Strike The Pose, Melt The Heart

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Afternoons are busy at the Humane Society of Chittenden County‘s South Burlington office, with visitors cooing over animals that are up for adoption. And many of them have been to the web site first, like Dan Albrecht and his daughter Grace.  "[She] and her sister have been looking on the web site for the last two years, easily," explains Albrecht. His daughter adds that she would look at the animals’ photos, and then narrow down the choices. Dan Albrecht says Grace was "threatening to make a Power Point presentation to persuade me."

Persuasion is the point of the photos on the HSCC’s web site. These aren’t haphazard snapshots. The photographs are professional portraits shot by Kelly Schulze of Mountain Dog Photography.

Each Thursday morning, Schulze and her husband Ian volunteer a few hours to photograph the new animals up for adoption. They transform a multi-purpose room into a professional studio with lights and a seamless backdrop.

"So for cats I usually use my shorter lens, my 24 to 70, just because it allows me to get closer," Schulze explains as she sets up a shot of a black cat named Pearl. "Cats will actually see the aperture close and they’ll get interested by it and look at it."  The click of her shutter gets the cat’s attention. "There you go!" encourages Schulze. "See, dogs don’t really do that, they don’t come up to the lens and check it out."

The Schulzes are patient as they coax cats, dogs and guinea pigs into sitting pretty for the camera. The goal is to compose a beautiful photo that melts the hearts of a potential adoptive family. "There’s still a huge stigma," about shelter animals, says Schulze. She describes the stereotypes she hears about shelter animals, "’They’re not healthy, they’re not well-behaved, they’re untrainable’ – that the reason they’re in the shelter is the animal’s fault. That is not the reason," Schulze says. "I really want to show them as adoptable family members."

Amanda Blubaugh, the adoption center supervisor at HSCC, says the photos Schulze has taken in her four years as volunteer photographer have made a big difference in the Humane Society’s ability to get animals adopted faster. "We often get a lot of people who come in specifically because they saw a particular animal online, their picture," says Blubagh. "And what’s often said is, ‘That animal just spoke to me – I saw that animal and I fell in love.’"

That’s an experience that’s playing out at shelters around the country. Kelly Schulze is the artist coordinator for the organization HeARTspeak, which hooks up willing photographers with shelters across the country.

HeARTspeak has a grant to outfit two high-volume shelters with photography gear, including lights, backdrops and professional cameras. "Plus HeARTspeak members are going to show them how to use this equipment, how to get the personality through in the photos," explains Schulze. "So hopefully this will help adoption rates at those shelters and reduce euthanasia rates."

Back in the lobby of the Humane Society of Chittenden County, the Albrecht family is ready to take home its new cat. Blubaugh hands off a large cardboard box to Grace Albrecht with an enthusiastic, "Congratulations!"  The Albrechts’ cat is one of twenty animals that were adopted this week; a happy ending that often starts with a fetching photograph online.

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