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A Lifesaving Lens
With time running out, “death-row dogs” have a friend in photographer Carolyn Evans
Top: Carolyn Evan

Carolyn Evans spends her days as the “Phodographer” of the Cincinnati area, snapping keepsake photos of beloved pets. In her off time, though, she’s a passionate crusader for shelter dogs, using her photography skills to take photos of dogs who have run out of time at a shelter. With a click of the shutter, she can capture the essence of a lonely pup on the brink.

Evans distributes her photos online to give these “death-row dogs” one more chance at adoption. She has a particular soft spot for Pit Bulls, currently banned in Cincinnati, and her photos reflect the true nature of happy, healthy Pits.

She says: “Just like receiving a gift in a Tiffany’s box, I think that seeing a professionally photographed image, and knowing that someone cared enough about this animal to invest in a professional photograph, sends a very different message than what many think of when considering an animal from a shelter.”

Recently, I asked Evans about her rescue projects, her own dogs and how she balances her work and activism.

In your daily life, you’re a professional pet photographer for happy families. Once a week, though, you photograph shelter dogs who are about to be euthanized. How do you handle those two extremes?

Carolyn Evans: When I’m at the shelter, I have to try checking my emotions at the door and focus on the task at hand. The fact that the dog needs help, craves attention and doesn’t know anything about their possible fate helps me focus. Dogs definitely live in the here and now, and all they know is that someone has come in to give them some special attention. Afterwards, it’s definitely more difficult to keep my emotions in check. But it helps to have others that I work with who have looked into the eyes of these very same dogs and who are going through the same emotional rollercoaster. We lean on each other for support and draw strength from one another.

In my professional life, I meet some of the happiest, most loved, pampered pooches you could ever imagine. I guess that’s just life, and the disparity amongst these dogs is no different than the “haves” and the “have-nots” of our world. I know I can’t change that. But I’m glad that I have clients who adore their own dogs as much as they do—that’s why I get along with them so well.

What’s it like for you when you find out one of the photographed dogs didn’t make it?

Let me tell you, it isn’t easy. I obviously go into this knowing that there is a distinct possibility that a dog I photograph will not make it. Knowing this in advance helps me sort through and brace myself. For the most part, I’m not going to be taken completely by surprise, but it is never, ever easy to accept the cold hard fact when I learn that a particular animal is gone. Every single loss leaves its mark. It is something that weighs heavily on my mind. But these are all my emotions and they have nothing to do with the dogs. So for me, my wanting to spare myself these emotions is not a reason to deny the dogs another opportunity for a better shot at getting out.

Do you go to the same shelter every week?

I work with several rescue groups that pull animals from a number of different shelters in the area. In fact, the way that I got involved in pet photography to begin with was that I formed Happy Tails in 1997, a nonprofit organization to promote animal adoptions from local animal shelters through stories and photographs of rescued pets. At the time, I wanted to find a way to help local shelters, but I was leery of committing to walking/socializing dogs that may not be alive the next time I visited. Emotionally, I wasn’t sure that I could handle it back then, so I found another way to make a contribution. It took me a long time to muster the courage to actually photograph dogs at risk—“death-row dogs.”

Where are the photos posted?

The photos are posted on several different websites and in social networking arenas. It depends on the particular group that I am working with, or stipulations of the shelter.

Facebook has proven to be an effective medium for spreading the message far and wide when an animal needs rescue … [but] Facebook tends to elicit stronger emotions and people will act on impulse and a desire to save a dog. The intentions are good, but it’s not the best approach for a good match. Probably the most effective placement of my photos is by rescue coordinators who send regular “urgent” emails to rescue groups in their network. These are not posted publicly, but rather go directly to rescue groups who are in a position to take animals into their rescue groups/foster network and are actively looking for animals to take into their rescue.

How effective have your photographs been in getting dogs adopted?

In general, a photograph alone will not save a dog, but it is an important component of an overall rescue strategy. And it is essential to have a good quality photo to help an animal get noticed in the sea of animals looking for a home. Nowadays, so many people are starting their search for a pet online and rescue groups are pulling dogs from many different shelters initially based on a photograph and description of the animal. People will travel many miles to adopt a dog they’ve never met, but who caught their eye in a photograph. So, just having a good, clear, well-lit, expressive photo (taken by anyone) is going to improve an animal’s chances at rescue.

Thankfully, there are many photographers out there these days who are volunteering their professional services to help local shelters and rescue groups photograph their animals. There are even networks and forums for those who want to get involved and to help find volunteers.

[For example, see our story on HeARTs Speak, a nonprofit alliance of photographers volunteering their services for shelters and rescues.]

How is Cincinnati’s Pit Bull ban affecting families in your city?

Families are being torn apart when family dogs are seized and killed based on appearance alone. And just like anything else, once something is banned, it suddenly becomes “cool and desirable” to the wrong crowd and the only people who will have whatever is banned are the very people who shouldn’t have it in the first place. The City of Cincinnati employs two full-time police officers dedicated to identifying Pit Bulls. Instead of targeting reckless owners to keep our community safe, innocent dogs are being killed, and the public is not protected from dangerous or vicious dogs because the ban is based on appearance and not behavior.

Were you always a fan of Pit Bulls, or did something change your mind?

My family had the most incredible Pit Bull mix named Moose when we were growing up. This was many years ago, before we even knew what a Pit Bull was, so we had no preconceived notions about the breed. Moose was simply the best family dog we could have ever dreamed of for our family of six kids, so I’ve never had any reason to have anything but positive feelings for the breed. But today, Pit Bulls are so unfairly discriminated against.

Tell me a little about your pups at home.

Our two dogs, Abby (a Border Collie/Lab mix) and Capt. Jack (the best looking Golden Retriever mix I’ve ever met), both came into our lives not long after our first two dogs had passed. My husband was adamant that we wait a bit before bringing more dogs into our family, but he is the one who actually made the first move to adopt both of these dogs, so I was glad to see that now it’s not just me, but also my husband, who is willingly taking rescue dogs into our lives.

Abby was a stray that was found wandering the streets of Covington, Ky., in an area where animals are frequently abandoned or dumped. I received an urgent email and we decided to foster her until we could find a home for her. Four years later, she’s still with us! Jack was the furriest, biggest (cutest) puppy at an adoption event that I wasn’t supposed to go to. After telling me that IF we were going to get another dog, it wouldn’t be (1) a puppy, (2) a large dog, and (3) a long-haired, furry dog, my husband picked this little bundle of joy out of the pack.

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Kathleen St. John is a freelance writer for target The Denver Post and The Onion's A.V. Club, and a lifelong dog lover. She lives in Denver, Colo., with her husband, John, and her dog, Daisy, who's a mix of just about everything. avclub.com

Photo of BJ by Carolyn Evans.

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Submitted by Catie V | August 26 2011 |

EXCELLENT article! Carolyn is an inspiration to all who love animals and want to see an end to euthanasia of "unwanted" pets. We should all be spreading the word for people to spay or neuter their dogs and cats.

Thank you, Carolyn, for your efforts in saving so many shelter dogs!

Submitted by Carolyn Evans | August 26 2011 |

Thank you, The Bark and Kathleen St. John, for sharing this story of how my friends and I try to help death row dogs here in Cincinnati! We love our pitties, and are doing what we can to change hearts and minds - and laws - here in the City of CIncinnati

Submitted by John | August 26 2011 |

Carolyn is doing great work. Education and awareness of the plight of pound pooches will help to decrease their numbers. Great article.

Submitted by Carolyn Evans | August 27 2011 |

Thanks Bark and Kathleen St. John, for sharing the story of how my friends and I are rescuing death row dogs. There is such a misconception about shelter animals and why they are homeless. So having advocates - rescues, transporters, vets & techs, photographers - lending a hand and their professional skills to help promote animals goes a long way toward getting them noticed, and ultimately, adopted!

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