Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
Austin Alternative Screen Scene
Everybody loves dogs.
They’re a convenient group to advocate for in that way—they’re almost fundamentally endearing. So when A Stray Dog’s Ruff Life sets its sights on the mistreatment of man’s best friend, it does so at its own peril. From early on in the documentary, images of neglected, emaciated mamas tending to their still-blind pups in a cozy corner of refuse raise an alarm in the back of viewers’ heads—the same alarm that compels a change of the channel when Sarah McLachlan starts singing “Angel.” And so it’s to the filmmaker’s credit that they avoid becoming mired in misery without shying away from the serious death and disease endemic to the crisis. By focusing on human efforts to combat apathy and bureaucracy, Ruff Life balances its tone while making its most effective point: the stray dog crisis across the country is no mere fact of circumstance, but could be changed for the better with improvements in communication and public policy.
The filmmakers dive into the trenches with volunteer organizations, allowing for a ground-level view of the struggle to save these animals. Right off the bat, Detroit’s Pit Crew introduces the audience to their daily challenge,—in this case rescuing a mother and her puppies from abject homelessness within eyesight of the Michigan Humane Society, elegantly setting up the film’s main conflict between grassroots change and cumbersome bureaucracy. In Houston, too, the filmmakers follow local organizations like Houston Pets Alive and the city’s Best Friends Animal Society program as they combat Houston SPCA’s ineffectiveness along with other administrative shortcomings.
To achieve these ends, the filmmakers employ a visual language that works on two fronts. Boots-on-the-ground video of activism at work in the field provides an intimate understanding of the problem and its many facets. Meanwhile, drone coverage interspersed throughout lends the film an affirming sense of scope and scale, appropriate for a project which tackles such a wide-ranging issue from multiple vantage points. Moving imagery of animals at both ends of the experimental spectrum—suffering in the wild as well as enjoying a dip at Barton Springs—captivates, and lines are drawn with powerful looks into the cruelty of bureaucracy. The incinerator smokestack connotes concentration camps, and an unsightly comparison awaits those who operate it further down this line of thinking.
It’s important to remember, though, that there are humans who’ve chosen service as their vocation—on behalf of the public and/or their animal counterparts—on both sides of this issue. The filmmakers make clear the frame through which the audience is presented with this stray situation. Manipulative music and editing choices, as well as active efforts to catch subjects in awkward situations, are viable tools at the documentarian’s disposal, but ones which require scrutiny from viewers. Sure, former DACC Director Melissa Miller looks bad when accosted by the filmmakers’ investigation (one which apparently devolved from sit-down interview to guerrilla journalism at some point during production), but is she a harassing shill of an animal-hating administration or an under-equipped captain of an understaffed ship? The systemic flaws in animal control and public health deserve the ire of activists more than do employees caught in the system. Ask any Longhorn football fan if it’s possible to make meaningful change with three Directors in as many years, and they’ll lament the carousel of coaches who’ve so far failed to bring Texas back in each’s relatively brief tenure.
Environmental factors, too, stymie the efforts of those working on behalf of the dogs. The film makes substantial use of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on their struggle, as well as highlighting different regional challenges when it comes to breeding. Already-overwhelmed facilities were understandably pushed beyond their administrative breaking point with the flooding that devastated Houston in 2017, and with the recent failure of ERCOT to provide Texans with power during a historic freeze, these environmental factors show no sign of easing up on a hemorrhaging system. Furthermore, it’s not solely their endearing quality which makes dogs a convenient group to advocate for. Dogs, believe it or not, can’t speak or organize, and naturally can’t be held accountable for their evolutionary programming when it comes to overpopulation. And their panting faces read to humans as smiling whether they’re delighted or miserable (a challenge noted by Houston volunteers rescuing a poor pooch stricken with mites). Communities don’t want to kill dogs, as say Dr. Jefferson and Ms. Hammond, but they don’t necessarily deserve to be shamed into oblivion for navigating an often cruel world as best they can. Though the filmmakers do well to insist their fight is with policies and systemic issues and not individuals (save the absent SPCA bigwigs), it’s easy to see how well-intentioned people get caught in the crossfire. The representatives who returned Ms. Vasquez’s dog aren’t responsible for the structural failures of Houston SPCA, and Ms. Vasquez insists it has nothing to do with them. But when they’re the ones facing down the confrontation, it’s hard to tell the difference.
Ruff Life also falls short in another way. The filmmakers may well demonstrate their, ahem, dogged pursuit of the truth and root causes behind the crisis, but the documentary seems incurious as to the underlying culture which has produced such. The film sets up a case study between stray dog populations in Detroit and Houston. It promises a shocking discovery about the relationship between dogs on the street and those being killed in shelters. The filmmakers explore the process by which the former becomes the latter, as well as volunteer efforts to interrupt said process. Taking this direction achieves their intent—and it is a commendable one—but steers away from a more in-depth investigation. With Texas Governor Greg Abbott signing into law an effective criminalization of homelessness as of September 1st, it stands to wonder whether a State government which treats humans living unhoused in this way could muster any greater sympathy for its canine predicament. The same citizens who, say, don’t ‘believe’ in spaying or neutering an animal have recently been deputized by the Abbott administration to collect bounties on their fellow citizens for seeking abortions. Certainly, the comparison is unsightly, and perhaps the leap is too great to land gracefully, but interrogating these factors—especially with a regionally distinct point of comparison in Detroit—could’ve provided precious connective tissue while making more comprehensive their argument.
On the whole, A Stray Dog’s Ruff Life makes a powerful statement and, complete with action steps peppered throughout its ending, has a chance at contributing to political change on behalf of dogs and their advocates everywhere. It’s appropriately brimming with frustration and celebration, as it takes a wide-reaching, if perhaps not deeply sociological, look into the stray crisis across America. If lack of communication is a pervasive systemic flaw in the care of stray animals, as the documentary suggests, then the film is a big step towards solving said flaw. If we’re to believe “the only way to make [people] care enough is to go into their homes,” then Ruff Life’s recent distribution deal with streaming-oriented 1091 Pictures has the chance to make people care indeed.