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Glamour pet pictures a big part of humane society adoptions

Updated: 
June 14, 2016 - 9:34am

KAILUA-KONA — Charger trotted about the Hawaii Island Humane Society’s play yard sniffing around the fence, exploring the underbrush and enjoying the attention of a handful of high school kids. He was carefree, happy, safe.

Charger’s demeanor made for a handful of great photos — photos that Humane Society Community Coordinator Bebe Ackerman hopes will help him find a permanent home sooner rather than later.

That’s what Charger’s morning was all about, and it’s a tactic the HIHS has been using for two years to get more animals out of kennels and into loving homes.

“When (the animals) first come in, they might be scared, skinny or have been through something bad,” Ackerman said. “And we do take a picture, but the initial photograph is never really that good.”

Ackerman and her colleagues felt those intake photos were holding some of the animals back from adoption, making potential owners more apprehensive about them as pets and creating or contributing to myths about shelter animals in general — that they’re all broken beyond repair; damaged goods.

The HIHS, along with amateur photographers Lisa Garske and Kevin Chatfield, understood that online depictions as well as kennel photos were really a form of marketing. People were window shopping for pets, and window shopping is all about aesthetics. After all, you wouldn’t put a torn sweater in a display window.

And so, after animals make it through the intake process, get a little healthier and grow a little more comfortable in a new environment, Garske and Chatfield go to work.

Garske takes the glamour photos at the Kona shelter, usually on Saturdays. She brings in backdrops and frequently uses children volunteers to help showcase the healthier, more neatly groomed and happier animals.

“It’s time-consuming work, but it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Garske said. “I wish I’d started years earlier.”

Chatfield visits the Kona shelter on Mondays and grabs action shots, typically of the animals interacting and playing with local kids.

“People have said they like seeing a hand in the picture or a dog being fed a treat or somebody petting an animal,” Chatfield said. “If I hear an ‘aw,’ then mission accomplished.”

Ackerman, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, does use the opportunities on Monday to kill two birds with one stone. She engages the animals with the help of youth from the Ke Kama Pono Safe House — a residential facility for “at-risk male youth age 13-17,” according to 808youth.com.

The HIHS program for the kids and the animals to interact is dubbed “A New Leash on Life.” It’s something the HIHS in Kona has been doing for four years.

“The kids are in a transition home and may have gotten into a little bit of trouble … or they could be in the foster program and just not yet placed in a home,” Ackerman said. “So they’re kind of in the same situation the dogs are, being warehoused. What they do is come and interact with the dogs and try and help us get a better photograph — make them look like playing dogs rather than shelter dogs.”

The program has worked, and coupled with the glamour shots taken by Garske, it has increased pet adoptions dramatically since Ackerman began working at HIHS eight years ago.

Numbers provided by the HIHS to the West Hawaii Today indicated that in 2015, there were 1,982 dogs adopted and 1,059 were redeemed. There were also 974 adopted cats out of 6,568 taken in by shelters.

Euthanasia, however, has been a controversial topic for the shelter. Shelters across the island euthanized 2,380 treatable dogs and 955 unhealthy dogs of the 6,362 total dogs taken in. Islandwide, 3,842 feral cats were euthanized as well as 1,105 unhealthy cats and 413 treatable cats, according to HIHS numbers.

But the programs have helped adoptions.

The New Leash on Life program was operating at the Waimea animal shelter as well with a youth home for girls, but that home has since closed, Ackerman said.

The idea for glamour and action shots has spread to shelters islandwide, however, and is shared across several different Facebook pages — Hawaii Island Animal Advocates, Hawaii County Adoptables, Kona Dog Lovers and Kona Kevin Adoptable Animals to name only a few.

Chatfield said the idea proved effective from the very beginning.

“The very first dog I took a picture of was named Lighthawk,” he remembered. “It was a gray and white pitbull, and I was in the break room working on pictures. A guy came in and mentioned he saw the pictures on the website and said, ‘That dog would love my yard.’ That’s the goal, right?”

To help meet adoption goals, the HIHS vaccinates animals upon intake as well as eradicates fleas, worms and ticks. If no one comes in to claim an animal within a reasonable amount of time, the potential pet goes up for adoption, at which time it undergoes health and behavioral tests. Before being released as an adopted pet, the animal will be spayed or neutered.

Upon adoption, a new owner gets a collar, a bag of food, a dog license and a microchip. There are anywhere from 36-100 dogs up for adoption at any one time, as well as cats, rabbits and various other animals.

“It’s way better than when I first started,” Ackerman said. “We have empty kennels now. If there are empty kennels, we are doing something right.”

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