adopting a pet from your local shelter is like online
dating: call up the site, check out the pictures and
arrange a meet-and-greet. Except you might get kisses,
there and then.
more, shelter officials say, photos of orphaned dogs,
cats and other critters posted on their websites help
determine the animals’ futures — reason enough to
jazz up those generic mug shots.
want them to look happy, cute, approachable and
adorable. It’s like selling a home,” says Erin Long,
marketing coordinator at the Humane Society of Harford
County in Fallston, Md. “Pitiful doesn’t really sell
for adoption. People need to look at a picture and say,
‘I need to meet this dog.’ ”
mostly, are the glassy-eyed close-ups from inside a
kennel, says Long. Last year, the Harford shelter began
photographing dogs outdoors, where they have room to
romp (click) and play (click) and, generally, put their
best paws forward.
where they show their true personalities,” says Long,
in her 12th year on the job. “We have a bulldog,
Tortuga, who we photographed running, jowls flapping.
The picture cracks me up; he looks so stinking cute.”
strategy work? Last year, the Harford shelter registered
a 93% “live release” rate, meaning that more than 9
of 10 animals that entered the shelter were either
adopted by new or former owners, or claimed by rescue
the pictures? Staff members and volunteers like Vicki
Murray. Twice a week, she leaves her job at the Johns
Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where she writes grant
contracts, and heads for the shelter to cuddle with and
photograph the cats.
with her camera, a Nikon D5200, Murray has been known to
go to great lengths (and heights) to capture a
feline’s best side. Like the time she clambered up
onto the shelter’s kitchen countertop to get a shot of
a timid cat hiding behind a cabinet.
55 and I can’t hop like I used to,” Murray says.
“People were walking by, wondering what was up. But I
started talking to the cat and he came out and, as I
began taking pictures, he began rolling. The biggest
compliment a cat can pay you is when it trusts you
enough to roll.”
shelter posted the photos. Soon after, the cat was
years, Murray has worked to gain the cats’ trust and
capture pictures that will resonate with the public.
want to show their personalities so that they’re not
just lumps of clay,” she said. “Some are so shy they
give you this ‘alligator’ pose where they’re lying
in the litter box and all you can see are their eyes and
ears. Then my colleagues try to engage them with toys,
or bits of crinkly paper, and I aim my camera and go,
times, she’ll wait by a window as a cat peers out the
people walk by at just the right moment, you can catch
the big wide pupils in the eyes of the cats as they
photographed more exotic adoptees as well, like mice and
done some ferrets, though one of them peed on me,”
Murray says. “And I just did my first rat, which is OK
as long as it’s not in my house.”
animals are gussied up to meet their online public. Like
Gus, a pit bull mix who wore a taco costume for
Halloween — an outfit for which “he was particularly
tolerant,” says Jessica Simmons. The shelter’s
foster rescue and volunteer manager, Simmons, of
Kingsville, works to beautify her clients for the
posed a chihuahua in a Gwen Stefani onesie,” she says.
“There was a black guinea pig named Gummy Bear, with
incredibly long, silky hair, so I put it up in
ponytails. She was really gracious about it.”
often, what resonates with would-be pet owners is the
animal’s own persona.
take dogs offsite to Jerusalem Mill (in Gunpowder Falls
State Park) and photograph them swimming, playing in the
flowers and acting in real-life situations,” says
Simmons. “Sometimes you catch them doing ‘the big
cheese,’ with a wide, stupid grin on their faces. Or
leaping in midair, trying to catch a ball with a real
intense look. Anything that brings their character to
life is the shot I’m looking for.”
she averse to posting what appear to be woebegone
pictures of animals.
dogs just have those sad basset hound eyes and, yes,
we’re going to push that,” Simmons says. “You want
to tug at one’s heartstrings, but you want to tug at
them accurately. We don’t want to mislead people to
think the animal is on the chopping block because it’s
not true. Is the dog depressed? No. Are its eyes telling
a different story? Yes.”
In her 18
months working at the Harford Humane Society, Megan
Phillabaum reckons she has taken more than 2,000 photos
— many of which, like other employees, she has posted
on her personal Facebook page. Some, the animal care
technician will never erase.
a stray, a 70-pound lab mix named Corey, who just shut
down for the first two weeks she was here. No one could
walk her,” Phillabaum says. “Finally, I got her to
go outside and, when I sat on a bench, she jumped up
beside me and licked my face.”
colleague took the picture, and Corey found a home.
during the adoption process, a pet owner will confess
that the photograph sealed the deal.
time that happens, it makes me cry,” Simmons says.
“I will never get tired of hearing that.”