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When you think of a pit bull, what thoughts or images are conjured? Odds are its bared teeth and a threatening growl. Sophie Gamand wants to change all that. This talented photographer is changing the negative perception many have of these misunderstood creatures, and she’s using Flower Power to do it. Flower Power is a project that sees Sophie visit various animal shelters in the New York City district and photograph pit bulls with flower crowns adorning their heads. It’s all about helping these dogs to get adopted by softening their appearance, as well as their reputation.
The project began in the summer of 2014 and the reception has far exceeded Sophie’s expectations.
“I never imagined the project would have such a huge impact. I am receiving support from all around the world. Pit bull advocates praise the series, and people who did not know about pit bulls are more interested in getting to know them,” Sophie said.
Alongside aiding the public perception of pit bulls, Sophie has had to overcome her own perception through her Flower Power series.
“I was attacked by a large dog as a child and it had left me with apprehensions around large, energetic dogs,” Sophie said. “I decided to face those apprehensions and form my own opinion about these dogs, by creating a series about them.”
She creates the flower crowns herself, each one taking approximately an hour to put together, and then she makes her way to the shelters for her photo sessions. Flower crowns and dogs are an unusual combination but Sophie insists that most of her crown candidates really enjoy the experience.
“Most of the time, the dogs are so happy to be out of their cages, they get yummy treats and attention, we make it fun and stimulating, they don’t even notice they have anything on their head!”, she said.
The dogs enjoy it and the results speak for themselves.
“I sometimes receive messages from people telling me I have opened up their mind about pit bulls. I do know that several dogs have been adopted thanks to the photos.
“Brownie is my most wonderful success story. She had been waiting in the shelter for over 2 years with absolutely no interest from potential adopters. Her flower portrait came out and got very popular on social media. She was adopted in less than 2 weeks. Plus, she received so many applications that many people came to the shelter to meet other dogs, since she was no longer available,” she said.
The sad reality behind this uplifting project is that every year upwards of 1,000,000 pit bulls are euthanized in the US. According to the Examiner, a study conducted by the organization, Animal People, reported that an incredible 93% of pit bulls are euthanized while only 1 in 600 stand a chance at finding a permanent home.
Sophie said that pit bulls have a bad reputation, which hinders their adoption rate. But their bad rap is not their fault, rather, it’s the product of a vicious cycle of abuse, she said.
“I believe that because of their bad reputation, pit bulls often attract bad primary owners: people who have little to no interest in the real well-being of their dog,” she said. “They won’t train, socialize their dog properly, they will breed them for money. They chain them in their yard as guarding dogs, train them to fight or become aggressive, they don’t socialize them with other dogs or humans, they often don’t even vet them properly.”
Given these sorts of living conditions, accidents inevitably happen and when they do, the blame is laid upon the pit bull, she said.
“If you look at statistics in the US, most accidents involving pit bulls were caused by male pit bulls who had not be neutered (therefore are more prone to being territorial and aggressive) or who were tethered (chained). This type of learned aggression is not unique to pit bulls”, Sophie said. “Any dog that is not properly trained and socialized can become aggressive."
“The truth is, people who are bad owners tend to look for « scary-looking » dogs. It is really a vicious circle for pit bulls,” she said.
Her hope for Flower Power is simple: that her photos can change the way we view pit bulls. If we can stop seeing them as “dangerous, murderous beasts”, perhaps they will stop attracting the kinds of owners that lead them astray, she said. Working on her project, Sophie has spent a lot of time with pit bulls (as one might imagine) and her overall experience differs significantly from those images you conjured earlier.
“They are smart, strong, sweet, and very loyal. Placed in good, loving hands that understand dog psychology and know how to put limits in place, pit bulls are the best dogs!” she said.
Her Flower Power project has born a social media phenomenon with the popular hash tag #PitBullFlowerPower. Sophie created the hash tag herself and encourages others to take part in the campaign by posting photos of their own pets with flowers (all breeds welcome), to Instagram and other social media.
She sells prints and calendars to finance the Flower Power series and the flowers that feature in each image, which can be purchased from her online store. Her project has gone from strength to strength. With such an important cause prompting her forward, it’s not hard to imagine from where she draws the motivation. And then there are dogs like Kahlua that make it all the more worthwhile.
“One day I was at the shelter and they didn’t tell me they had an adorable puppy! I only had big crowns for adults, so I figured, let’s try! I think the portrait is probably the most adorable one of the entire collection.”