Real estate photographer Ginger Monteleone has been making headlines recently -- but not for her pictures of dining rooms and yachts. Monteleone has been photographing a much cuddlier set: dogs in need of rescue. And she's taken her love for four-legged friends even further by starting her own rescue group, Big Hearts for Big Dogs Rescue.
Cali, Monteleone's first foster dog, is to blame. After learning of the dog's mistreatment by its previous owners, Monteleone knew she needed to help. She began fostering Cali, and posted photos of her on Facebook to entice potential adopters. But when they came to pick her up, Monteleone had a hard time letting go.
"With Cali, I got so much fulfillment from it that, even when I struggled, I wanted to keep her. When the Smiths came to pick her up, I was crying. My husband said, 'let them take her now or you never will.'"
Monteleone realized that she needed to complete her mission -- not only to rescue Cali and foster her, but to find her a home.
"I needed to complete the cycle," says Montelone. "Finding her a home left a space open in my home."
Monteleone decided to offer up her skills as a photographer to animal rescue groups, taking color shots of dogs that allowed their personalities to shine through -- and helping hundreds of pets find good homes. She also began volunteering at Miami-Dade County Animal Services, helping individuals and families find the right dog for their situation, in addition to taking and marketing photos of the dogs on her own site.
In November 2010, she took her mission of getting dogs adopted a step further: she created her own rescue group focused on caring for larger breed dogs that are normally overlooked.
"I guess I did it so that I could help specific breeds of dogs that other people don't normally take in," says Monteleone. "Smaller dogs were being rescued more often, adopted faster. Big dogs were always left." She says that even donations to the shelter, like blankets for the winter, were geared at small dogs. Large black dogs, in particular, are repeatedly passed over for adoption; there's even a name for the phenomenon -- black dog syndrome.
That being said, Monteleone will help any dog that needs it.
"We've had some small dogs, we always joke, 'sneak' into our rescue somehow," she said. "We'll take them in. We are a big dog rescue but we wouldn't turn our back on small dogs in need."
Since the group's inception, it has saved 30 dogs and adopted out 19. Many have been pit bulls, which are banned in Miami.
Monteleone's rescue group is foster-based, with no shelter or facility. Their small network of foster homes varies in size, but always includes Monteleone's house, a satellite office in Fort Meyers and one in West Palm, and a select few others.
Big Hearts recently took in one very ill dog after the Miami-Dade shelter was hit by a storm of infectious diseases and forced to get rid of all their dogs. The pit bull, who had been confiscated from a fight ring, was so sick Monteleone wasn't sure he was going to make it. But he's now recovering at a vet's in Fort Lauderdale, and Monteleone says he was a "pile of love" when she went to walk him last week.
NBC News recently covered Monteleone's efforts to get dogs adopted through photographs. She says that since it aired, she's received a barrage of communications from photographers who want to do their own version of her photo project.
"This week, I've been contacted by several photographers, professional and novice, who want to help in their communities. One photographer, a real estate photographer like me, emailed me to tell me that he wanted to do it; then he actually called me after his first photo shoot and said 'I just did it!' When he first contacted the shelter, they weren't interested. He forwarded them the NBC video, and after they watched, they said 'Absolutely! Please come in."
How You Can Help
So what does Monteleone tell fellow photographers that want to follow in her footsteps? That the most important thing is just getting photos of the animals out there.
"It's going to be harder for people that don't have a background in marketing to market their images for the pets, but a picture really is worth a thousand words. It generates a response, it generates an emotion. People will go down to a shelter because they saw one picture of an animal and just fell in love." (See below for more tips on how photographers can start their own photo pages.)
As for the non-photographers that want to help? Though she says it's become cliché, Monteleone reiterates that getting pets fixed is still the best way to cut down on the number of pets in a shelter, because animals that haven't been fixed are the often the ones escaping from yards to follow their urges.
"The number one thing is to spay or neuter. We've all heard it a thousand times, but I don't think anyone really realizes the seriousness until they go into a shelter and see how many dogs are dying."
Monteleone's 12-year-old autistic son, Sebastian, has been a huge help with the rescue dogs; she refers to him as her "junior rescue super hero." Now, when he tells her, "Mommy, every dog should have their own home," Monteleone tells him, "we're working on it."
Fellow photographers can share their favorite rescue photos, offer advice, and network on Monteleone's Flickr Group page.
Buy a dog a toy or donate dog food from Big Hearts's wish list. It will be shipped directly to them.
Want to act now? Check out dogs currently available for adoption and Monteleone's tips for volunteering your photographic services.
Ginger Monteleone's tips for photographers:
Reach out to local rescue groups and/or your local shelter. You can find local rescue groups at www.Petfinder.com or www.AdoptaPet.com. Most local cities will have a county-run animal shelter as well as a Humane Society.
Some shelters may be hesitant about using your pictures. It would be ideal for the shelter to use the photos as their pet listing image. If they are unwilling, the images can be marketed online through Facebook. Every city in America has a rescue community working on Facebook. Find a very active "cross-poster" (someone who post shelter dogs looking for homes) in your area and offer them the images with the dogs' information, such as ID number, for posting.
Any rescue group would LOVE to have great shots of their adoptable dogs to market. Offer a free afternoon and have them meet you at a park with their adoptable dogs. You will never get turned down.
When taking shelter images, I normally take a picture of the kennel card after each animal so that I have the animal's ID number and description. This is crucial for cross-posting images or for the shelter to match each dog with its ID number.
A tired dog is a happy dog. Ask the rescue group to walk any dogs you will be shooting first. Dogs seem to "smile" more after a nice long walk.
Get low! Shooting a dog at eye level gives the viewer a more accurate idea of the dog's size.
If you are shooting a very energetic dog... catch him in action, either running or jumping for a ball. Someone out there is looking for their next jogging partner, agility dog or Frisbee player. Play to the dogs' strengths.
It makes for a great picture if the dog is off leash, but that's not always possible in city parks with leash laws. Invest in a 15-foot training lead and let the dog free-roam a bit. Try to not take a picture of a tight leash or someone pulling on the leash. Also try to only capture the dog and not someone's legs, feet, arms, etc.
Create a pet photo bag with fun accessories to use on the dogs, anything to make the photos catchier. Bandanas, cute hats, holiday related items, toys, etc.
Don't forget to bring your bag of tricks, I mean, treats!