January 25, 2022
Photographer Traer Scott will be sharing her photographs and stories of shelter dogs featured in her book “Finding Home: Shelter Dogs and Their Stories.”
The lecture will take place on March 9, 2022, at 6:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building ballroom at 800 National Ave. Admission is free, but seating will be limited to 120 attendees to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Scott, who is the author of 12 books, describes her childhood home as a menagerie. Her mom volunteered at the Natural History Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, and become an unofficial wildlife rehabber so Scott’s home was filled with a rotating cast of animals from a flying squirrel, snakes, and a screech owl—and many dogs. Scott said she became vegetarian at age 13, trick or treated for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—or ASPCA, and advocated for animal rights, but it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she began volunteering in animal shelters.
“I was always one of those people who said ‘I can’t volunteer at a shelter—it’s too sad, I’ll want to take all the dogs home,’” said Scott. “You know, all the excuses people make. And they’re valid excuses, but it’s a barrier to protect yourself.”
Scott began volunteering as the result of an article she was assigned about Katenna Jones’ work in animal behavior. Jones was in graduate school at the time and studying the ways training and socialization increased adoption rates in shelter dogs. The shelter where both Jones and Scott volunteered had a small staff and an incredibly high euthanasia rate.
“The intake was 1,500 dogs a year, which is huge. It was a bad place at the time,” said Scott. “And because I was a photographer, they had me take a photo of every single dog that came in.”
In the days before social media, Scott said dogs were only adopted if people came into the shelter, but when she began volunteering the website Petfinder had just become a new tool for shelters trying to increase adoption rates.
“We started posting the dogs on Petfinder having realized things that everyone knows now—that having good photos of an animal really increases their visibility increases their adoptability,” said Scott. “Back then, nobody was really talking or thinking about these things.”
Scott said she took hundreds and hundreds of photos of the dogs, but adoption still wasn’t the norm.
“One night I was going through files on my computer and I realized how many of the photos belonged to dogs that didn’t make it out,” said Scott. “I just couldn’t delete them. It was so hard to see good dogs be killed every week. I decided I needed to find a way to get the message out about this.”
What began as a photo series to memorialize the shelter dogs she had worked with, eventually became her first book, Shelter Dogs. While meeting with an editor in Santa Fe, Scott said she showed an older photo series with costumed models but the editor wasn’t interested and asked if she had anything else. When she pulled xeroxed copies of her dog series out of her bag, the editor offered Scott a book deal on the spot.
“It was the basis of ‘Shelter Dogs,’” said Scott. “So we made ‘Shelter Dogs’ and it was this really small print run. They expected it to be a small art book. But then, the week before the book came out, it just kind of blew up. I was in Life Magazine, I was on the CBS Morning Show—suddenly, this little book became a huge book and we ended up raising over $40,000 for the ASPCA through the sales of the book.”
The unexpected platform motivated Scott to continue her work to raise awareness about animals through her photography and she went on to publish many other books. In 2015, ten years after publishing “Shelter Dogs,” Scott published a companion book to her first book called “Finding Home.”
“Finding Home” will be the focus of Scott’s presentation at Highlands on October 13, which features black and white photographs, stories about the dogs, and resources.
“I was no longer volunteering on the front lines so I was able to go in as a documentarian and have a little separation,” said Scott. “I also had people helping me, so I had more background information on these dogs.”
Scott said that in the 10 years between the two books, adoption rates had skyrocketed and she’s happy that conversation about adoption has filtered into pop culture. Other hot button issues, such as puppy mills and dog fighting are featured in her book forthcoming in the spring of 2022. The book, “Forever Home,” will be her thirteenth, and is the third in her shelter series.
“It’s the same, but it’s different—it’s all color and it’s focused on stories,” said Scott. “Every dog has a really moving, poignant story. I’m really excited about that, because I get to tell 30 dogs’ stories.”
When “Shelter Dogs” was published, Scott said there was a huge movement to raise awareness about adoption.
“When I made ‘Shelter Dogs,’ there was this perception that dogs in shelters were broken, that they were dangerous, or they’d all been abused,” said Scott. “They’re not undesirable, they’re just unlucky. Some do have behavioral problems, but there are so many good dogs and even the ones who have behavioral problems usually come around with a little bit of training and some love.”
Scott said social media has really helped to raise awareness and visibility for shelter animals, as well as financial support through donations. Still, she stressed that good photographs can be key to increasing a dog’s chance at adoption.
“I still work with one shelter where I go in whenever they have a new dogs that are going to be harder to place because they’re older, or they have medical issues, or they are old pitbulls,” said Scott. “I’ll go in and take photos so that they have extra good pictures of them. Dogs that have the worst pictures don’t get as many applications or visitors. Black dogs are really tough to photograph so they can suffer a lot. It’s a very real problem.”
Scott said she used to have to convince people to consider adoption, so she’s been happy to see that most people now try that first.
“I would like to think that my work helped,” said Scott. “Perception has changed immensely, and that has been through exposure, through media, through books, and through visibility for shelter animals.”
Although Scott has not been back to New Mexico since she landed her first book deal, she said she’s excited to return.
“I’m definitely looking forward to coming and looking forward to sharing my work with everybody,” said Scott.