Adopt Me Photography: Cynthia Barker
We had the honor of speaking to Cynthia Barker, a passionate animal advocate who produces some of the most creative rescue pet photos we’ve seen. Please read on for her interview.
How did you become inspired to photograph rescue pets?
It is kind of a long story, lol. After my only child went off to college, I was a hobby photographer doing mostly nature shots when I found out about how horrible our city’s Animal Control was. This was in 2009. My husband was on the City Council at the time, and a new facility had been approved years previously but never funded. We had lived in our city for over 30 years by then but if we found a stray dog we would try to find the owners, or in a couple of cases we ended up keeping the dog, we had NEVER called Animal Control. So, my husband and I visited the facility and were pretty horrified. Only about 10 dog cages, a closet with a unit of 9 cages for the cats, absolutely no networking or trying to get the animals adopted, no vetting if they were hurt or sick, no walking or letting the animals out of their cages. If new ones came in and they were full, the ones there the longest or “least likely to be adopted” according to their assessment, were killed. There were several women volunteering there to walk the animals and trying to make their stay there a little better so we joined forces and created a new group aimed at getting the new facility built, and called ourselves the Friendswood Animal Advocates, became a 501c3.
With my husband’s help behind the scenes we advocated before the city council, a new facility was funded and built at the end of 2009. Meanwhile, I started photographing the animals at the old facility, my group put them on Facebook and the adoption sites. We had assurances from the Chief of Police (Animal Control is under the Police Department) that the new facility would be a Shelter and Adoption center also. A Shelter Manager position was created and was one was hired. She was awesome! I continued to photograph at the new facility for 5 years, but sadly the Supervisor retired and a new one was hired and he basically went back to the old policies.
Their standard for assessing an animal’s adoptability is very poor and out-dated and they began to kill so many animals that were just scared and were perfectly adoptable, ones that the volunteers were able to handle and I could photograph…blamed it on the city’s “liability”. The Shelter Manager had to leave, they pressured her so badly to euthanize so many animals that did not need to be killed. We again went before City Council to try to get them to either take the facility out from under the police department or to create a mandate to Shelter and Adopt the animals as well as the original mandate of protecting the citizens from stray animals. We tried for a year, but eventually our entire group pulled out, about 50 volunteers at that time, along with over $25,000 that we had contributed annually for vetting and for promoting lower adoptions.
So, since 2015 I have shot for rescues that pull animals from the high kill facilities, or strays off the streets of Houston. I must say that I do sleep better at night, but I still think about the animals that get impounded and probably don’t make it out alive from my own city’s Animal Control.
What are your goals with your photography?
First, I want to make the animal appeal to an adopter. I want them to see an image and fall in love! I want the animal to look cute and friendly and to connect with the camera so someone looking at the image can feel that connection. And I also really want to show a bit of their personality (which can be so hard to do when they are living in kennels even though they are safe in a boarding facility) by getting shots of them playing or being petted on by a volunteer. I try to show their true colors and size so that when someone looks at a photo they have a realistic idea of what the dog or cat looks like.
What does it mean to you to be an “animal advocate?”
Humans domesticated the dog and the cat and made them have to rely on us for their existence and we are also responsible for the huge overpopulation crisis…I don’t know how so many humans are able to ignore the animals they see on the streets in horrible conditions, or how some people can chain a dog, or not get them vetted so they get diseases or have litter after litter of babies…I think stronger laws need to be made, laws in place need to be enforced, more low cost vetting needs to be made available, etc.
It is really overwhelming when you think about the whole homeless animal crisis, but I am very glad to be able to advocate in my community. I think we are making a difference here. My group, the Friendswood Animal Advocates now tries to keep animals out of Animal Control in the first place — if someone finds a stray animal, we immediately post on Facebook to try to find the owners. If no owner comes forward and the finder is willing to foster, we will help them pay for vetting, I take photos and we put them on FB and the adoption sites as available for adoption. We are also active in TNR, and will help trap and sterilize stray cats and if the kittens are young enough we will try to get them adopted rather than returned to that location (which is a bit of a sticky point as our police department does not support them being returned to a location).
We set up every month at our Farmer’s Market with the animals that are available for adoption, and every other weekend at Petsmart. Right now I am kept so busy photographing for 4 rescues regularly and also trying to fit in others that ask, I am not active on the political front. For a while I attended No Kill conferences and I totally support those efforts. I see great progress being made in communities around us, and in places like Austin, but it makes me so sad to see what my city is still doing. I live in an affluent suburb outside of Houston but it seems like more people here care about getting a new soccer field than the fact that perfectly adoptable animals are being killed at our Animal Control.
Why do you think it is important to adopt a rescue pet and not shop?
I think there will always be those people who want, or think they want, a certain “breed” of dog or cat. I was there 25 years ago when I wanted to get my son his own dog, though I do not think we had the crisis then that we do now. I didn’t know that awesome animals are dying at facilities every minute for lack of a new home. I think it is the No Kill movement that says there are actually enough adopters out there to give homes to those waiting in facilities if only we could stop the new litters.
In the northern states there is not nearly the overpopulation that we have in the south and that is partly due to the winters that the stray animals do not survive…But in any case, adopting an animal saves lives — the life of that animal and the life of the next one that can be taken in. I just saw a statement that 650,000 dogs die every year in US facilities because they did not get adopted…that is not even including the cats. Here many more cats get killed as they do even worse in cages and after being trapped than the dogs do, and I think felines start reproducing even younger than dogs do. Adopting an animal instead of purchasing it is one way to get that horrible statistic lowered.
Do you have any rescue pets of your own?
Yes, of course! We just lost one of 2 dogs that my husband brought home from our local small plane airport years ago. We have had Toby 13 years, and we had Pearl for 10. I also used to foster when I volunteered at Animal Control and have 5 cats as a result of foster failing. We had a dog that we foster failed with from Animal Control for a year until he died of complications of diabetes, or something we could never identify, though not from lack of trying. So a few years ago I had 4 dogs and 5 cats and now we are at 1 dog and 5 cats. We really need to downsize and move to a home more suited for fostering and where we can legally have more animals, but we were flooded last August in Hurricane Harvey and now we will need to wait a few years for the market to recover on flooded homes…we had never flooded before after building here in 1989.
What are some of your most memorable photo shoots?
When I was still at Animal Control we got in a big ol’ marshmallow of a dog, some kind of bully breed mix. He was a lover and an awesome dog, but kept being passed over. So we decided to do a special shoot with Boscoe, and the woman that helped me with photos agreed to let us use her red Lexus convertible. I wanted to get a shot of Boscoe looking out as they drove by, with the background all blurry to show motion. So we went to a wooded subdivision and Tina drove around and around past me as my husband and another woman yelled and jumped up and down to get Boscoe to look at us while they drove past. It took quite a few attempts to get the speed of the car right, Boscoe in a good position, the flash pointed right, etc etc. When we stopped I was pretty horrified at the DROOL that was dripping down both the inside and the outside of her luxury car…I had no idea and couldn’t see it when photographing! But she was fine… though she did say it took quite a bit of effort to clean her car! Boscoe got a FABULOUS forever home, and that image even was selected as a finalist in that year’s Barkitecture photo contest in Houston. Tina even agreed to do it again a few years later with another long term dog!
Another shoot I will never forget was of my own foster kittens. I fostered for quite a while keeping the cat or litter of kittens in a spare bedroom and bathroom, and they got adopted quickly so my husband never really interacted with them. Then I decided to take in a nursing mama cat and her 7 kittens…that year was really busy with a high intake of cats and kittens, and mine did not get adopted quickly so I decided to do another photo session and had my husband help me. The litter had had one orphan kitten added to it just before I took them in, and it happened to be a little Siamese mix while the others were tabbies and black kittens. While photographing, the Siamese kitten, Lacey, ended up falling asleep in my husband’s hands…and that was it, he could not give her up! And that was the same time that things were falling apart with my group’s relationship with Animal Control so I ended up keeping the mama cat and 2 other kittens, plus Lacey and another adult cat that I had foster failed with a couple of years previously. I will never name a litter again with names all starting with the same letter — the mama was Lana so I named the kittens Luke, Leo, Lane, Leila, Lorna, Lily and Lacey…and now I have Lana, Luke, Lorna, and Lacey so it can get a bit confusing sometimes!