Arts Post
Posted at 01:03 PM ET, 07/23/2012

Taiwan’s death row

When Yun-Fei Tou photographs a dog, he sets it in against a smooth backdrop, switches on soft lighting and imbues it a deep shade of dignity. The dogs are constantly on the move, but Tou snags the split seconds where they regard their fates with differing emotions. Afterwards, he feeds each dog and plays with it.

“You treat them like your own dog or daughter or son. And then you play with them, as if they are your friend...You just make sure that when they are facing euthanasia, they are in peace,” Tou said.

These photographs are the last opportunity to look at Taiwan’s death row inmates. For two years, Tou has shot over 400 dogs within hours, sometimes minutes of their last breaths.

Tou bestows a gentleness on the dogs, many of them strays, that they probably have not known for a long time. The photos show a soft light settling on mange and hairless patches to extract that Rembrandt-like blend of nobility and vulnerability.

Yun-Fei Tou makes a portrait of a puppy scheduled to be euthanized. (Wally Santana - AP)
The complex emotion and posturing that registers is strangely human. “As if they are sitting there and waiting to talk to you and converse with you,” Tou offers. While some of the dogs seem uneasy and hyper-alert, others seem to carry themselves with regal air.

According to the AP, shelters in Taiwan will euthanize 80,000 dogs this year, according to the AP. Dogs are afforded a 12-day waiting period, so that owners have a chance to find them, after which most dogs are put down. The ASPCA estimates that U.S. shelters euthanize 3-4 million animals a year.

Because they spend a few hours with him and become familiar with him, Tou often sees the dogs through the euthanasia. Tou believe it makes the process less frightening.

Tou leads the dog into the connecting room onto a metallic operating
Government dog catchers ensnare a dog on the streets of Taoyuan, Taiwan. (Wally Santana - AP)
table covered in a thin tissue for the vet. He holds the dog in his arms, comforting it as it is given a blue-colored injection. Eventually, its body relaxes. Its heart slows. He then carries the dog’s limp body to the next room for it to be confirmed dead and taken away in a plastic bag.

“That experience was traumatic,” Tou said of the first time he comforted a dog during a euthanasia. He went home afterward and ate one meal a day for a week, turning the lights out and sleeping the whole time.

Tou’s work supports the moral argument that he is trying to make (an idea borrowed from Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation”)--that because of their ability to experience pain, a dog’s minimum welfare should be ensured. He hopes his work will not only convince people to be more responsible about pet ownership, but also improve the conditions under which dogs are euthanized at shelters.
A nurse prepares the room used to euthanize dogs at a government-run shelter in Taoyuan, Taiwan. (Wally Santana - AP)

By May-Ying Lam  |  01:03 PM ET, 07/23/2012

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company