Set in the American South, the new documentary Free Puppies! is an eye-opening journey into the scary realities of those involved in animal rescue. Directed by Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas, Puppies! tells the story of the innumerable volunteers—most often women—who work tirelessly to save the lives of animals on a daily basis. Following rescuers Monda Wooten, Ann Brown and Ruth Smith, the film identifies their incredible efforts to begin a spay-and-neuter program and rescue many other dogs from euthanasia in an effort to help them find a loving home that will care for them.
Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, Puppies! may be surprisingly brief yet it still remains an honest look at the struggles of families to care for their animals in the rural south. Although those in the north are known for investing time and money in their pets, the story in small, southern communities is far less rosy. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans in desolation, more than 250 000 pets were left abandoned, inspiring a massive rescue effort. Featuring honest conversations with multiple volunteers and innovators, the film exposes the sad truth of animal care in an environment of poverty. Though the film is not graphic, Thomas and Wishman lock in on the stories of the many animals who are left to perish, simply due to neglect by their owners. With lack of funds and opportunities, many animals are left each year to fend for themselves, suffering with illness or a lack of birth control.
However, Puppies! also highlights the proud volunteers and innovators who work tirelessly to preserve the health of these beloved beasts. In this way, Wishman and Thomas manages to highlight the sad realities of animal abuse without bludgeoning the viewer at the same time.
And that’s what makes this particular documentary so interesting.
While these sorts of stories often force the viewer to witness graphic depictions of animal abuse, Puppies! has no interest in doing so. Although, at the same time, neither does it soft sell the importance of taking action either. Instead, Puppies! is a film that calls the viewer to action without shaming them in the process.
In fact, Puppies! frequently depicts its neglectful owners as either misguided or uneducated, as opposed to irredeemable monsters. In other words, this style of film often has a tendency to demonize its pet owners yet Puppies! has no interest in doing so. Rather, it shows these owners as men and women who believe they’re doing the best for their animals but also know that they can do better at the same time. (This is becomes particularly evident in its depiction of two male dog owners, who continuously argue that they love their pets yet they’re simply unable to care for them properly.) As a result, Puppies! acknowledges the realities of harsh living conditions and poverty on the homes themselves and not just the furry friends who are suffering. Pet ownership is a partnership and, sometimes, the owners are simply unable to keep up their end of the deal.
This doesn’t make them monsters. It makes them human.
In the end, Free Puppies! calls the viewer to the animal shelter, not out of guilt, but out of honour for the beloved animals who are looking for a forever home. Wishman and Thomas recognize the importance of animal care that can get neglected in the midst of government pitches for funding for new roads and other important issues. In doing so, the film has a far greater sense of hope than one might expect as it encourages and challenges the viewer to join the fight, but never does so with a sense of judgment. Instead, we are called to care simply because these animals are worth caring for.
For more information, check Monda’s efforts on Instagram at @DadeCountyPetProject.
Free Puppies! is available on VOD on Tuedsay, December 13th, 2022.