LOVE is Positive: An Interview with Ann Brownell of UPAWS, Part 1

Regular readers are familiar with both UPAWS – Marquette County’s open admission, no kill shelter in MI – and its Pet Promoter in Chief, Ann Brownell. For those who aren’t, I asked Ann to preface her answers to my interview questions with a short bio. My questions are in bold and everything in italics was written by Ann. Part 1 of this interview focuses on marketing individual animals and Part 2, which will run next weekend, is primarily about marketing the shelter itself.

Ann Brownell

My name is Ann Brownell and I have been volunteering since 1997 at The Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter. I was at UPAWS (formerly called Marquette County Humane Society) during the years of killing when our save rate as low as 34%. In 2006 our high-kill shelter began making crucial changes which put it on the road to becoming the open admission No-Kill shelter it is today. I am honored to have played a role in that journey and am proud to tell anyone who will listen that in 2013 we are at a 97% save rate.

My volunteering background includes cleaning cat cages for the first 5 years, editor of the newsletter, member of the fundraiser committee, Chair of our largest profit fundraiser Strut Your Mutt, Community Outreach, Website and Facebook page admin, Pet Promotions and shelter photographer. I have been the volunteer Pet Promotions and photographer for more than 10 years. I was on the Board in 2002-2004 and have been currently on the UPAWS Board since 2008 as V.P.

I have 30 years of retail background which I think has helped in marketing and promoting UPAWS and most importantly our shelter pets.
Please read my full bio and background with UPAWS at this link.

1. Shelter pet photos help get animals returned to their owners, adopted, fostered and rescued and they aid in fundraising. In your experience, how does the quality of the photos impact these outcomes?

HUGE!! The quality of the photo can mean the pet lives or is killed in many shelters across the nation! A good quality, positive looking photo is essential to helping pets find homes, being returned to their homes and attracting more supporters. In this day and age, people don’t have to drive to the shelter to see the pets for adoption. It’s as easy as a click of your mouse to see who is available to be part of that person’s life and family. A good photo can draw the attention of people who may not otherwise have noticed an animal and entice them to drive out to the shelter for a closer look. These pets did not ask to be homeless, they long for loving homes. They are not cast-offs and should be given the respect they deserve by showing them as the worthy and desirable pets they are.

In the case of pets being returned to their owners, a good clean photo can focus on the size, markings and weight of the pet, making it that much easier for the owner to identify their pet and get them back home. And contrary to what many people think, anyone can lose their pet – it is irresponsible of shelters to play the blame game. I could lose my cat with every precaution I believe I have taken. The goal of a good shelter is to help that pet find their way back home and part of that solution is advertising the lost pet with a photo and description.

Good quality, happy, snugly, detailed, well lit pet photos are wonderful for fundraising. UPAWS has found that people want to help but they want to see that their donations are going toward saving lives. UPAWS will never, ever play the card of “this poor sad looking pet behind these cage bars” photo plea. We just don’t advertise that way. We found that it turns people off and makes them feel bad and sad, neither of which will make them want to come to your shelter.

In pet adoptions, a positive, clean, clear in focus and well lit photo with good detail will make your pet stand out among the 1000’s of pets available, meaning, that a potential adopter will be drawn to that happy, clear, good looking pet photo which will bring them into your open inviting shelter to adopt, foster, volunteer, donate or just to say hello and visit. All GREAT things! What’s the saying? You never get a second chance to make a good first impression!

Photo by Ann Brownell
Photo by Ann Brownell

2. What specific qualities are you aiming for when photographing shelter pets? What things do you want to avoid in your photos?

A great quality photo will be in-focus, detailed, well lit, happy looking and close up. Bottom line is positivity!! No sad, behind-the-cage, grey, dark, sitting-in-a-concrete-dirty-cold-looking kennel, out-of-focus pictures will make anyone feel good. It sure will be more difficult to get them to want to get in the car and head to your shelter and adopt.

You want to have the person looking at the photo to see that pet as part of their home and as a beloved family member. You want to touch people’s emotions – get them to want to come and meet that positive, happy, clean-looking pet.

For Dogs – have a volunteer or staff member help and take the dog outside on a leash (try to never take the photo of a dog in their kennel – it is very depressing). If you have to take the dog’s photo inside, take the dog out of their kennel and find a colorful background. It has been freezing here in the U.P. One day I had many dog photos to take but it was so cold, we found a colorful blanket in the bedding, hung it up and ta-da, great dog photos!

Photo by Ann Brownell
Photo by Ann Brownell

Make sure to get down to the dog’s level – don’t shoot the dog from a viewpoint hovering above them. Kneel down, lie down, put the dog on a bench, have your helper hold the dog up – bottom line is to get at the dog’s eye level. Use a dog treat or squeaker, or my trick, toss a rock over your head and get ready to get that shot! Get the dogs’ attention!

If the dog is too wiggly or nervous, take the dog for a good walk or run – when the dog returns, they will be more relaxed, panting (which looks like smiling) and all-in-all will be ready for a great photo. If a dog is still not settling down, have your helper kneel down and put their arm around the dog – makes for a nice shot too since it is nice to have interaction with people in your photos.

Photo by Ann Brownell
Photo by Ann Brownell

Get that great close up shot of the dog’s face, eyes, and smile. If you have the ability to have a couple photos, you can add one as a full shot if you want.

Also take the flash off when taking pet photos – you don’t want those shining eyes in the photo. Relax, don’t hurry, and talk in a happy, cheerful manner. Animals know if you are stressed out or in a hurry and this will show in the photos. Keep everything upbeat, positive and have fun…remember, you’re helping save lives!

For Cats – it’s great again to have a helper but it isn’t as necessary as with the dogs. Again, please don’t take the photo with the cat behind bars of the cage. Avoid photos of cats lying in litter boxes. Have someone help you; wrap the kitty in a colorful blanket and have the person hold the cat. Some of the best shots are with people cuddling with felines. Gives the shot warmth and the person can imagine themselves with the kitty at home as part of their life.


If the cat is in its kennel, open the door (remember no cage bars!) have a feather wand or bag of cat treats that you wave above your head or just at eye level. This will get the cat to look at you – you want a great close up face shot – the warm, big round wide eyed look of the cat. This again is done by getting the cat to look at you with that feather wand, crinkly toy or bag of treats (make sure to give the kitty a treat though!) Use a colorful blanket as a backdrop for the cat to sit or lie on.

Photo by Ann Brownell
Photo by Ann Brownell

Another trick I have found is if the cat is lying down in their kennel (say on their Kuranda bed) and you are getting the shine off the back of the kennel stainless steel; put a colorful plastic placemat behind the cat (see example). Not only will it pop but it will take away that shiny cold stainless steel look which you don’t want. And again, no flash as we don’t want shiny glowing eyes.

Editing – Once you get your photos, you’ll want to edit them, by cropping them to an appealing size. Editing will take out all the undesirable things such as a litter box in the background, peoples’ legs, leashes, dog drool etc. If you want to go the extra mile, you can enhance your photos by sharpening and brightening them and by adding soft borders. For years I used Microsoft Digital Image 2006 Suite to edit my photos. I still use this but have recently Adobe Photoshop to edit and enhance my pet photos. Add the pet’s name and, if you wish, the shelter’s logo.

There you go…great photos in the making! There you go…saving lives!

Photo by Ann Brownell
Photo by Ann Brownell

There are many great websites to help you with advice on taking great photos. I have been taking the UPAWS photos for 10+ years and have Googled, and learned through reading and gathering information, what works the best. One website that I highly recommend is “One Picture Saves a Life”. Not only does the site have great tips, it goes into the types of cameras and lens that work the best. Please note, you do not need a high-end expensive DSLR camera to take great photos! DSLR’s are recommended and if you or your shelter has one, they are excellent but not necessary. I use a Nikon D7100 DSLR in my photos but have used point and shoots and smart phones in a pinch and they have worked fine. Just keep that flash off and follow the above tips and you’ll be on your way to taking super photos and more importantly, become a part of the solution in helping homeless pets find loving homes.

3. What types of profiles/bios are most helpful in marketing shelter pets?

Keep it positive, happy and upbeat! You want to paint a picture and tell a story of how that pet can become a beloved family member. Describe the dog as a buddy that would love to be your walking pal, snuggle buddy, and best friend, or the kitty as lovely pet to come home to with her calming purr and gentle ways. The reader doesn’t want to be depressed reading the bio. They want to read how wonderful this pet would be in their life. They want to feel good. Tell them how grateful that the pet will be and how it will repay your kindness with hugs, kisses, and unconditional love.

NEVER say this pet has X amount of time or will be euthanized! Don’t threaten or guilt people into adopting. Don’t go on and on with a bunch of negatives like “no kids”, “not house-trained”, “no other animals”. There are ways to address these issues without being negative. The key is to keep it positive. At times switch it up, tell the story from the pet’s point of view. Have the words come from the pet’s mouth.

I learned writing bios the hard way. Many years ago, before UPAWS was No-Kill, some of my bios were angry – not angry at the pet, but angry at the person surrendering that pet and the bios showed that. I even got a few complaints! I really had to sit back, stop, and reflect on what energy and message I was putting out there. Who was I helping writing something negative in the bio? Absolutely no one! Especially not the pet looking for a new home! If what you write isn’t nice, leave it out. Positive, happy, enduring, loving and upbeat are what you want your bios to be, for the pet’s sake.

Our UPAWS staff deserves recognition too as they are always willing to give me a hand with taking dogs out and holding pets for photos. Also our Manager will pitch in and help write bios whenever I need help catching up, or for a fresh outlook or update. We will also do “Staff Favorites” and a staff member will write a bio about why they love a certain pet.

Photo by Ann Brownell
Photo by Ann Brownell

4. You’ve mentioned previously about highlighting a pet’s positive attributes without being deceptive in his profile. Could you give us a couple examples of this?

Keep the description positive and upbeat. Think of ways to say things without being a downer.


Dog who jumps on people/has little training:
Zayda is a fun-loving, full of energy, live-life-to-the fullest gal! She knows the commands sit, down and shake and she sure would love to learn more fun tricks with your positive training guidance – especially for a Scooby Snack!

Bounty’s a great dog with a happy-go-lucky, “I love you…do you love me?” personality! Happy, joyful, enthusiastic; this big boy will be up and ready for most any type of adventure! From playing in the yard to chasing a Frisbee…Bounty is ready to go, plus be your faithful buddy all the way! He is smart and eager to learn, Bounty will work hard to please his people pals. He would love to have some training and learn some tricks. He is a fast learner, having learned “sit” quickly and is doing well walking on his leash.

Not good with kids:
He is exuberant with his greetings and a big boy! A home without small children is best for this active, silly boy; he may be a little too exuberant for young ones and possibly unintentionally knock them over.

Separation Anxiety:
Chuck would love his new family unconditionally showing his affection with kisses and tail wags. He gets along with people of all ages and other dogs (loves to wrestle and play!) Chuck would love a person who would be home with him since he loves people so much. Come and meet adorable, lovable, beagle-boy Chuck today.

Yia Yia is loyal, curious and trusting canine. She’ll make a wonderful buddy and would really prefer a home where someone is around with her – she loves her humans so much that she gets sad and has a some separation anxiety when they leave. But she is a very good girl and really just not much out of the pup stage – with a little positive mental and physical training, Yia Yia will be just fine!

No other pets:
Suzie is a delight who loves her people pals and is a bit of a Princess. She longs for a home where she is the only pet, getting the entire limelight to herself; after all, she is a pretty Princess!

5. How do you market shelter pets who are typically challenging to place such as feral cats, dogs who are aggressive with other dogs and elderly animals?

By not writing that something is wrong with them, always look for the sunny side! Here are a few examples:

Cat that is unpredictable:
Bandie has a unique personality and considers herself Queen of the Castle. Bandie likes to do things on her own terms, that including being affectionate with the people she knows and snoozing in her favorite places. Bandie has a personality! She loves to talk and walk around and pretend like she owns the place. She is a fun girl, with a unique personality that deserves a good home. Come meet Bandie today!

Cat that gets over-stimulated easily:
Zilla has a BIG personality!! She LOVES to play and play and play!! Zilla also likes to meet new people on her terms…yup, she likes to be the center of the universe and will let you know that! Zilla likes to be busy…playing, or looking at the birds in the feeder outside the window. Zilla is best placed in a cat savvy home. One who knows cat language – who knows the twitch of an ear, flick of a tail, size of the pupil – and what that means. Most times it means for Zilla – I am done being pet or I want to play and play until I am really tired. We love Zilla and want her to find a great home – she really is a sweet, brave, little gal. This is a best friend in the making, so come meet Zilla if you feel you may be the home for her!

FIV cats:
LOVE is positive…Being FIV or FELV positive doesn’t matter to Jimmy John & Rosie. But you know, being loved does. Caring for a pet with special needs may take less time and money than you think and the love you gain is priceless. They are special kitties and need a special indoor only home – one without other cats or with cats that are also FELV positive.

Dog aggressive with other animals:
Bobby adores all people – all ages, makes, and models! He will play, cuddle, and love you. He wants all the attention and love to himself. Because of this, Buddy prefers to be the only pet. Though he gets along happily with all people, he isn’t too happy with other pets taking his attention, love and food. He wishes to be the only fur-child of the family.

Elderly animals:
Hi, my name is Buddy and I am a 12-year-old, male, neutered, apricot colored, miniature poodle. I belonged to a beloved older couple most of my life – sadly they both have passed away and I am now looking for a new loving home. I was loved all my life and long for the rest of my years to be the same. You know what I miss? I miss sleeping in bed with my Mom – I used to love to snuggle real close to her against her back. She loved that too.

Living in one home since she was a young dog, Lulu had a great life. All of us adore her and are doing all that we can to help her transition (she is now in a caring UPAWS foster home). Miss Lulu is good with children, other dogs and is fine with kittens and cats. Her foster family had this to say about Lulu: “She’s a very quiet girl, doesn’t seem bothered by any of the animals here, enjoys short walks and sniffing around in the snow, hasn’t had any accidents; she slept thru the night with no problems. We haven’t heard her bark, no issues with food. She is a wonderful girl”. Lulu is a gentle soul who will give you pure, unconditional love, kisses and devotion. Lulu has known a family and love for 16 years, and hopes she will be lucky again with a second chance. Open your heart, give Lulu that wish.

Feral or semi-social cats (colony cats):
Grizabella is a gentle little girl with a darling personality. You can most often find her grooming and snuggling with her other feline condo mates. She would do great in a home with another kitty to bond with. Grizabella was found living outdoors with a group of other kitties. It has taken some time for her to adjust to people, but we have slowly seen her open up and blossom. She would need some time to adjust to a new home, but we think after given love and care, you’ll see a wonderful kitty show her true fun and gentle personality.

Thank you Ann for sharing your expertise in shelter pet marketing and for your fabulous photos.

I’d like to interview more people like Ann. If you know a shelter employee, volunteer or advocate who does an extraordinary job advocating for shelter animals, please e-mail me their contact information if you think they might have time to answer some questions about what they do.

16 thoughts on “LOVE is Positive: An Interview with Ann Brownell of UPAWS, Part 1

  1. Thank you, Ann! As I am going to start helping my shelter to market their cats, this information is invaluable! I just wish I knew more about camera stuff. With time, I expect I’ll learn…

    And definitely right about the positive – you want a lot of people to share those photos and the best way to do that is with a nice picture. The more people see it, the better the chances are for that animal.

  2. Might I also suggest we forward this to our local facilities who clearly could benefit from such good information? I will be sending this to quite a few, including rescues who will share it, too. Thank you to Ann and all those who have done such an amazing job in a very challenging environment. Makes me want to move to the UP so I can works with them. Nah, too much snow.

  3. Thank you for such an uplifting and enlightening article. It is so nice to hear something positive to bolster our spirits in animal rescue. We need more feel good stories.

  4. God bless Ann Brownell and UPAWS. This was a fascinating article, and explains a lot about why I can’t stop looking at the UPAWS website, even though I don’t have room in my home for another pet right now. Because of these stories and photos, I end up loving every pet and keep hoping for happy endings for them.

  5. I really wish these high kill “shelters” out in Calif.would take many pages from your book. I realize the population is many times larger and the number of animals is huge.But they could use a lot of your pointers in saving lives. Its a very sad situation out here.

    1. There are also advantages to a large population – more foster homes, more adopters, more volunteers, so that doesn’t have to be a negative. I know the UP has its share of problems and poverty and “attitudes” but these people made a choice to stop the killing and then found ways to make it a reality.
      Bless you – let’s get the word out. Heaven knows we could use more true “shelters” like yours.

  6. This is great! Love the photo advice and the positive bios are very helpful as well. One thing though, if there really is a problem the animal has offer help after adoption as well as counsel before hand. A friends mom adopted a dog who had separation anxiety and she wasn’t aware how bad it was.She was afraid she’d have to try to rehome or return him. Luckily the shelter helped out with advice and she ended up keeping the dog and today he’s a really happy and fairly relaxed little guy.

  7. Well I will defer to Ann for photography advice but I completely agree that the best photographs are often taken after the dog or cat has been walked or exercised. And having the animal in some sort of interaction with a person is very good as well.

    I’m pretty much limited to writing bios for my current shelter at the moment. I have two small children including a three-week-old son, so I don’t have much free time and when I do it’s generally spent in the home. Bio writing is generally not a very desirable volunteer position because it’s done in front of a keyboard and doesn’t involve time spent with the animals (which is usually why people volunteer in the first place). But it’s a good job for someone who can’t spend much time at the shelter in person.

    Personally I’m not sure that many dogs and cats get adopted because of the biography, but well-written biographies show that the shelter takes the time to get to know each of the animals and can probably help set up a good match with an adopter.

      1. Oh I’ve seen my share of lousy bios, that’s for sure. The shelters where I’ve volunteered have always enforced the positive aspects of the dogs, similar to what was described in this interview.

        The other aspect of writing bios is that it’s helpful to have a template for each type of dog that you encounter at the shelter. Most dogs roughly fall into one of about a half dozen categories – exuberant friendly adolescent, shy dog who needs to come out of his/her shell, sweet owner surrender who is already fairly well trained, etc. etc. Having some base language for a few different personalities can be very handy because then you don’t have to start from scratch for each dog; you have starting language that you can then tailor to each individual dog. Makes it a lot easier to write five bios a day.

      2. Yes db, I agree Pibbles and Kits have great bios and the pics are nice and clear and very good too. I just checked out the link.
        Joel, very good idea with the template for each dogs as a base to start for bios – positive language to use. Great idea! I will use that.
        I do find that going out to the shelter and spending time with the animals is a great help in writing bios. Also, I get the basic information from the former owner’s paperwork — which our staff goes over with each person – we also do not want the person surrendering the pet to write things like “I hate this cat – this cat is evil” , “this dog is mean” or other negative comments (we have seen this). Most times when people are bringing a pet in to be surrendered are quite emotional whether it be mad, sad, frustrated, at wits-end etc. Our staff asks thoughtful questions and advises the person on how to use proper language and explain in more detail why they are bringing the pet in. This is very helpful in learning about the pet and how we can help the pet find a new home. It also helps in making a connection with that person surrendering the pet, to have a conversation – seems to calm the person down since it is typically hard for people to surrender their pets (whether they say so or not).
        For example: Say a dog is surrendered due to biting. OK, what was the story? Did the dog break the skin?, go after someone in a vicious manner?, what was doing on? OK, so instead of the paperwork saying. “dog bites people”. The circumstance was person’s relative was holding the baby, the dog walked up to be pet, the baby reached to pat pat the dog face and the dog nipped the baby. OK – now we know the full circumstances. The people then say they love the dog very much but feel the dog needs a home without young kids.
        So much can be learned by asking thoughtful questions and our caring UPAWS Staff takes the time to learn about each pet and it is very helpful in placing the pets into new homes.

  8. Loved the article; have been following UPAWS for quite some time. Had a meeting with our Director of Animal Control in Kalamazoo Michigan, pitching the No Kill Agenda. Personally asked him to contact UPAWS for information – he did NOT. And to this day, he still spouts that NO KILL is impossible, to the detriment of over 2,000 dead animals a year at our facility.

    1. Kelley,
      Thank you, I am glad you liked the article. I hope it can be helpful.

      There is so much proof to show him that his thinking is incorrect!
      #1 reason is the book Redemption:The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America by Nathan Winograd. Proof that it can be done and here is how you do it. UPAWS followed the book and we started the path to saving lives pretty much right away.

      Please show him the UPAWS posts on Yesbiscuit. There are many posts about how UPAWS did it. Start with our story – how we did it
      And another good read is Testify.

      We lived this. No one wanted to adopt from us. They would drive right by to go to shelters up the road or 100’s of miles away. It was so hard. When I tell new supporters about how far we have come – well they hardly can believe it. Killing 60-70% of the animals to saving 97% in 2013 and we reamain open admission. So yes, it can be done and no sometimes it wasn’t and isn’t easy, but we keep at it for one thing and one thing only, the animals. So YES – it CAN be done!
      I’ll step down from my soup-box now :)

    2. Also in Michigan here, and I applaud you for continuing to keep trying. It IS possible and if your director is any good at all, 2000 dead animals each year should not be okay. Do not give up.

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