LOS ANGELES - When a dog or cat arrives at an animal shelter in a large city, it often is confused, scared, dirty and disoriented from a harsh life on the street, coupled with the alien experience of being captured and transported to a strange shelter.
At this point, the animals often have their photos taken, and this photo of a dejected, often abused animal is the face that people looking to potentially adopt a pet see online or on fliers. Professional photographer Seth Casteel knew there must be a better way, one that showed animals' good qualities and made adoption more likely.
"The animal's photo is its calling card, and a good photo is the difference between life and death to these potential pets," said Casteel, who was born and raised in Decatur before finding a calling among the animal shelters of California. "When you see a good photo of a pet, you're going to notice it. Plus, good photos not only attract more attention to the pets but help combat the image of the shelter as a terrible place."
Casteel runs a pet photography business in Los Angeles called Little Friends Lifestyle Pet Photography. He takes "personality shots" of owners and their pets but got into the business through an act of pet charity while working a previous job at film producer Sony Pictures.
"There were groups of feral cats who lived on the studio lot, and every now and then, we would run into a litter of kittens," Casteel said. "I started taking playful photos of the kittens, and the pictures really helped them find homes before they ended up feral as well."
This experience led Casteel toward his second career as a pet photographer but also inspired him to a new calling at Los Angeles animal shelters. At the West Los Angeles Animal Care Center, Casteel volunteers each week, taking professional photos of dogs and cats that need homes.
These photos have had an impact. Adoption rates are high. People come into the shelter holding printouts of Casteel's photos, looking for dogs that otherwise might have died in captivity.
"Good photos with happy animals are able to give you a chance to connect with the dog's personality," Casteel said. "I try to capture moments that showcase unique pets' personalities and show their attitudes and what makes them special."
Capt. Louis Dedeaux of the West Los Angeles shelter believes that Casteel's photography has been especially helpful in finding homes for older animals that have lost some of the "spring in their step."
"He really helps most with the old dogs," Dedeaux said. "He gets them playing and looking happier and takes the time to show that they can still be energetic. A lot of those animals go on to find good homes."
Casteel was making an impact, albeit in a different area, before he left Decatur at 18 to go to college in Orange County, Calif. He was the driving force behind Eisenhower High School's first "video yearbook" in 1999, acquiring a $15,000 grant from the school district to start a working production studio at the high school. The two-hour yearbook film premiered in downtown Decatur at the Avon Theatre.
"He was one of my favorite students in 16 years of teaching, and he was a great leader in this building," said Lisa Betzer, a teacher of debate and drama at Eisenhower. "I still remember him wandering the halls with his video camera, getting slice-of-life shots. The principal wasn't even behind the video yearbook at first, but Seth was able to convince her that it was a good idea. I think what he's doing in California is wonderful."
One thing that remains unchanged 10 years later is the love of animals that Casteel has possessed ever since he was a young boy.
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"I was always captivated by animals of all kinds, and I spent many hours down at the creek, looking for frogs," he said. "We had a wonderful dog, a mini-dachshund named Duchess, for 17 years."
Since then, Casteel has had many pets, including "dozens of lizards" and even baby alligators. Now he has only two dogs, both rescued from Los Angeles shelters: Madison, a Finnish Spitz, and Nala, a mini Labradoodle. Since he started photographing shelter animals in 2007, he has been at the local shelters every week in an effort to find the animals a home.
"It's one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had," Casteel said. "I believe all of these animals are deserving of a second chance, and it's probably not their fault that they ended up at this shelter."
In addition to taking photos himself, Casteel has been teaching shelter volunteers in Los Angeles how to take better photos of the shelter animals. He believes this will continue to help them combat portrayals of shelters as negative places, filled with tired, "worn-out" animals that do not deserve a new home.
"Seth enhances our efforts to show how caring and modern the shelter is," Dedeaux said. "We're trying to get away from the negative perception that some people have, and I can't say enough how much we appreciate everything that he does to help us."
When he returns to Decatur to visit family, Casteel said he would like to become involved with Macon County shelters.
"It would be great to take some photos of the shelter dogs in Decatur and help them find some new homes the next time I'm in town," Casteel said.
In the course of running a pet photography business, Casteel has seen it all. He has yet to photograph owners with any exotic pets but has fielded inquiries about pet/owner photos of turtles, snakes, chinchillas and other animals.
"A lot of people are crazy about their pets," he said. "Are some people a little too crazy about them? Yes. But I'm very excited as a whole about how well people treat their pets these days and the impact I'm able to have with the volunteer aspect."
Casteel's photography ultimately saves the lives of deserving dogs and cats every day. But despite the pride he might be expected to feel, Casteel believes the animals have touched him more than he has affected them.
"These animals are so willing to forgive people, and the attitudes of the pets are so positive," he said. "I have learned a lot by just watching these dogs, and I think people who come to the shelter can learn a lot as well."