Megan Michelle shares her journey with Save Our Scruff to Dominican Republic
When SOS announced they were doing their next clinic in Dominican Republic in April 2018 and that they were on the hunt for a volunteer photographer/videographer, Megan Michelle knew it was for her.
How did you first get involved with save our scruff?
The year of 2013 was a massive year of big steps, lots of change and scary risks. I had been working as an Art Director down in the financial district and was miserable. I knew for the last 5 years leading up to that position that I was not cut out for a 9-5 lifestyle at an office where I sat at a desk all day. My creativity was not being challenged and I hated the hustle and bustle of a downtown life.
In the fall of 2013, I decided to take the leap and quit my job with literally no plan in place and I will be honest, no savings and still quite a bit of debt (thanks college!). But those who know me, know that I fly by the seat of my pants and live by “it will work itself out”. Well, it did.
It was around that same time I quit my job that I had realized that I was pretty lonely. I was single and under 30 living downtown Toronto in a bachleor pad with no job (with the exception of a few weddings), who wouldn’t want to date me? Well, nobody did haha but what’s better than a boyfriend? a dog!
I reached out to my old college friend, Laura Bye, shortly after leaving my job to tell her I was interested in becoming a foster parent to a pup (remember, I am broke as hell, so being a foster parent meant companionship without the expenses AND you help a pup start a new life of love and trust). Laura Bye had become a staple in an organization called Noble Dog Rescue. At this time, she was doing a massive rescue of 50+ dogs from California who were all on the euthanize list. She was saving 50+ lives, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Sidenote: did you know that the United States still have kill shelters throughout the country where animals are killed just because they are found, dropped off or because there is no space. These are healthy dogs and cats, some babies, who are being killed for no reason. Each year around 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized in the US. Think about that next time you are looking for your next pet and please think hard about adopting.
Fast forward to the day of arrival of the 50 + pups, Laura had asked me to meet her and the pups at a park downtown. I get there and the pups had been transported in a massive trailer, and they told me to go in and “pick one”. How the hell do you pick just one?? There were 50 dogs crying, barking, looking rough and terrified looking back at me. Well, I obviously start to cry and just grabbed their first little nugget that was sitting there quiet and wagging his tail. He was this little scruffy terrier with a beard who was too skinny and missing fur. I was officially his foster mom and named him “Gandalf”. This day I will never forget.
Well, anyone that follows our photography account, my personal ones or is in my life knows, I was a massive foster fail and after 48 hours of Gandalf cuddling into my chest 24/7, I adopted him.
Now, my helping too save dogs lives hasn’t stopped because I filled my house with Gandalf (and later, Bruce), as I now volunteer for Laura Bye’s INCREDIBLE organization Save Our Scruff (SOS). Laura started SOS shortly after I adopted Gandalf and everything they do, is inspiring, powerful, emotional, and most importantly, needed.
A huge part of SOS is that they not only save dogs from within Ontario and Canada but they go to the streets of underdeveloped countries. There are multiple problems in these countries when it comes to animal welfare, with overpopulation being the biggest, followed by unaffordable vet care. Which of course, these two things go hand in hand.
A way that SOS tries to help with these two major issues, is organize and host spay and neuter clinics annually (or semi-annually). These clinics take quite a bit of man power, organization, funding, donations and support. When SOS announced they were doing their next clinic in Dominican Republic in April 2018 and that they were on the hunt for a volunteer photographer/videographer, I instantly knew that was me. After speaking with the head of organization for the clinics, Cynthia, we instantly hit it off and I had a few weeks to get organized, raise money/donations and prepare myself mentally.
We arrive in Dominican Republic with our partner organizations, Geo Vets and Moringas Mission, and start the set up prep of the clinic. Geo Vets is an incredible group of vets and vet techs who volunteer their time and travel the world providing affordable vet care, not just spay and neuters (which I witnessed on this trip). Moringa’s Mission is the Dominican partner of SOS who do amazing work running a safe house/shelter for strays, both cats and dogs (and even a goat!). On day 5 we actually went to visit the shelter which you will see below. With set up there was a: check-in/waiting area, a prep station (where the anesetic was applied), 5 operating tables and a recovery area. Each area had designated volunteers from SOS, Moringa’s, Geo Vets and even randoms who were on vacation. It was a true team effort and every person and position just as important as the next.
How did your work with Photographer without borders inform your approach with this project?
PWB helped me better understand how to tell all aspects of a story. From the setting, “B roll”, “emotion”, to the highs and lows of a story, all parts need to be told in order for the audience to really understand the problem (or story).
How do you feel photography communicate across languages and cultures?
I think no matter where you come from, what language you speak, what gender you are or whatever community you are a part of, everyone can understand a photograph. A photograph that tells a story can tell that story without a language or without barriers which makes it easier for everyone of all walks of life to understand. When a story revokes emotion, everyone can relate.
What are some of your sources of inspiration for documentary photography?
Two big inspirations are: Documentaries (Netflix is killing it these days by showing so many inspiring ones covering so many subjects) + a few incredible photographers who dedicate their time to saving the climate, wildlife and who give voices to those who may not be able to share their story. Some photographers people should follow and learn from are: Christina Mittermeier, Paul Nicklen, Muhammed Muhaisen, Michelle Valberg just to name a few.
The gentle and expert care the dogs are receiving is really communicated through the pictures. What are some of the ways you managed to capture this so effectively?
I think one of the major ways I was able to tell the story properly was to put the camera down and participate in the care myself. After the first day and taking it all in, I asked to put my camera down for a bit so that I could really experience what was happening. I helped administer needles, breathing tubes, cuddled pups and kittens before and after anaesthetic and helped to clean them up as well (fleas, ticks, nail trims etc.) Once I had done this, I felt like I could pick my camera back up and document things a little bit stronger knowing exactly what everyone was experiencing and going through.
The album includes some neighbourhood shots that create a sense of place in the story. What ideas guided these pictures?
When telling the story, whether it be a wedding or family session or a non profit, all of these shoots take place somewhere that helps to tell the story. The neighbourhood and community was not a wealthy one and in some parts, there were signs of struggle, pollution and a major stray animal issue. The stray animal problem was the reason we were there which links back to the community not being able to afford spay and neuter for their pets. In many scenarios, the owners were in love with their pets and wanted them to be healthy, they just can’t afford the care and that’s where we came in. I feel like showing the community and landscapes, help the audience to see how every day life may be in the area.
You took time to also get photos of the dogs in a less medical setting in the nature. What was your thinking behind including these photos?
We were there to not only help the community, but also to help manage the stray animal population. Many of the animals shown in nature or the streets were still in tact and either homeless or living outdoors full time. This meant that these in tact males are reproducing every chance they get and the females are pregnant with a litter after litter. Showing these animals living their every day life in the street, is a massive or the biggest part of this story.
You showed a range of medical procedures that were taking place was it important to document these details?
I believe these are important to show how hard everyone was working to better the life of these animals. There was more then just spay and neuters happening, we watched the vets remove an infected uterus, remove a lump and even amputate a “dead” leg. For someone that faints all the time (me!) I was surprised how well I did but also how interesting I found the surgeries. I know the photos arn’t for everybody, but to tell the whole story, they are needed.
What are the levels of impact that take place with an initiative like this and how do you build these layers of meaning into the visual storyline?
An intiative like this literally takes hundreds of communities from all over the world and thousands of people to come together to better the lives of animals. From the community here in Ontario/Toronto collecting hockey bags, towels, leashes, food and more for every SOS volunteer to bring down to the clinic. To the communities the Geo Vets all represent all over North America, getting their support and collecting all the vetting supplies they can to bring down to the communities who don’t have what it takes to perform this many surgeries safely. Then to the communities in Dominican who when they saw we were hosting this clinic, spread the word to friends and family but also helped to even collect or “trap” stray homeless animals so that we could get them fixed and stop them from over producing more babies. That’s just three levels, theres also the rescues and shelters in the underdeveloped countries who endlessly take in homeless, sick and injured animals, even if they dont have the support from others, because nobody else will. I still think that looking back at my photos, theres so much more to the story that could be told. With more time, I would love to show more of what it takes before and after the clinics because that takes a lot of dedication and love from so many people.
Are there any upcoming Save Our Scruff initiatives coming up that you are going to participate in: Unfortunately, their next Spay and Neuter clinic is happening during wedding season and I am booked but I hope to document the next one. Sadly, in May we lost our boy Bruce and since have been fundraising for Save Our Scruff in his honour in hopes to help their next big intake. They are doing a massive intake of up to 100 pups, many being young puppies, which they are in need of foster and foster to adopt homes for. This is an incredible intake of puppies from Manitoba where again, there are some major issues with overpopulation of strays, spay and neuter + vet care costs. To get involved in this journey or become a home, you can visit