Most folks, when they hear the term “herding cats”, think about trying to manage a group of independent people. While I can relate (and maybe my old bosses could when they saw me coming), these days “herding cats” takes on a more literal meaning for me.
Literal cat herding implies manipulating cats into going where I want them to go and doing what I want them to do when they, being cats, have other ideas. This is exactly the problem I face when I do cat photography for the Oregon Humane Society adoption website.
I’ve volunteered at OHS for over a year now, working on the cattery side (i.e. I work in a cat house.) New volunteers start with simple “socializing” (aka petting cats and trying to help them relax around all those other cattitudes), and cleaning. After you’ve put some time in and have gotten used to working with cats of differing temperaments, you can learn to present cats for adoption. I took that up 6-7 months in. More recently, an opportunity to help with photographing cats on intake presented itself, and as I’ve fiddled with cameras for 45 years now I put my hand up for that too.
Specifically, I help out with some of the “second chance” cats. As OHS has been so successful in adopting out cats and dogs (98% placement, over 11,000 pets a year), as well as placing cats from the Portland area, it also accepts cats from other animal shelters. I’ve been working with cats that come from as far as Los Angeles, as well as some rescued from hoarding cases.
When these shipments come in, they’re initially processed by ACT’s (Animal Care Technicians), who do a quick assessment, and administer vaccines and sometimes medication. As the cats have been cooped up in pet carriers for quite a while and diarrhea can be an issue, the odor of a bunch of stacked carriers awaiting processing is sometimes enough to curl your eyebrows. The ACT’s are the heroic shock troops of the shelter world.
Fortunately, my “studio” (aka cat corral) is in a different area so I don’t get the full olfactory treatment. This corral is really just a shelf, about 18″ deep by about 10 feet long. A few swiveling spotlights are mounted on each end, pointed at the ceiling for indirect lighting. The shelf is on the side of a hallway next to the backroom kennels, and the hallway does get traffic during a shoot.
During an intake session, I’ll individually photograph between 15 and 50 cats. On the smaller shoots I tend to fetch each cat from a kennel myself, but for the larger ones there will be a “wrangler” who brings the cats over from ACT processing and joins in trying to herd them into a photogenic position. Photogenic meaning, have them look into the camera without looking too pissed off or scared, and be quick enough on the trigger to catch it.
Cats, like people, have many different personalities. After being subjected to a long haul in a cat carrier, prodded, jabbed, and carried around a strange place, the way they respond to the corral varies. Kittens tend to be more oblivious, and just want to explore a new place after being cooped up. The two month olds usually aren’t too bad apart from the occasional rabble-rouser who wants to get into everything. Once they hit 3-4 months they have more confidence but still have kittenish enthusiasm; trying to get those guys to stay put for a shot can be a true exercise in patience. Older cats are generally less hyper insofar as running up and down the shelf, but you can almost see them scheming to escape. Scared cats are actually the easiest, they’ll hunker down and you can position them with some hope they’ll stay put. Dealing with skittish cats is kind of a cross between wrangling and playing defense in basketball. You need good lateral movement to keep the cat in front of you, otherwise they’ll blow past you, make a flying leap, and they’re gone.
It’s not just a question of getting them to stay still without having their butt pointing at your face. Somehow you need to get them to look into the camera lens, which is of absolutely no interest to the average cat. Dogs at least will respond to weird noises to see what direction they’re coming from. Cats are just interested in what they’re interested in. This rarely corresponds to the camera or me, regardless of what noises I make or what I may be waving in their face to get their attention. So when we do get the shot, it’s a time of relief for both the shooter and the wrangler, especially when there’s a big group of cats to deal with.
One could argue that there are parallels between herding cats figuratively and herding them literally. In both cases the herder has to deal with creatures that have their own idea of what should done at a particular place and time, and enticements that might appeal to the less independent are a matter of indifference to the “cats”. But when there is success, a worthy goal is often achieved. In the case of cat photos, a good shot on the web site can help entice a potential adopter to come in and give a cat a new life in a better situation.