When Rosie Star had to take an early retirement from her job as employment specialist because of a back issue, she asked a neighbor who volunteered with the Humane Society for Southwest Washington if the nonprofit could use her help.
“I don’t think they’ll let you volunteer because of your back,” Star recalled her neighbor telling her.
But Star remained interested and spent some time on the Humane Society’s website, taking note of some of the photos of pets up for adoption.
“And I thought, these pictures look horrible,” said Star. “Some of them actually look like a mop.”
While in retirement, Star had more time for her longtime hobby of photography and passed the time taking photographs of squirrels in her backyard. So she called up the Humane Society and asked if she could take photos of pets at the shelter who needed permanent homes. Their reply: “Great, come on in.”
Five years later, Star estimates she’s taken photos of thousands of dogs (along with a few cats and rabbits) up for adoption at the Humane Society. Stacey Graham, the Humane Society’s president, said in an email that the 1,100 people who volunteer at the nonprofit are an important part of its operations and are like an extension of the nonprofit’s staff and partners.
Karen Clark, another volunteer, said Star has a unique role at the shelter. She said that if a dog doesn’t show well in the kennel, Star will get a good close-up that’ll capture the animal’s personality and make it more appealing for adoption.
“If she gets a good picture of that dog, that dog is adopted within a week; it really makes a difference,” said Clark.
Getting a good photo requires building a rapport with the dog, developing tricks to draw out its personality — and lots of treats.
‘Light in their eyes’
Star recalled being worried that volunteering at the shelter would be heartbreaking and she would end up taking every dog home.
While the Humane Society arranged for her to start taking photos, Star came in to spend some time with smaller dogs doing “enrichment” activities, like letting them sniff out treats hidden in egg cartons. She remembered the first time she entered an enrichment room with a small, frightened and shivering dog.
“What are you in for?” Star recalled asking the dog before bursting into tears.
But Star said she kept coming back as she came to understand that the shelter goes to great efforts to keep the dogs comfortable. When she’s not photographing dogs, Star makes her rounds in the kennels, passing out bits of cut-up turkey franks and developing a rapport with each dog.
While Star took a break, whines and barks from the kennels echoed through the Humane Society’s lobby. She pulled out her smartphone to show off a picture she took of a small dog wearing a Santa Claus hat and giving an interested look to the camera.
When asked how she got the dog to patiently pose with a hat, Star said some canines will attentively crook their heads if someone asks, “do you want a treat? Wanna go on a walk?” That’s what Star said she did with this dog to get its attention just as she snapped the photo.
“To me, a good picture of a dog is when you can catch the light in their eyes,” Star said, adding that it helps to bring out their energy and personality.
Getting a good photograph of a dog also requires understanding its motivations, Star said. If a dog wants to go out and play, she’ll take it outside and photograph it running around in the shelter’s backyard, careful to make sure the sunlight hits it just right. Other dogs can be motivated by treats, like the bag of cut-up turkey franks Star keeps in an apron. And if a dog doesn’t want to wear a hat, it’s not happening, she said.
Others want affection and will be happy to pose for a photo while Star and handlers at the shelter lavish extra attention on the dog. She showed off photos of another small dog wearing a dress and playing with a toy. She recalled how the dog was fearful when she first came into the shelter and how that changed once she became comfortable around Star to pose for a photo.
“Not every dog has been to modeling school,” she said. “But some of them you’d think had.”
‘Just take the photo’
After a break, Star was back to the kennels, this time to take Plattsberg, a chihuahua mix with one eye, out for a walk in the fenced area behind the shelter. Star said the trick to photographing dogs like this is to “just take the photo.”
She recalled one dog that was scraggly, older and also missing an eye, but there were still people in Clark County willing to seek out dogs like this to adopt. During her time volunteering at the Humane Society, she’s ended up bringing home dogs after all. She has fostered 47 so far.
As she talked, other volunteers brought out other small dogs who sniffed and played with each other. Star beamed.
“Had I known that there were jobs with dogs, I probably would have gotten into that a lot earlier in my life,” she said.