Animal shelters reach out with TV

Local cable is used to find pet homes

May 13, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

As is often the case on an outdoor film set, interruptions occurred. Traffic noise forced the production crew to stop work, performers showed up late and narrators needed time to settle into position.

The difference is that the stars of this Harford County production are former stray critters that the local animal shelter is attempting to place in a home through a show on the local cable provider.

"We are trying to make these animals attractive to larger numbers of people," said Tammy Zaluzney, executive director of the Humane Society of Harford County. "This program can get people interested and get them here."

The Harford County animal shelter and Comcast Cable Co. are collaborating to produce "Pet Adoption On Demand," a short spot viewers can tune into any time and study a parade of potential pets. The feature, which began last week, is available to 600,000 homes in the Baltimore region that are subscribers to the company's digital cable service.

Shelters and animal rescue groups are relying increasingly on technology to find homes for pets. Only about 17 percent of people searching for pets visit shelters, with the majority going to pet shops, said Kim Intino, director of shelter issues for the Humane Society of the United States.

"With such competition, shelters have to be more innovative and nontraditional," she said. "They are using local TV and radio to come right into consumers' homes. They are already doing video dating. Why not video adoptions?"

Many shelters feature pets on cable access or post pictures and brief animal bios on their Web sites to attract owners.

"We are using a lot of different mechanisms, and they are all a big success," said Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff, director of the Carroll County Humane Society, who has showcased a wide variety of animals on public access TV for several years. "TV, computers, whatever it takes to put these animals in the public eye, can be a huge help."

Ratliff's "Best Pals," which typically features hard-to-place breeds, has led to adoptions of "anything we have got," including reptiles, rats, exotic birds, goats -- even a grapefruit-sized tarantula.

"If I get a short-haired Chihuahua in here, I don't have to put it on TV," she said. "It will be gone before it gets to its water bowl."

The Harford shelter's first program is on Comcast's Get Local, an on-demand option that is available in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties to nearly 600,000 customers, said Jeff Alexander, company spokesman.

The first show has found homes for nearly all of the featured animals, Zaluzney said.

"We are excited about this terrific opportunity to help us find forever homes for these pets," she said.

The second segment, filmed last week at the shelter in Fallston and set to air this week, features 10 dogs and five cats. The animals include Floppy, a 2-year-old female basset hound who has gone from roaming the streets to showing off her flowing brown ears; Crimson, a frisky 2-year-old shepherd-lab mix female, who gives full-body wags; and Arianna, a Bombay feline that exhibited coy disinterest in the proceedings.

A few mugged for the cameras, while others stepped on the microphone or squirmed out of range of the camera. Zaluzney displayed name cards, coached from the background and offered treats to reluctant performers. She had prepared the basic script, complete with whatever biographical information is known.

But, as is often the case in the land of promotional TV, a different vernacular was employed.

Laura Ulrich, the shelter's administration director who doubles as program commentator, did not want to say a cat had arrived pregnant. She settled on "in a family way." Animals were "mature" not "old," and some admittedly needed a bit of the obedience training offered at the shelter, which will house about 6,000 animals this year.

When Crimson jumped off the bench seconds into her segment and tugged relentlessly on her leash, Ulrich smiled.

"She would be a great walking buddy, and you could bring her back for obedience classes," she said.

Each segment began on a park bench, with the commentator playfully handling the animal. It continued as the dog subjects surveyed the yard, played fetch or, in a few beagle instances, tried to dig under the fence.

"On camera, a dog's personality comes through," said Derek Siebert, Comcast production manager.

The cats remained seated, although Arianna forced Ulrich to swivel in several directions to give viewers the best look at her face.

The producers let the shelter staff select the pets, the pun-filled commentary and the spontaneous action. Zaluzney frequently had to wave from behind the camera to get a pet to look in the right direction.

Willy, a shepherd mix puppy, licked at commentator Adrianne Lefkowitz's long hair and forced a retake when he tangled with the microphone line.

"He doesn't know how to play with people," Zaluzney said.

Nobody groaned when Lefkowitz quipped, "Help us free Willy."

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