Armed with dog treats, a squeaky toy and leash, a volunteer enters the West Valley Animal Shelter kennel area on their Saturday day off.
Ellen Zuckerman works in the healthcare industry and is a business systems analyst. For fun and a hobby she runs a photography group called the Northridge Outdoor Photographers.
“What I’ve done is recruited about two dozen people from the group to rotate at the shelter to assist in taking pictures,” Zuckerman said.
When the dog first comes to the pound a picture is taken, but it is not a good representation of that animal. If the dog is black in color, the photo promotes black dog syndrome. The syndrome prevents dogs getting adopted because there is an association with aggression.
“I saw a couple of stories online about people that were redoing shelter photos and taking photos with backdrops and lighting. It really presented the dogs in a different way,” Zuckerman said. “I have the skill in photography and because I’m an animal lover I felt this was something that I really wanted to do.”
It is a way of giving back to the community. Zuckerman chose West Valley for a number of reasons. It is very close to her home, so she can come to the shelter more frequently, and she also chose it because it is a kill shelter. She believes it is important to help as many animals find a home as she is able to.
“I think that my photographic studies at Pierce College helped me to decide to do this,” Zuckerman said. “I really put my love of animals and new photography skills to work.”
Walking through the dark extended hallways where the dogs are in their small cells, Zuckerman reads the kennel cards. Tyson, Tiger, Mickey, and Harley. She looks for dogs that have been in the pound for long periods of time and dogs that are seniors.
She extracts a dog named Tyson from its cage, pushing back the other dogs in the small enclosure. Zuckerman works at making friends with the dog, the whole time calming him down.
A family of four finds their way into the same hallway.
“We got a new house and are looking for a bigger dog because we already have a small dog and now quite a big yard,” Rosario Acosta said. “Before we rescued one dog and feel this is the way to go.”
Zuckerman takes Tyson to an outdoor area. Usually she has another volunteer with her so they can throw the ball, squeak a toy or find out what the dog responds to most, so she can capture the real spirit of the dog in camera, but sometimes she is on her own.
A lot of people think dogs are in the shelter because they are damaged. That is not true at all. Owner surrenders are the largest category of homeless dogs. People drop the dogs at the shelter because they are moving, don’t have time, and can’t afford the pet anymore. Some even turn in an old dog because they have gotten a new dog, or a younger model.
“I just absolutely love volunteering and finding homes for these dogs,” Liz Goldberg said.
Goldberg was sitting in an open area hugging a beauty of a dog named Panda. She is hoping to be able to “foster parent” Panda.
In addition to re-doing the kennel cards the new photo goes online for the shelter.
West Valley Adoptables and Fosters is my Facebook page,” Zuckerman said. “What I do is create a profile for each dog and post a picture on that page.”
There is also a database that’s been set up by an outside organization called Shelter Me and it is another place where the profile is set up. Photos and videos are included.
This organization covers all of the Los Angeles County and city shelters and after the original photo is replaced, the online pictures of the animals make them more adoptable.
The photos just portray the dogs in a better light, not scared in a dark room like people imagine when coming to the shelter. The dogs could now be perceived as a family dog, there outside in the yard running and playing. It really shows the better traits of their personality.
There is a whole emotional aspect to taking photos of animals especially in a kill shelter. Just walking through the door of the kill shelter alone is enough to put emotions on high alert.
“I know I’m here for a purpose and I know I can save the life of an animal. I know there is no guarantee, but it is worth it to put the effort out to do something for them.”