Counting homeless dogs in Detroit is latest project in eclectic humanitarian career
By JON PRICE
When Tom McPhee was just 13 years old, he knew he was already so passionate about making movies that he got dressed up, took the family car and drove around Detroit to check out some of the local production companies.
“My parents went out of town for the week,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I actually remember dressing like my dad in his too-large suit. I took the keys to the car, telling the person who was watching us that I had a license, so I could go into town and attend some of the different production open houses that were going on at some of the big stages. They were shooting car commercials and doing some really big stuff.”
Combine that with his love of animals, and we have a documentary filmmaker who has rocketed to fame with his own series, “American Strays,” a Detroit-based census of stray dogs – a number that could approach 50,000 – according to some sources McPhee has interviewed.
The documentary follows Michigan Humane Society workers, sanctioned government organizations and a legion of concerned citizens banding to fight the cruelty and neglect that befall the stray dogs roaming the streets of Detroit. The film, which has garnered headlines in major daily newspapers and was recently featured on TV’s “Inside Edition,” lends a voice to the neglected animals that are found sick, abused or dead in the city on a daily basis.
The heart-wrenching and often graphic imagery in the series serve as a haunting reminder of the suffering endured by the strays and brings the city’s enormous challenges into focus. It’s not all gloom, though.
“Strays” also highlights the compassion and selflessness of individuals who expend their own time and resources at the forefront of this battle.
“People are starting to realize there is an injustice,” McPhee, 49, said in an interview in June. He explained that the purpose of the series is to let people know that “there is a worldwide organization based in Ann Arbor, doing work in our own backyard.”
The “World Animal Awareness Society,” founded by McPhee, a Dearborn native who serves as its executive director, was launched in 2010 and has won numerous awards, including “Best In America” by the Local Independent Charities of America and the Local Animal Charities of America.
McPhee is no stranger to success. He describes himself as a sort of “serial entrepreneur,” who started and then sold a technology business to fund his independent filmmaking career. His distribution company, “First Flight Independent Releasing,” catapulted the career of Paul Feig, creator of the cult-classic television show “Freaks and Geeks.”
“We helped launch his (Feigs) career,” McPhee said. “He wrote and did the deal for his film (“Life Sold Separately”) with Judd Apatow and “DreamWorks” while he was sitting at my kitchen table.” He was living then in Pleasant Ridge.
Today McPhee owns two media companies, Cave Studio and Man Smiling Moving Pictures. He served as producer and host-character for two animal-centric TV shows broadcast across Canada and on The Pet Network (“Tom McPhee’s Rescue Journal” and “Rock & Roll Dogs”) in 2009. He also served as producer, director and creative force behind the multi-award-winning documentary “An American Opera: The Greatest Pet Rescue Ever!” in 2008, which chronicled the animal rescue efforts post-Hurricane Katrina.
Among his latest undertakings is “The Purple Collar Project,” which teams him up with partners from the University Of Michigan and Michigan State University. Using state-of-the-art, non-invasive, feature recognition software, volunteers will be able to track the amount of strays with a new software application.
And he is heartened by what he sees in the volunteers who turn out for his projects.
“Change can happen when we witness this type of behavior,” he said, encouraging others to get involved in the Detroit census by visting his website: www.WA2S.org, this month, or by subscribing into the World Animal Awareness Society’s YouTube channel.
Award-winning filmmaker Tom McPhee sat down with The Washtenaw Voice correspondent Jon Price for a wide-ranging interview about his life’s work and passion. To read the full interview visit The Washtenaw Voice online at www.washtenawvoice.com