Marketing Shelter Pets: My Name is

Shelter pets need names.  A shelter pet with a name (accompanied by a fabulous photo!) comes across as an individual with a personality – not an unwanted, caged animal being held for killing.  Pets with names are a little more appealing to adopters and it doesn’t cost anything to give them this small benefit.  One thing they don’t need: names that make a negative impression.


Screengrab from Petfinder


It can be a challenge for shelter staff and volunteers to come up with marketable names, especially after they’ve already named 500 cats and 600 dogs.  What suggestions can readers offer for where to look for good names for shelter pets?

Guest Post: Photographing Shelter Pets

Note: Many readers will recognize Casey Post’s photos from previous blog posts. She captures such wonderful expressions on shelter pets and I love using her pictures. I asked her to write about how she photographs and markets each animal as an individual.


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I take pictures of animals for the Medina County SPCA in Seville, OH and
Shirley asked me to offer a few pointers to folks who may want to help
market their shelter’s animals, too.

So, I can tell you that I have almost no camera skills. Like…
I know which button to push and I know how to change the batteries
and where my red focus dot goes, but that’s about it. I do
have a good camera – Canon Rebel T4i and some day I’ll
learn how to use it properly, but for now, I’m mostly a point
and shoot kind of gal. My saving grace is that I can edit the photos
in a program called Lightroom, but again, I’m still learning
that one. So if you’re looking for technical stuff, move
along, nothing to see here… This is more of a “what
kind of photos people like to see when they look at shelter pets and
how to get them”-type discussion.

Let’s start with dogs. What you’re looking for in a
dog photo is the sense that this is a nice, friendly dog that people
want to take home. Most humans are not great at reading dog
expressions, so it’s important to get an expression that is as
“human” as possible.

You want a dog to look directly at the camera and you want to
focus on his eyes. Humans see eye contact as “connecting”.
If you’ve ever met a person who won’t look you in the
face at all, it’s disconcerting. Which is why it’s
ideal if you can get a dog to look directly at the camera. That way,
you are establishing a subconscious sense of connection.

casey post photo1

You want the dog to appear alert and friendly, so ears forward and
a mouth partially open (if you can get it – not all dogs will
relax that much with a camera in their face) gives that to you. How
to get a dog to do that? Some dogs love squeaky toys, so I carry a
squeaker in my pocket. I also carry an electronic “chirper”
from a destroyed cat toy in case the squeaky doesn’t do it for
the dog. And, of course, treats!

This dog was not into toys AT ALL. Didn’t play with them,
didn’t care about them. But he’d sit for a treat, so
that’s what we did. I couldn’t get him absolutely front
on because he’d just met me and was focusing on the dog walker
who was familiar to him, but it was close enough

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I find that dogs are more relaxed and happier after a little walk
or playtime, so I go to the shelter when the dog walkers are there to
try to grab shots of dogs after they’ve been out for a little
bit. And, of course, grass is a great background for dogs! Just
make sure there’s nothing “icky” nearby (mud or
poop or a ripped up toy). Sure, those things come with owning a dog,
but there’s no need to remind people of that during your photo

Can’t get outside? I hear ya. The weather isn’t
always cooperative. But you don’t want to shoot in a kennel if
you can avoid it, so see if you can get someone to leash the dog and
take him into a hallway or lobby for you. It’s not as
eye-catching as a grassy background, but it’s better than chain
link or cinderblock in the background.

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Some dogs, however, absolutely will NOT look at a camera. Whether
they just don’t trust the camera or don’t like the act of
you raising a camera up to your face, they get very uncomfortable and
it shows. This girl HATED the camera, so I had her look at a
volunteer with a treat. Not as good for “connecting”
with a viewer, but at least you can get an idea of what her face
looks like –

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To help market her, I got a few “action” shots of her
being silly in the grass. It helped show off her personality and
made her look like a fun dog (which she was!) –

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Just be careful with teeth – lower teeth with tongue are
endearing. But upper teeth showing can trigger a visceral “threat”
response in some people. The fact that this dog is on the ground
rolling around helps make the visible upper teeth less scary. If she
were standing and you could see her upper canines, it would look more
threatening (even if she was only playing).

Can you get a head tilt? People love head tilts! Some dogs will
do it for a squeaky toy, some will do it for a high pitched, “Who’s
a good girl? You are! Yes, you are!” Some will do it if you
make a sound like a cornered chipmunk (it’s kind of a low
trill. Really. Trust me on this one.). Every dog is different, so
don’t be afraid to try new sounds to see what you can get!

casey post photo6

Expression is everything with dogs. Make it fun for the dog and
it’ll show in the picture. Move them around and take a lot of
pictures to catch different looks and expressions. I find that most
dogs can give me a good photo in just a few minutes, but some take a
little longer. The payoff is worth it, though. Look at these two
photos of the same dog – The first one was before I figured out
that he was light-sensitive in his right eye and would squint if that
eye was in the sun. We turned him around to get the sun behind him
and got a much better look in the second shot –

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Practice on your own dogs at home! Don’t get frustrated if
you can’t get a decent shot – I’ve had to walk away
from a session more than once if things just weren’t working.
Remember, you want it to be fun for the dog! If it’s fun for
the dog, that will show in the photos, but you need to take a LOT of
pictures to be able to pick out the best shots. Thank heavens for
digital photography! I take about three to five hundred photos a

Now, let’s talk about cats.

Cats can be more difficult to photograph than dogs. They just
don’t tend to have the goofy, happy expressions that you can
get from most dogs. So you have to work a bit to help them be
“cute”. Now, humans tend to see “baby-like”
qualities as endearing in animals. Large, open eyes, rounded heads,
short faces are all playing on our instinct to care for a creature.
That is why brachycephalic animals (Pugs, Persians, etc.) are so
popular – people like the way they look and what they look like
is babies. Or at least, baby creatures.

Enter, the regular, old domestic short hair cat. He doesn’t
look like a baby. He looks like a predator.

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There’s a very simple trick you can use to make this cat
more “baby-like”.

Turn off the lights.

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Both of these photos are untouched. No editing, no lighting
adjustment. The first photo was taken with the lights on. The
second with the lights off. I use a small flashlight to give me just
enough light to see what I’m shooting at in a dark room, but I
can’t see anything well until the flash goes off.

Larger, rounded pupils like this are much more likely to trigger
“cute” in a person’s mind than narrow, slitted
ones. Remember, most people don’t want to adopt snakes, they
want kitties. And “cute” kitties generally get more
interest than not cute ones.

Can’t turn off the lights? That’s okay, you can get
larger pupils just by engaging the cat’s prey drive – I
carry wand toys (Go Cat makes some nice 18 inch ones – great
for photographing in cages) to wave around to get cats looking at me
and get those pupils a little bigger. And sometimes, a cat will do
something cute, just because they’re focused on the toy. This
cat had very small pupils no matter what I did, but I could get them
rounder by playing with him and he had a ridiculous “play face”

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And even blind cats will react to a wand toy if it makes a sound –
choose the mylar ones rather than the feathers for blind or
vision-impaired cats! This cat has no eyes (was found as a stray),
but we used this photo to have him “waving goodbye” to
shelter life when he was adopted. It’s tough photographing a
cat with no eyes because people have trouble connecting to them, so
getting them to do something cute is essential, even if it’s
just a raised paw!

casey post photo12

Now, some cats are going to be “blinkers” – they
blink with the camera flash so you end up with almost-closed eyes in
every shot. Turning off the lights for bigger pupils can make the
blinking even worse. What I’ve found works best for blinkers
is either shooting in natural light with no flash (which can be tough
because you’re more likely to end up with a blurry shot because
of the longer exposure time) or shooting in natural light with a
diffuser over your flash. I actually keep a diffuser on my flash all
the time (helps reduce the reflection you get in cat pupils at some
angles) and have found that some cats will still blink with that, so
I folded a thick piece of paper to fit and I strap it over the
diffuser with a rubber band to block that flash even more. The
result is a darker photo, but usually sharper than no flash because
as far as the camera knows, the flash is putting out more light than
it actually is and that exposure time is still short.

This cat is a terrible blinker (even with the flash pointing up at
the ceiling, instead of at the cat) but I used my high tech paper
diffuser and was able to get a decent shot of her –

casey post photo13

Of course, you can’t get the rounder pupils with this
method, but hey, sometimes you have to be happy getting any shot at
all on some cats.

If you take a LOT of photos, you’ll find that cats can be
surprisingly expressive!

This cat has slitted pupils, but the smile distracts from that
fact (and remember that seeing lower teeth in cats is generally okay,
but if you show the upper canine teeth, many people get a visceral
“danger” reaction even if the cat is only yawning) –

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This cat had fairly wide pupils even in normal room light, so we
just kept clicking away with toys in my hand, making little sounds,
etc. Then I tried the “photo booth” display to show him
off –

casey post photo15

Let’s talk a minute about “making sounds” to get
a cat to look at you. I have had cats solidly ignore me and my toys
or refuse to even look up at me. I used to try to resolve this by
recruiting a staffer or volunteer to help me get the cat’s
attention. I no longer do that.

It has been my experience that when you instruct a person to stand
behind you and just “try to get the cat to look up at me”,
that person will do something that is either off-putting to the cat
(so you get an fearful or concerned expression) or annoying to the
cat, which will make them withdraw. One well-meaning person who was
“helping” me became frustrated by the lack of response in
a cat and actually BANGED on the table where the cat was standing.
That cat was DONE at that point and I didn’t blame him one bit.

But sounds can be useful when a cat is frightened or threatened by
a wand toy (which happens rather often) and you want to get the cat
to look at you.

Sounds NOT to make at a cat –

Anything loud. Shelters are generally too loud for sensitive
cats, anyway. And a loud sound like clapping, yelling, “Hey,
over here!”, etc. is not going to give you the facial
expression you want. Even finger-snapping and tongue-clicking can be
problematic in a shelter environment where a cat’s senses are
already overloaded. I will also note that large movements often
accompany this (arm waving and such) and those are NOT helpful,
either. Yes, the cat will look at you, but no, it’s not a look
you want.

Calling their name. I only had this work ONCE and it was an older
owner surrender who clearly knew his name, but the shelter staff had
renamed him to something similar because his given name sounded
strange and unmarketable to them. So he hadn’t heard his own
name in a couple of weeks. Quietly saying his real name was enough
to make this cat turn around and look at me. (I made sure staff made
a note in this cat’s file to the effect that his name was such
and such and yes, he responds to it for the new owner.) If you’re
going to try a cat’s name, PLEASE say it quietly and in the
form of a question, not a command. My experience has been that
people are used to calling dogs and will use the same approach for a
cat to try to get their attention, which goes like, “BENNIE!
Ben! Over here! BENNNNNIIIIIEEEEE! Look over here!!!” More
appropriate is a quiet and inquiring, “Bennie? “ in the
same tone as, “Hello?” and wait to see the reaction. If
the cat doesn’t respond in the first or second quiet call, he’s
not likely to do it on the third, either, so move on to other sounds.

Sounds to try –

Anything quiet. Less is more! Psss, psss, pss. An almost
whispered, “Here kitty, kitty.” (Because some cats are
used to being called like this.) Kissing sounds. Scritching noises (I
run a finger nail on the edge of the camera to get this.) Mousie
sounds (try sucking air in through your two front teeth while
pressing your tongue up against the teeth and the roof of your mouth
at the same time – with a little practice, you can come up with
a decent mousie sound – also useful for some dogs if they’re
not too distracted).

Meowing. Not “MEOW!”, but more the, “Mm-mrrrr?”
sound that cats make when calling to or greeting each other. You can
also do a high pitched (but QUIET), “Mew?” in your best
inquiring kitten imitation. I had one cat who would NOT react to a
damn thing I did until I started mewing to him.

“Booping”. This is a sound you make with your mouth,
not your voice at all. Sort of like… making fish bubbles. It’s
like making a kissing sound, but with a much looser mouth. Pretend
you’re a goldfish underwater and open and close your jaw with
your lips loosely puckered. You’ll get a “boop” or
“bubble” –type sound that is non-threatening, but
that cats are very unused to hearing come from a human. They will
often look at you with curiosity. I had one cat come running over to
look into my mouth to see where the sound was coming from!

Work on your repertoire of sounds because any cat-attracting sound
you can make with your mouth means that you have two hands free to
work the camera AND a cat will look in your direction. The key is to
keep it quiet! You can certainly get a cat to look your way with a
loud noise, but you’re going to end up with an alarmed-looking
cat in your photo (ears angled away, head tucked and pulled back into
the shoulders, face tense) and you do NOT want that. You want
“cute”. You want “interested”. You want
“happy”. The human brain processes both consciously and
unconsciously. If your cat has a pleasant expression (or is at least
relaxed), it makes people FEEL something nice about that cat –

casey post photo16

What does this photo say to you about this cat? Does she seem
nice? Even sweet? She probably wants to sit on your lap and purr,
doesn’t she?

And never be afraid to take that unconventional shot. A sense of
“relaxed and happy” can come out of it without even
seeing the cat’s face. Add in a funny story or caption, and
folks might just want that cat! This super friendly cat was not an
attractive fellow in the face, so this photo truly showed off both
his personality and his “best side” for adoption-

casey post photo end

You’re marketing a personality first, looks second (unless
you have a very attractive cat with a less than wonderful
personality, which happens), so spend a few minutes with a cat to
find out who they are. Touch them and talk to them. Brush them if
they enjoy it (I carry multiple slicker brushes just for that
reason). If you can capture some of that personality in a photo, so
much the better!

Whether photographing dogs or cats or
ferrets or guinea pigs (and yes, guinea pigs react to you making
guinea pig calls, so listen to them when treats come out and then go
ahead and make that sound yourself), try to stay relaxed. If you’re
tense, the animals tend to be tense, too and that can show in a
photo. Take a little time with each animal to find out a bit of who
they are. YOU make the first connection with them so you can take
photos that will help others connect.

Again, practice on your own animals! It’s always nice to
have some cute pictures of your pets and you can learn a lot just by
trying out different lighting and movement situations at home. If
you can’t (or don’t want to) volunteer at your local
shelter, see if there’s a rescue group around that wants some
nice photos of their available pets. You never know who will be
grateful for the help and you might just get some pets into homes in
the deal!


Thank you Casey for this terrific post. Readers can see more of Casey’s shelter pet photos here. If anyone tries out any of these tips and would like to share their experiences/photos, please post them in the comments. I would love to see.

Discussion: Are Shelters Keeping Online Listings for Lost/Adoptable Animals Current?


Screengrab from

When I was looking for a beagle recently, I was checking Petfinder, PetHarbor and a few other sites day and night.  I wasn’t limiting myself to facilities within reasonable driving distance either.  I really wanted to help a beagle who needed a home and I figured that a municipal shelter was probably the way to go.  But every single beagle I inquired on at a public shelter had already been adopted and the facility had failed to update its online listings.  Or so they said.  Assuming no one was fabricating an adoption story, because “We already killed that dog and haven’t bothered to take down the listing” isn’t going to go over as smoothly, the issue is still troublesome.  Was my experience an outlier or fairly common?  I got to wondering:

How many other pets listed online at these facilities are also unavailable for adoption?

How many pets are sitting at these places with no online listings at all because no one is making it a priority to keep the listings current?

When these shelters get behind on listing animals in need, do they also postpone killing, regardless of whether the mandatory holding period has expired in order to give owners a chance to see their lost pets online and adopters a chance to fall in love with the pet’s photo?

What would John Q. Public think if all the shelter pets he inquired about were already adopted and the listings weren’t current?  (One possibility of what he might think:  Shelters apparently adopt pets out so quickly that it’s impossible to even keep accurate listings online.  I guess there isn’t any problem as far as shelter pets needing homes.  I may as well go to another source for a pet.)

Have any readers had similar – or totally different – experiences when looking for a pet via shelter listings online?

Does your local shelter keep its online listings current?

Look What You’ve Done Now

“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” – John Burroughs

maricopa co dog

Shelter dog in a bin, as pictured on


lex co dog

Shelter dog chokepoled to the ground, as pictured on


rutherford co cat

Bloody shelter cat in a cage, as pictured on

Be Here Now: Loving Pets Available in Shelters

I was researching a public shelter and couldn’t find a website for the facility so visited its page on Petfinder.  At the top of that page, the shelter had a quote from another website which reads, in part:

ALL SHELTER DOGS WERE ONCE NORMAL PUPPIES eager to learn how to live with people. Yet far too many dogs are surrendered to shelters largely because their owners were unaware of how to prevent predictable puppy/adolescent behavior, temperament and training problems.

While I understand the desire to promote responsible puppy ownership, putting this quote on a shelter’s webpage is a terrible idea because it translates to:

ALL SHELTER DOGS ARE ABNORMAL. They were once normal but that time has passed. As adult shelter dogs, they don’t want to learn how to live with people. It’s not their fault they are defective. Their ignorant former owners saddled them with the behavioral, temperament and training problems they now have.

Myth:  Shelter dogs are damaged goods.  There is a reason they are sitting in a shelter.

Reality:  Shelter dogs are dogs, just like owned pets.  They come in all varieties of behavior, temperament and training, just like owned pets.  They may have had an ignorant owner in the past or a loving owner who was simply unable to care for them any longer or perhaps they haven’t had an owner in quite some time.  Verifiable information about the pet’s past is often not available.

Nearly all dogs are happy to learn how to do what is required of them in order to have a place within a family home.  This is true for dogs adopted from shelters as well as dogs obtained from friends, family or other sources.  Adopters should expect to put some work into their new pet – not because he came from a shelter but because he is a dog.  Adopters can also expect to experience the joys of living with a companion animal.

Wendy, former and current normal dog, was adopted from a shelter and readily took to her bed hog training.

Wendy, former and current normal dog, was adopted from a shelter and readily took to her bed hog training.

Shelter dogs don’t dwell on their past.  Neither should we.  Every dog is an individual with the right to live, love and be loved.  At most public shelters, animals’ right to live is violated by the very people we pay to protect them from harm.  The notion that anyone at a shelter would do anything to discourage adoptions, and thus increase the number of pets going to the kill room, is tragic.

If you are considering adopting a shelter pet, don’t be fooled by the myths.  A dog sitting in a shelter is a dog – no more, no less.  It’s possible they might be a little more appreciative than average because you saved their life but you can probably manage.

The Case for Free Shelter Pets

Wendy, adopted from a shelter for free, loved and valued.

Wendy, adopted from a shelter for free, loved and valued.

Free.  People get excited when they see the word in front of most anything – except pets.  In recent years, anyone who advertises or seeks a free pet has been subject to attack from seemingly well-intentioned animal advocates and probably alienated about the entire concept of adopting a pet in need.  If you are giving a pet away for free, you are scolded for ringing the dinner bell for every dogfighter, animal torturer and other animal abuser in a six state range.  If you are looking for a free pet, you are smeared as an animal abuser (because they are the only people who want pets for free and if any doubt, see previous sentence) and told that if you can’t afford to pay for a pet, you shouldn’t be allowed to have one (because you are too stupid to know that pets come with expenses which obviously your broke ass will never be able to pay).

The teensy problem is that all this is wrong, so wrong, totally wrong and wrongissimo.  To my knowledge, there is no research that backs up any claim regarding free pets and negative outcomes that exceed the standard amount of negative outcomes which can be expected with all pet adoptions.  The data that we do have tells us what should be obvious:  people love their free pets just as much as they love pets they paid money for because they bond with the animal, not the sales receipt.

Nathan Winograd has written about the unfounded fears of giving away shelter animals:

From the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to the ASPCA, from Maddie’s Fund to the experiences of shelters across the country, every study that has looked at the issue has concluded that waiving adoption fees—in other words, giving the animals away for free—does not impact either the quality of the quantity of the adoptive home, but does increase the number of lives saved.

Lives saved. Sounds good.

And to reiterate, people love FREE.  All people.  As Christie Keith writes:

Free pet adoptions are not aimed at people who otherwise couldn’t afford a pet, and that’s not primarily who they attract. Just as Nordstrom holds special sales only for its best and, presumably, wealthiest customers, just as car dealers and appliance stores and luxury hotels have special promotions, shelters and rescue groups who do free adoptions know that the “free” part is a marketing strategy, not a hand-out.

Free and special price promotions are designed to be attention grabbers. They also serve to focus people on pet adoption not in a “someday when I get around to it” kind of way, but in a “better go this weekend because it’s exciting, fun, and I’ll save money!” kind of way.

Dismissing a group as a whole because of misconceptions about who wants free pets is keeping shelter animals out of homes. And that means resources are tied up, pets are kept in cages or taking up valuable space in foster homes, and tragically for millions of shelter pets every year, it means they end up in the kill room.

This is usually where the folks who like to say “There are fates worse than death” chime in. Let me be clear: There are no fates worse than death. Where there is life, there is hope. While I am in no way denying that animal abusers exist, I know that they represent a tiny minority of pet owners and that at least some of them are willing to pay for the pets they abuse. (Does the name Michael Vick ring any bells?)  Most people try to do right by their pets and love them as family members.  Most adoption applicants will fall into this category, regardless of the fee being charged for the animal.

While Nathan Winograd advocates for reasonable adoption screening, a practice I too support, he makes clear that even without screening, adopted is better than dead:

[I]n shelters where animals are being killed by the thousands, and where they are horrifically neglected and abused in the process, I’d rather they do “open adoptions” if it means getting more animals out of there and doing so quicker because in truth, there is no greater threat to companion animals in this country than the so-called “shelter” in the community where those animals reside. Shelter killing is the leading cause of death for healthy companion animals in the U.S.


[I]f the worst thing that could happen to them if we gave them away is the very thing that will happen to […] them if they stay at the shelter, is the cost-benefit analysis even close?

Although it is my wish that more shelters would give away more pets more often, I think it’s appropriate to offer some additional lifesaving marketing ideas which could be used in conjunction with or as an alternative to fee waived adoptions:

  • Offer low cost promotions in conjunction with holidays and other special events:  $4 or $17.76 adoption fees for July 4th or $11 adoption fees for June 11, Just One Day event for example.
  • 10 for 10 (can be used with any numbers):  Pick out the 10 animals in most urgent need of homes (long timers, elderly pets, etc.) and offer them for $10.  As each animal gets adopted, replace him with another so the promotion can run continuously.
  • Pay what you will:  Offer animals for a fee of any amount of the adopter’s choosing.
  • Donations appreciated:  Offer pets for free while letting adopters know they are welcome to make a donation of any amount.
  • Run promotions based on physical characteristics:  Tabby Tuesdays or Big and Beautiful Fat Cats for example.
  • Peruse this online book for more marketing ideas.

This adoption promo ad is from 2011 but still a favorite of mine:

Many shelters have been successfully using free adoption promotions in order to save lives for quite awhile.  But among animal advocates, there remains a stigma – baseless as it is.  Let’s embrace the word free.  If you are looking for a word to replace it – one that you can hang your Hate hat on – use kill.  The people who needlessly kill animals instead of sheltering them are deserving of your lectures, not the people who want to save a shelter pet’s life by giving them a home.

Knock, Knock: Santa’s at the Door and He’s Got a Puppy

Pets make great gifts and I’m glad to see many shelters are finally coming around to that view, even if some only embrace the concept once a year.  Christmas deliveries of adopted shelter pets to their new families has grown in popularity and along with it, some long overdue myth-busting.

Staff from the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals dressed up as elves and delivered six kittens to adopters on Christmas Day:

“Studies show that animals given as gifts are much less likely to be surrendered or given up because of the emotional attachment they give to the owner,” [director Jen] Corbin said.

Dressed as Santa and his helpers, staff from St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey delivered adopted pets in wrapped boxes to adopters on Christmas:

The holidays can be a great time to adopt, [CEO Heather] Camissa says, because families are often at home and have time to spend with the pets and to acclimate them to their new home.

Also delivering pets to their new homes on Christmas morning were the Fairfax Co shelter in VA, volunteers from the Nevada Humane Society in Reno, the Charleston Animal Society in SC, and the Franklin Co shelter and the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Maine.  And an adorable 9 year old girl in New Jersey got a pair of pitbull puppies delivered to her home on Christmas morning, courtesy of the Cumberland Co SPCA.  The pictures will cure what ails ya.

Did your local shelter deliver pets on Christmas?

MAS Moves to Increase “Time and Space” Killings with Photo Ban

Memphis Animal Services (MAS) is a pet killing facility which has long cited “time and space” as its primary reason for killing dogs and cats.  In order to counter the alleged time and space issues at MAS, a group called Memphis Pets Alive has been photographing pets at the pound weekly, sharing them on Facebook.  In this way, owners looking for lost pets have an opportunity to see clear photos on an easily navigable and popular website – a service the pound does not provide.  In addition, rescuers and potential adopters can see the pets currently at the pound and begin making arrangements to get the pets out alive once the holding period expires, a date which Memphis Pets Alive notes on its posts.

The marketing of pets immediately upon impound is an important tool used by shelters wishing to increase their return-to-owner and overall live release rates as well as reducing their average length of stay.  MAS does not market pets upon impound, selectively choosing to photograph only some pets, using seemingly arbitrary criteria, and list them on a user-unfriendly website not designed for the public to navigate.  But Memphis Pets Alive has helped bridge the gap by photographing pets every week and sharing them on Facebook.

This week however, Memphis Pets Alive was informed by pound director James Rogers that they would no longer be allowed to photograph pets who are still within their mandatory holding period.  The “review date”, as MAS terms it on its cage cards, must be met before anyone is allowed to photograph the pets.

The Tiny Problem with That:  MAS typically kills pets the day of, or the morning after, their so-called review date.  Review is MAS-speak for Kill.  Some examples of pets who have been killed by MAS on, or within hours of, their review date:

  • Beauty and Rocko – two young, healthy dogs whose owner wanted them back.
  • Two owned dogs who were supposed to be quarantined at MAS for 10 days but who were killed after 72 hours because “review date”.
  • 3 year old mixed breed dog who was impounded after the owner fell behind on utility bills and killed by MAS on her review date.

In addition, the following pets listed on the Memphis Pets Alive Facebook page are just some who were recently listed as having been killed on their review date:

Dog #265867 at the Memphis pound, listed as killed on his review date.

Dog #265867 at the Memphis pound, listed as killed on his review date.  [Photo by Memphis Pets Alive]

Tragically, these dead pets are the “lucky” ones, in terms of MAS killing, since they were allowed to live until their review date.  MAS also kills pets before their review date.  Nola, a lost dog whose owner went to MAS trying to find her, was killed before her review date.  And pets who are owner surrendered do not get the “benefit” of a review date at all.  MAS often kills them upon impound.

Needless to say, shelter pet advocates raised hell about the photo ban.  After all, MAS is still killing pets for “time and space” but now actively blocking efforts by advocates to reduce the supposed time and space burdens placed upon the $7 million pet killing facility.  The city posted a response on its website which explains that the reason for the dick move ban is because MAS doesn’t want a potential adopter to see a pet’s photograph on Facebook and mistakenly believe the animal is immediately available for adoption.  Because MAS cares, really, so much:

MAS views the emotional trauma of such an unfortunate misunderstanding too great a risk[…]

I wonder how much of an emotional trauma it is to have your pet killed by MAS because of “time and space”, such as has happened to so many Memphis pet owners.  But I guess Memphis is all full up on caring.  The city can’t possibly care one iota more.  It’s too great a risk to consider more caring.  So please everyone, stop bothering MAS about its enormous level of caring.  Just leave it alone and quit bringing up how hugely much MAS cares.  Because the caring, it’s bulging and gigantic.  And space is an issue.

(Thanks Arlene for sending me info on this story.)

LOVE is Positive: An Interview with Ann Brownell of UPAWS, Part 2

Note:  If you missed Part 1 of this interview or you have yet to meet Ann Brownell, read this first.  Part 2 is below.  My questions are in bold and everything in italics was written by Ann.

6. You frequently contribute to the blog’s Open Threads, both to promote UPAWS and to encourage readers to find out about what’s happening at their local shelter. Why do you feel it’s important to maintain an active presence online?

Photo by Ann Brownell

Photo by Ann Brownell

Having an active online presence is essential, especially nowadays. People are used to finding things fast, they look on the internet for most everything, including when they are looking to add a furry friend to their family. Shelters have websites that feature pets and all the things happening, as well as a donation button. An active Facebook and Twitter page are also very important. Having your pets seen on and as many other online adoption sites is very important. UPAWS uses the Pet Adoption Portal by With one entry, your pets will load into numerous sites. All no cost!

Communicating every single day with your online community is vital! You must remind them that you are there. Don’t let the public forget about you. Every day UPAWS posts online a few times. Whether it’s a promotion (UPAWS runs many), plea, pet to promote, fundraiser, update on who was adopted (done daily), stray pets posting or to thank our supporters – we are active online every single day. Please note, always thank your supporters, volunteers, adopters, community, the media, and fans, daily! Yes, every day if possible. It is that important!

7. How do you avoid becoming lost in the endless stream of individual animals and shelters in need with your online pleas?

The way we don’t get lost or ignored is that UPAWS does not ask constantly. We are not every other week asking for a special plea for a pet. We feel that eventually will be like crying wolf. We ask maybe a few times a year. When we do ask, we are an open book, honest and true to that animal that needs help. Also our community knows UPAWS is doing everything possible to help that pet (all are pets). They also know that when they give a donation for a special needs pet, we are using it for that pet and other emergency pets in need.

We make it easy for them to donate by using our Firstgiving site. We set a goal of what amount we need and the Firstgving bar will show the progress. People love that and love to help!

Let me share a heartwarming example. This plea for Buddy Holly was put on our Facebook page and website at 10pm on New Year’s Eve. Within 13 hours we had surpassed the $800 needed by over $400!

Also please keep the public actively involved by thanking them and posting photos and updates.

8. In addition to maintaining an online presence, what other ways do you connect with the community on behalf of UPAWS?

Photo by Ann Brownell

Photo by Ann Brownell

UPAWS has a variety of ways. PSA’s to all our local radio stations, newspapers and TV stations whenever we have something to promote, we have a Pet of the Week on one radio station, Mon. – Fri. one of our local TV stations features a rotation of shelter pets from the area, UPAWS has a pet for adoption featured every Thursday on another TV station. We are featured each Wednesday on the Pet Page of a local newspaper – this paper features pets whose ads are sponsored by caring individuals and 3 other UPAWS pets (sponsored by the newspaper itself) as well as whatever else we send to feature that week, which may be a fundraiser, promotion, thank you or event such as our Spay/Neuter offers.

One local radio station DJ is a huge supporter and she has a Mon – Fri UPAWS featured segment which is sponsored by a local vet.

We use flyers for adoption promotions, fundraisers, events, Spay/Neuter offers and pets for adoption and those are posted throughout the community. Our 12 page Pet Gazette newsletter is mailed 3 times a year to 4000 supporters and another 1000 are distributed around the community and at the shelter.

Our manager has an online newsletter that she sends out once a month. Our President and Manager produce a UPAWS direct solicitation letter in color that is sent 3 times a year.

A local Mall has a special area where we have a 6 foot three sided wooden kiosk that has photos of our pets, newsletters, flyers etc.

We will ask to have features in our newspaper, radio and TV stations all the time to promote whatever we have going on. Our local media and community are amazing and very supportive.

BTW, the majority of these things cost UPAWS nothing. Of course the printing of the newsletters and mailers cost money, but please remember, these bring in donations, adopters and supporters too.

9. UPAWS sometimes runs promotions for things unrelated to pet adoption – e.g. nail trim specials.  What benefits are there in getting people to visit the shelter for these types of events?

There are many benefits such as not only offering the public a great service but to bring them into your open, inviting shelter to adopt, foster, volunteer or donate or just to say hello and visit. If they are not familiar with your shelter or programs, it is a great way to introduce them to your services, programs and pets. All good things!

10. There are many elements to the No Kill Equation and each aspect plays an important role in a no kill shelter’s success.  That said, for those shelters wanting to do better but not prepared to implement all the programs of the No Kill Equation today, can you recommend some no cost improvements that could be immediately made by a volunteer and would likely result in increased lifesaving?

Photo by Ann Brownell

Photo by Ann Brownell

If you are one person, or one volunteer and you would like to make a lifesaving impact, approach your shelter and offer to take the photos and/or write the bios of their pets for adoption. Ask them to let you load them onto their website or other sites they have for adopted pets. Be consistent. Use these tips and you will be on your way to saving lives.

Shelters can contact the local media, TV, radio and newspapers. Fax or email them PSA’s (Public Service Announcements) about certain pets or what positive things are happening at your shelter. The media is looking for upbeat and positive news! Plus who doesn’t love a great looking, happy pet for adoption. And it is free!

Put together a great looking Facebook page for your shelter. Update it every day with good news, positive things. Ask your fans to share and help. People want to help and they will if you ask them in a positive manner.

Wish list drives – our manager implemented Wish List drives during the warm months. She asks local grocery stores or other stores like Wal-Mart and pet supply stores if we can have volunteers outside their store on a certain day to collect Wish List items. We advertise on our website and Facebook. Not only do we get lots of wish list donations but we also get a lot of cash donations (so be prepared and have canisters at your drives). It is a win-win proposition because the shelter gets needed supplies and the hosting retailer gets business from the sales supporting the drive. Plus, they get public recognition from the big thank you I know you will be giving them through social media, your web page, and newsletter!

Have an Open House. Or offer $5 nail trims to the public.

Ask some local businesses to donate some pop and baked goods. Run an awesome discount adoption promotion at the same time. Advertise with those free PSA’s. Watch the public come!

TechSoup is a great resource for non-profits to get low cost programs and software for their shelter.

And don’t forget that smiles, thank yous, and a welcoming atmosphere are all free and come with life-saving dividends. Visitors who are treated with respect, compassion, and kindness will become your adopters, donors, volunteers, and good will ambassadors in your community.

Above all, spread the good word and always be positive about what your shelter is doing.

Thank you Ann for providing these informative, detailed answers and for sharing your wonderful shelter pet 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.

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.