Nowadays, 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 and 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.
“We 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. “Pitiful doesn’t really sell for adoption. People need to look at a picture and say, ‘I need to meet this dog.’ ”
Gone, 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.
“That’s 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.”
Does the strategy work? Last year, the Harford shelter registered a 93 percent “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 centers.
Who takes the pictures? Staff members and volunteers like Vicki Murray of Abingdon. Twice a week, she leaves her job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, where she writes grant contracts, and heads for the Fallston shelter to cuddle with and photograph the cats.
Armed 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.
“I’m 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.”
The shelter posted the photos. Soon after, the cat was adopted.
For eight years, Murray has worked to gain the cats’ trust and capture pictures that will resonate with the public.
“You 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, ‘Yes!’ ”
Other times, she’ll wait by a window as a cat peers out the glass:
“If people walk by at just the right moment, you can catch the big wide pupils in the eyes of the cats as they watch them.”
“I’ve 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.”
Some 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 cameras.
“We 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.”
More often, what resonates with would-be pet owners is the animal’s own persona.
“We’ll 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.”
Nor is she averse to posting what appear to be woebegone pictures of animals.
“Some 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.
“We had 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.”
A colleague took the picture, and Corey found a home.
Occasionally, during the adoption process, a pet owner will confess that the photograph sealed the deal.