes to them, including whether they will need to be euthanised or kept in the shelter. Some dogs of course are adopted out to loving families, but others remain in the institution for longer periods of time. The staff is also forced to deal with situations such as animals who have a history of aggression, and if it is ethical to keep attempting to place that dog in a home.
Since the documentary is filmed over a long period of time, from the perspective of the people actually working in a shelter, the audience gets a unique and honest perspective on topics that can often seem one-sided.
An online community of pet lovers and owners has a forum promoting a boycott of the film. The post claims that controversy surrounding Sternberg is nothing new to the rescue and adoption community. Many people believe strongly in her methods while others find her cruel and violent. It is also stated that a good amount of the public criticism comes from now ex-employees of Rondout Valley shelter and Sternberg who have released information about the employer’s controversial actions.
Sue Sternberg, the main subject of the film, is a well-known name in the rescue community. She is a self-proclaimed dog lover, and says “Dogs are my life—not just my own, but all dogs.” In 1993 she bought a failing boarding kennel, Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption in upstate New York which serves as the setting for the documentary where she promotes and carries out behavioral and temperament assessments.
There is existing controversy within the pet and rescue community surrounding Sternberg herself and some of her methods for dealing with dogs in her shelter. Many people believe that her method of testing traumatized dogs is unreliable, and pushes the animals to display aggression. This then deems them “unadoptable” and leads to euthanasia. It is argued that many of the dogs that display aggression only do so because they are continuously prodded, and with a little attention would easily be acceptable for adoption. Those in support of her argue that shelters need some way to determine whether or not dogs are dangerous and should be adopted out which is what she is doing.
About the director
Cynthia Wade works out of New York City and Massachusetts offices and has directed seven award-winning documentaries, all known for being intimate and emotional. She received a BA cum laude from Smith College and a Master’s degree from Stanford University in Documentary Filmmaking. Wade has also directed commercials for various non-profit organizations and foundations.
In a 2003 interview Wade said that she decided to direct Shelter Dogs because she was “interested in doing a film about ethics, where there were no easy answers.” During the interview she admitted that before the project she saw animal euthanasia in black and white terms, but throughout filming learned about the other aspects involved in the decision. The article also includes that Wade shot the film by herself and bonded with the animals, making it an emotionally traumatic and moving experience.
Following the release of the documentary, an official website was created for the film. This site not only gives the general public specific information about the documentary, but also includes helpful information regarding pet adoption in general. It provides links about the adoption process, how to find the right pet, medical issues to consider when adopting, and other pet related information. With this website viewers and those interested in the documentary subject are able to delve deeper and learn more about the things Wade believes are important enough to create films about.
Reception and awards
The film won the Grand Prize at the Director's View Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Newport International Film Festival, the Best of the Fest award at the Northampton Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Orinda Film Festival.
An article from a no kill animal shelter in Minnesota, Animal Ark, was critical of the film. The reviewer claims the documentary “falls short” and is more about Sternberg and Rondout Kennels than the issue of homeless animals and how to help them. In the article it is said that the staff’s only solution seems to be to kill the animals and doesn't discuss spay/neuter policies or other issues surrounding the topic. More specifically the author believes Sternberg herself to be cold, and that she brings up many assumptions and misconceptions that could “do more harm to the human community than good.”
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