Sprinkle was transfixed by the headband with the bells on it.
As the tortoiseshell kitten stared intently at the source of the sound, Ashton Keenan clicked away with a camera in one hand and the novelty headband in the other, capturing the moment.
Keenan, an adoption counselor at the Animal Protective Association of Missouri, took the portrait on a recent morning in the shelter’s new studio in the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood. A studio light hovered over Keenan’s shoulder as Sprinkle perched on a blue muslin sheet.
The studio, opened this year in a converted laundry room, is part of a “Meet the Real Me,” a pilot program funded by St. Louis-based Nestle Purina PetCare.
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Launched at the APA, “Meet the Real Me” has expanded to nine other local animal shelters in recent weeks. The goal is to improve shelter photography so more abandoned and stray dogs and cats are adopted, said Pamela Hill, marketing manager for Purina’s pet welfare team.
If the program is successful here, Purina, the country’s largest pet food maker, said it may be expanded to other cities nationwide.
“We know that the old photos were ineffective because they didn’t adequately show the personality of the animal,” said Steve Kaufman, the APA’s executive director.
Shelters often take photos of animals when they first arrive, and their faces show the stress the animals are under, Kaufman said. Or, photos are taken with a sterile shelter backdrop with lighting that doesn’t accentuate the animals’ features.
Using training from a professional photographer, APA employees now use techniques that better highlight the animals’ personalities, and use backdrops that aren’t distracting.
Training videos, cameras, backdrops and other tools were donated by Purina to the St. Louis area shelters, as part of the $10 million the company spends annually on pet welfare programs. Some resources for shelters, including photography tips, are available on the website www.meettherealme.org. “What we’re trying to do is make a positive change in the number of pets that are adopted, versus just a dollar donation,” Purina’s Hill said.
Over the past two years, Purina conducted focus groups to determine what drives the hesitation some people have about adopting a shelter animal. Only about 27 percent of household cats and dogs in the U.S. come from shelters, according to a Purina study.
“We’ve done quantitative studies and focus groups, and the main barrier to adoption is they’re afraid what behavior the pet will have once they bring it home,” Hill said. “It’s really rare to see positive images for shelter pets. We think just seeing these images will change their opinion and help them consider a shelter pet.”
To develop “Meet the Real Me,” Purina enlisted the services of photographer Nanette Martin, co-founder and executive director of Shelter Me Photography, a nonprofit group based in suburban Denver. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Martin photographed search and rescue efforts for People magazine, and took photos of stranded and lost animals. Martin began teaching workshops at shelters nationwide spurred by her experience in New Orleans.
As part of Purina’s program, Martin traveled to St. Louis this fall to train employees at 10 St. Louis shelters on how to take photos that better connect animals with people. Instead of taking a photo from a perspective above an animal, for example, she trained shelter staff how to get down on the animal’s level, with the pet looking into the camera. The animals’ bodies should fill the frame of the photo, she also advised.
“Do whatever it takes to get the animal’s attention, so they’re looking directly into the lens,” Martin said. “When a person looks into the eye of an animal, that’s when the emotional connection can start.”
She also suggests shelters use a clean and simple background, such as a blanket or pet bed, so the focus is on the animal.
On social media, people who view the photos are responding favorably and sharing the images more than in the past, which widens the pool of potential adoptive families, Kaufman said. “We now have the public acting as cheerleaders,” he said. “Animal advocates are sharing the photos with their friends.”
For Mina Karr, seeing a photo of a poodle named Chloe wearing a bandana was enough to spur her to head to the APA in late November. Karr, 30, had poodles growing up and wanted a companion for her 7-year-old beagle, Chase. “The picture brought us in, the way they captured her image,” Karr said. “She looked really good in the picture.”
The APA plans to expand the photo studio to include videos that can be shared on social media sites, such as Vine.
“It’s working for us,” Kaufman said of the photos. “Good photography helps change the perceptions some people have about shelter animals. It shows that instead of being fearful or scared, the animals are friendly and outgoing.”