Scrolling through shelter animals online can be a grim affair. Out of focus, nervous and shadowed dogs. Dimly lit cats that often look scared and awkward.
Worse yet, often there's no picture at all — just a place holder and the sad phrase, "Photo not available."
But not at the Baltimore Humane Society.
There, nearly every cat, dog, bunny and gerbil is captured in sunny light, looking happy, healthy and beckoning, thanks to the work of one volunteer who happens to be a professional photographer.
In the six years Mary Swift has been taking pictures of animals at the Reisterstown shelter, she's captured the faces — and some would say the spirits — of more than 3,000 animals. Many of them found homes — who knows how many hundreds? — mainly because Swift took the time to make sure a dog seemed to be smiling or a cat's eyes shined in their snapshot.
"Some of these animals are so shy or depressed from shelter life that potential adopters would never notice them but for the touching profile photos that she posts on the Baltimore Humane Society website," says Caroline Griffin, president of the Humane Society board. "Some adopters come into our shelter with her photographs in hand.
"I often wonder how many suffering animals have found a new life thanks to her efforts."
Swift, 30, makes her living as a professional photographer specializing in pets. In fact, if it's not four-legged and furry, one probably can't pay Swift to shoot it. "I don't shoot weddings, senior portraits, newborns," she bluntly states on her business website. "I stick to what I love."
In college at the University of Arkansas, she double-majored in art and zoology. Photography and animals. Swift knew what she wanted.
"I can't think of a second of my life where I was without a pet," she says. "It's the whole unconditional love thing. They love you, and they never judge."
She and her husband, Brian, were lured to Baltimore from Arkansas in 2004, when he got an engineering job at Northrop Grumman. They brought along a talkative orange cat named Simba and a shyer kitty named Rajah. Not long after moving into a home in the county, the couple began volunteering with the Humane Society — starting with the rabbits.
They'd clean cages and dole out affection, until Swift heard the shelter needed help taking pictures of available animals, a critical job because in the Internet age, so many families searching for pets start with an online search. Who's available? Who's cute? Who's tugging at my heartstrings?
What started out as shooting a dog here, a kitten there, to pinch-hit quickly became Swift shooting every last furry beast herself — an all-consuming, occasionally overwhelming and utterly gratifying role.
While most shelter volunteers work an hour or two a week, that's just warm-up time for Swift. When she comes in for her usual Sunday service, there could be dozens of new animals waiting for their close-ups. She's determined to shoot them all, and that can take hours — as many as four. But even when she leaves, there's editing to do at home and images to post online.
"Sometimes," she admits, "it falls into Monday."
One of the hundreds of animals whose picture Swift shot was a border collie who'd been at the Humane Society for some time, but not put up for adoption because she was having a hard time with shelter life. Once Swift fixed her lens on that sweet face and got a hand into the thick black and white fur, she knew.
"I said, that's it, we're putting in an application right now." She brought the pup home and named her Keira.
Many times since Keira she's half-fallen in love with a dog or a cat while she's shooting its picture. But her house is full. And if she forgets that, her husband is happy to remind her. "We can't save all of them," she says, a bit grudgingly. "We do what we can, you know?"
Recently, Swift started a shift by opening a cage shared by Reese and Samantha, two handsome kitties with thick fur and tiger stripes. Samantha, who'd been sitting so prettily in a fluffy cat bed, immediately picked up and headed, most un-photogenically, for the litter. "Come on," Swift cajoled. "You don't want your picture in the litter box, do you?"
When Swift decided to focus on Reese and leave the litter-bound Samantha for later, Samantha decided what she really wanted to do was head for the cage door and jump for freedom.
Next came a gray and black tabby named Gunner, an escape artist who made Samantha's contortions look like amateur hour. Swift laughed as time and time again, over a number of minutes, Gunner made break after break for it. When her husband, who works as her assistant and chief animal wrangler, finally distracted Gunner with a mouse, Swift was the one to pounce, hitting the shutter with a "Finally!"