CAA hopes good photos can help boost adoptions

Picture perfect pets

“A rescuer told me, ‘Your pictures are the difference between life and death for these animals.’ That’s not something you can unhear. It changed everything for me.” Nanette Martin, photographer

Leaders of Baton Rouge’s Companion Animal Alliance are hoping a lesson in photography will lead to a boost in shelter pet adoptions.

Award-winning photographer Nanette Martin, of S helter-Me Photography in Colorado, traveled to Baton Rouge last week to teach CAA workers how to take the best photos of the animals. CAA, a nonprofit, took over the East Baton Rouge Parish animal shelter in 2011.

Pet rescue advocates across the country suggest better photos can make a difference when it comes to adoptions or getting potential pet owners into shelters.

Martin wrapped up her training session Friday by helping the shelter take photos of all of the nearly 350 animals there — a dual-purpose session that led to more appealing photos of animals just before the holidays and gave workers a chance to practice what they learned from Martin.

To get the best photo of a black mix pup named Jake, Martin crouched low and let out a few high-pitched yelps. An assistant tossed a toy just above her camera. Martin does whatever it takes to get the animals to show some personality that will resonate in their photos.

The real key, Martin said, is getting animals to make eye contact.

“Nobody connects with ears, noses or tails,” she said, looking through her photos of Jake.

She teaches shelter workers that if a dog looks into the camera lens, it sends a connection through the photo. The yelping helps, she said, though she’s not sure where her shockingly accurate dog noises come from.

“Maybe I was a dog in a past life,” she said with a smile.

Martin estimates she has taken photos of some 10,000 animals, but she has not attempted to measure just how much of a difference she has made.

“Part of me wants to know, and part of me doesn’t,” she said. “But I have had shelters say that 100 percent of the animals I photographed were adopted, and it’s touching to know that dogs are pulled off death row because they can’t put them down after they see these photos of them.”

She easily rattles off different animals she has photographed and where they ended up. One of them, a pitbull named Zulu, looked menacing in his original shelter photo — growling behind a wire fence.

When Martin saw him in person, she discovered the dog had two deformed legs.

Soon after she took a new photo, Zulu was placed in a shelter for disabled animals where he was fitted with a brace and wheels. A family in Milwaukee that wanted a special needs pet adopted him shortly thereafter.

“That’s why you do this,” Martin said.

It wasn’t always what Martin thought she would be doing. After tiring of her work as a geologist, she decided to go back to school to pursue photography at the Art Institute of Colorado. She shot photos for LIFE, People magazine and Sports Illustrated, among other publications, but it was Hurricane Katrina that drew her into the pet photography world.

“This wasn’t in my plan at all,” Martin said.

Just after Katrina made landfall in 2005, Martin traveled to New Orleans to take photos of people being rescued for People magazine.

She said she witnessed no human rescues but saw several pets stranded and struggling in the floodwaters.

“Some of them were just swimming in circles,” she said.

The rescuers she was with said they couldn’t help the dogs, so Martin wrote down their locations and sent the information to nearby animal shelters.

She later came back to Louisiana to photograph animals being transferred from Katrina-wrecked areas to a shelter in Atlanta. By the time the animals arrived in their new city, all of them that Martin had photographed had homes.

“A rescuer told me, ‘Your pictures are the difference between life and death for these animals,’ ” she said. “That’s not something you can unhear. It changed everything for me.”

Dana Kahn, outreach coordinator for the shelter, said Martin’s visit was inspiring for CAA workers and volunteers.

“We are so fortunate to have her here,” Kahn said, noting that the shelter paid nothing for Martin’s visit. “She does this because her heart is as big as our shelter.”

Morgan Comeaux, who is on the shelter’s outreach team, followed Martin closely — helping set up the blue backdrop and table, paying close attention to her positioning.

After the training, Comeaux is slated to move into the role of lead photographer for the shelter.

“It’s taught me a ton,” Comeaux said, noting that she previously had no significant photography experience.

She shot several photos alongside Martin on Friday and received positive feedback.

CAA has 160 dogs and 187 cats. Another 85 dogs and 54 cats are being fostered and are seeking permanent homes.

On average, dogs are adopted after 19 to 20 days, but cats can stay at the shelter an average of about 180 days.

Kahn said cats are harder to find homes for because kittens are often given away for free.

“But a free cat isn’t really a free cat,” she’s quick to note.

The shelter charges $80-$150 for spay/neuter surgery, a veterinarian exam, vaccinations and a microchip implantation so that lost animals can more easily be returned to their homes. Those expenses on their own outside of the shelter adoption would run up to $500, Kahn said.