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LONGMONT — From a seat on a low plastic stool, Marsha Steckling uses her left hand to manipulate the accessory tools of her trade: a squeeze-toy squeaker, noisemakers ranging from the low tones of a duck call to the thin hiss of a dog whistle, plus treats large and small.
In her right hand, she wields a camera, aimed toward subjects at turns curious, reticent or hammy as she waits, waits, waits for that perfect, elusive fraction of a second amid a dog’s unpredictable movements. Then the pup’s head tilts just so. The brow furrows, or the mouth drops open to suggest a smile. Or a single ear stands at attention to reveal an irresistible shade of personality.
The shutter whirs, capturing an image that soon will appear on the web site of the Longmont Humane Society and, if conditions are right, connect a human scrolling the shelter’s site or its social media accounts with an adoptable dog — and that warm, enduring bond that comes with a perfect match.
Steckling is 14 years into this volunteer duty, offering her pro shooter’s eye to the shelter just down the highway from her Boulder base, where her business of more traditional family portraiture, including pets, keeps her busy. Several years ago, she dropped her work shooting weddings to focus more on what she loves.
“There was just something about the dog world,” she says.
All over the country, shelters have found that when it comes to reaching their target audience of potential forever homes, quality matters. So when opportunity brings accomplished photographers like Steckling into the volunteer pool, organizations eagerly leverage that talent to produce results — both anecdotal and statistical — that outpace the relatively crude webcam or smartphone photos by intake workers that long had been the easy and affordable option.
A Poughkeepsie, New York-based nonprofit called HeARTs Speak grew from a single photographer to a national network — it counts Steckling among its members — that not only connects shelters with artists in their region, but also offers free marketing tools and basic photo instruction to enhance the odds of matchmaking.
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Some photographers realized the online images of animals coming into shelters didn’t really reflect those animals’ characteristics, says Caitlin Quinn, HeARTs Speak’s operations manager. Multiple studies have examined how photos of animals can affect the median length of stay in shelters by highlighting elements of their personality or even characteristics like coat color and ear type (floppy wins hearts).
One study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, looked solely at black Labrador retriever mixes to examine the impact of photo traits, and concluded that photo quality was among the factors that shortened a dog’s shelter stay. Another found that “improved photo quality, increased direct eye contact with the camera, presence of a collar, or other accessories such as bandanas, were found to decrease the median days to adoption of shelter dogs.”
“I think this is one of the places where anecdote and data kind of meet to show us just how critical it is for people to get a window into pets in shelters,” Quinn says. “And these photos can really do that by showing their personality, and showing them in a positive light.”
Many shelters find this a helpful strategy. But in the current economic climate, it’s one that helps them barely tread water. The stay-at-home lifestyle brought on by the pandemic, which initially emptied kennels across the country, is long past. Now, a shelter like Longmont finds itself stretched beyond its capacity of 360 animals — a few more if you count the ones bunking in staff offices until a kennel opens up.
(Provided by Marsha Steckling)
Melissa Grosjean, the marketing coordinator for Longmont Humane Society, points out that Steckling’s photos (mostly dogs but occasionaly cats) impact the facility not only by spurring inquiries from people who find their interest captured by the images, but also by generating even more social media chatter.
“Everyone loves her images so much, they’re more likely to either comment or interact with them or share them,” Grosjean says. “It’s just been invaluable to keeping our adoptable pets in front of the community at large. We can tell by the amount of inquiries and even just comments about how fabulous the photography is.”
But in an uncertain economy, adoption rates are down, and the Longmont shelter has taken on more surrendered pets, Grosjean notes. Cost of pet ownership — one study puts it between $1,200 and $2,800 a year — has gone up, and so have the shelter’s costs for line items like workers’ wages and veterinary care. Meanwhile, donations are down.
“So Marsha’s work is just critical for us right now,” Grosjean says. “We really need the community to stay interacting with us and thinking about us when they do have some funds to give, and all of that is dependent on Marsha’s beautiful photography — because people love looking at it.”
LEFT: Photographer Marsha Steckling gets her subjects’ attention with dog toys during a photoshoot at the Longmont Humane Society, where she has volunteered for about 14 years. RIGHT: Steckling takes photos of George, 3. Steckling, who has a background in portrait photography, started taking pet portraits for shelters when she volunteered at the Animal Rescue New Orleans in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina. She has since photographed more than 4,000 animals, mostly dogs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: Photographer Marsha Steckling gets her subjects’ attention with dog toys during a photoshoot at the Longmont Humane Society, where she has volunteered for about 14 years. BELOW: Steckling takes photos of George, 3. Steckling, who has a background in portrait photography, started taking pet portraits for shelters when she volunteered at the Animal Rescue New Orleans in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina. She has since photographed more than 4,000 animals, mostly dogs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
A trip that changed everything
In 2007, two years into ongoing relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, Steckling and her sister, Jeanne, decided to head to New Orleans and pitch in some volunteer work. Steckling was thinking of connecting with Habitat for Humanity. But Jeanne showed her a documentary, “Dark Water Rising: Survival Stories of Hurricane Katrina Animal Rescues,” which featured Animal Rescue New Orleans, or ARNO, which started just a year after Katrina.
“And by the end of it, we were both like, ‘Yeah, we’re going,’” Jeanne recalls. “It’s just been really important for both of us ever since.”
The new ARNO facility helped handle the overflow of existing shelters, some of which had been flooded out, and the burgeoning population of pets, mostly dogs, whose homes had disappeared with the floodwaters.
Estimated cost of pet ownership a year
Both women took their cameras to chronicle the experience, but their mission was to provide the shelter whatever help it needed — initially chores like cleaning kennels, walking dogs and socializing cats. At the end of the day, Steckling would document the work being done, as well as shoot the occasional dog portrait.
Outside the shelter, the sisters roamed a city still reeling from Katrina. They accompanied shelter workers searching neighborhoods and nearby woodlands for strays and gathering images of the abandoned houses and, inevitably, the loose — and elusive — animals meandering among them.
Steckling soon became acquainted with three littermates that workers referred to as “the outlaws” that lived beneath one of the vacant structures, scavenging and basically living the feral life. One they dubbed Billy the Kid, the other two Jesse and James.
One of the ARNO volunteers would venture to the house over her lunch hour and sit on the porch, speaking to the pups in the hope that eventually her voice would become familiar and build trust. She fed them scraps of food and chatted them up over a period of months before workers were able to capture the three, bring them to the shelter and begin socializing them with the help of other volunteers.
Steckling started walking Billy the Kid. Jeanne would walk Jesse at the same time, and the two dogs would enjoy each other’s company — James, unfortunately, had died during treatment for heartworm. The camaraderie of the remaining littermates marked a behavioral shift for Billy, who displayed anxiety when he was on his own.
“I didn’t really bond with him at the shelter or really connect,” Steckling says. “I liked a lot of the dogs and I hadn’t had a dog since I was a kid, so (adoption) wasn’t really even on my mind. But after I got home — and I know this sounds Boulder-ish or cliché — but I started having dreams about him. And I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I need to adopt this dog.’”
Steckling gave ARNO a call to see if Billy was still available. He was, and the shelter put him on a plane to Denver, where she picked him up and began a long bonding process with the 2-year-old dog.
First, she changed his name to Jackie, in honor of one of her favorite volunteers at the New Orleans shelter who always seemed to have a calming effect on the dog. Later, a DNA test narrowed the pup’s origins to a combination of border collie, boxer and Staffordshire terrier.
LEFT: Volunteer Rob Mazzola handles Jessie for a photoshoot. RIGHT: Alexandrine, a shepherd mix. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: Volunteer Rob Mazzola handles Jessie for a photoshoot. BELOW: Alexandrine, a shepherd mix. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
A year into Jackie’s adjustment, when Steckling sensed that he seemed lonely, she dialed New Orleans again to see if Jesse was available for adoption. Soon, the two dogs were reunited.
“It was the best decision ever,” Steckling says. “They remembered each other and were just the best duo for their many years together.”
Jesse died at 9, but Jackie lived five more years. It’s been two years since Steckling lost him, and she hasn’t yet felt the time was right to reinvest her love in a new companion.
Steckling, 57, had developed a career in family portraiture before she and Jeanne embarked on their volunteer mission. But the experience — not so much the artistic element as the animal rescue vibe even in what she recalls as a rundown, bare-bones New Orleans facility — began to change her professional focus.
“This was not a pretty shelter,” she says of the ARNO facility. “But I really was attracted to the way that people care about the animals and the animals’ resiliency and just the whole process. And then the photographing of the animals just really kind of spoke to me, so I wanted to come home and do that at my local shelter.”
Among those in the area, she picked the Longmont facility, where she began to volunteer for all the usual tasks like dog walking and a practice of affectionate interaction simply called “dog TLC.” Eventually, she began helping on some photography projects, including some aimed at capturing the personality of dogs that had been there for a particularly long time, in the hope a compelling portrait might lead to adoption.
A dog named Yogi brought Steckling’s experience full circle. Trapped in the floodwaters of Katrina, his coat burned from waterborne chemicals, he was rescued in New Orleans but somehow ended up at the Longmont Humane Society. Perhaps because of his fur loss, Yogi attracted little interest — until new photos helped him find a loving home.
Eventually, Steckling built a program that, aside from her two days a week volunteering, includes another dog photographer and three cat photographers. When there’s a need for a new volunteer to fill any of the roles from handler to photographer, applicants get funneled to Steckling, who determines their skill level, trains and mentors them.
To Jeanne Steckling, the impact of the New Orleans experience “just felt like a thunderbolt,” and her sister’s continued devotion to volunteer photography seems just a natural consequence of the experience.
“I really think this is her life’s work,” Jeanne says.
Capturing the moment
On a sunny Sunday morning, Steckling has a list of nine new arrivals to photograph while, all around her, volunteers are walking dogs or supervising them as they splash in the fenced-in wading pools. She sets up in her usual spot, on a shaded side of the Humane Society building, in front of a waist-high gray concrete wall.
The setting isn’t what matters — in fact, there’s even been a study on that, which found that photo backgrounds have little, if any, impact on viewers’ impressions. It’s all about the dog, and today’s first arrival is a 3-year-old mutt named George, led on a thin leash (later Photoshopped out of the finished portrait) by volunteer Rob Mazzola. Coaxed by the squeaky toy and some treats, George responds with some classic poses.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” Steckling coos, “mouth open.”
Soon George is followed by 11-year-old Banana, surrendered by an owner who’d become homeless. Then comes Dave, a German shepherd, followed by Hotdog, a stray pug with an expressive mug that stares straight into Steckling’s lens. Next come Hershey, Mira, Koopa — a huge hound that seems about 90% floppy ears — and Alexandrine, a stray who’s skittish, but soon offers a fetching head tilt before sniffing out the extra treats in Steckling’s bag.
ABOVE LEFT: Steckling pets George, 3. ABOVE RIGHT: Steckling photographs Banana, 11. BELOW LEFT: Steckling gets her subjects’ attention with a squeaky toy. BELOW RIGHT: Steckling gets the attention of Hotdog, a pug, using a treat. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
FIRST: Steckling pets George, 3. SECOND: Steckling photographs Banana, 11. THIRD: Steckling gets her subjects’ attention with a squeaky toy. FORTH: Steckling gets the attention of Hotdog, a pug, using a treat. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
There’s also Jessie, a black female Lab mix who’s reluctant to settle down. A duck call, a squeaker — both elicit a steady bark. Nevertheless, Steckling gets her shot. Working with dogs required some trial and error, but certain skills transferred well from her work with human subjects. She absorbed a lot about dog behavior as she eased into her volunteer work in Longmont — when to approach, when to take her time.
“Dogs sometimes need a lot of space and a lot of time, so I can pick that up pretty quickly just in the first minute or two,” she says, “and I just continue to keep my eyes open on each individual dog and work with them in the way they need to be worked with.”
After a few shots, Steckling pulls out a collection of colorful bandanas from her bag — accessories provided by Indy & Olly’s, an Evergreen-based company committed to promoting dog adoptions by donating bandanas to spice up a dog’s appearance in shelter photos. When a dog seems agreeable to wearing one, Steckling slips it on and snaps a few extra shots.
“Hopefully they relax a little and just give me that nice little smile with a head tilt — that’s what I’m really going for,” she says. “I just have to work with each dog with what works for them.”
Deaf dogs can be challenging because they don’t always respond to her sounds. In those cases, she turns to visuals, like having a third volunteer stand behind the camera and jump and wave to elicit a reaction. Scared or shy dogs require patience — and sometimes recognition that they’re just not ready for their close-up. Even if the shoot fizzles, Steckling continues to interact with the dog until it appears to be relaxed in her presence.
She never wants a dog to have a bad experience.
“They don’t know what this black thing is in my hand, my camera, so I will let them sniff it and I’ll feed them treats by my camera,” she says. “I’ll click the shutter. If they don’t acclimate to that and start to relax, then I’ll just say, ‘Let’s try again next week.’”
At the other end of the behavior spectrum are the occasional subjects like Russell, a pup who loved the camera as much as the camera loved him. A few weeks ago, Steckling connected with him and found a dog that was confident, playful and so well trained that he would perform a whole routine of shaking with each paw and then rolling over.
“On cue,” she says, “every single time.”
So when Steckling needed to produce some stock images for the shelter’s social media accounts, she and Russell got together and had some fun.
“I started putting sunglasses on him,” she says, “and he was like, ‘Give me another pair.’ He would just do anything I wanted him to do. And he did actually get adopted.”
By the end of last year, Steckling surpassed 4,000 dogs photographed at the Longmont facility. Overall, the shelter has adopted out about 37,500 animals since 2010 (the earliest year in its records), Grosjean says — and either Steckling or the volunteers she trains and coordinates have produced their portraits.
“She has her hand in it all,” Grosjean says.
Occasionally, Steckling will do her shoot indoors, but mostly the photos are staged in front of the same gray wall. Props are minimal.
“This isn’t about trying to dress them up,” she says. “It’s just trying to bring out their personality. It’s all about the dog itself, not the setting. I try to keep it simple.”
From time to time, she’ll do specialty shoots for social media campaigns or to highlight some of the “longtimer” dogs who haven’t drawn much adoption interest. On these, she might introduce ice cream cones — that’s an upcoming project — or let them catch gently tossed treats, an exercise that can result in some eye-catching facial contortions.
But it’s always about freezing the telling moment, the priceless expression, that can connect an animal with a forever home.
“We really want their personality to shine,” Steckling says. “We want that to be the point of the photo.”