(WBTV) - An Arkansas-based photographer hopes photos featuring shelter animals dressed up in their finery will help bring light to the issue of overcrowded and underfunded animal shelters in the United States.
Tammy Swarek, from El Dorado, AR, says she's really excited after photos of her "Shelter Pets Project" started going viral online. But she hopes the message behind the photos does, as well.
Swarek works with the Union County Animal Protection Society and photographs several animals in the shelter about once a week.
She says the shelter has a capacity of 200 animals but has around 300+ animals during puppy and kitten season.
"No one wants to see abandoned animals, but no one wants to help change the law," Swarek said.
The shelter is in a precarious situation. While the shelter is in the city limits, it doesn't get any city funding. According to Swarek, the shelter only gets about $10,000 a year from Union County.
It costs nearly $250,000 a year to run the shelter. Most of the money has to come from funding.
Right now, the shelter can really only afford to feed the animals 250-pounds of food, once a day.
Swarek was looking for a way to help when she came across the work of another photographer, Robin Hagy, who works with shelters in California to take professional photos of the animals.
"[Her work] blew my mind and that's when it really clicked for me," Swarek said. "I've been dressing up dogs since I was little. I remember putting dogs in baby clothes. It's always been one of my quirks."
So Swarek said she reached out to the manager of the Union County Animal Protection Society to see if she could help out.
"Normally shelters use a cell phone to take photos of the animals. They are in their cages and the animals look sad. I wanted to change that," Swarek said.
Her idea was to give the animals a photo like you'd see on a LinkedIn account, something that potential dog owners could connect with. It would allow the animals to show personality, not just a cage.
MOBILE USERS: Click here to see more of Tammy's "Shelter Pets" photos
Swarek said the first set of photos she took were difficult.
"I didn't really know what I was doing or how I wanted to do it," she admitted. "I hung up a white background on a fence and took photos. It was a difficult day."
That was in March.
Since then, Swarek said she's been going to the shelter about once a week to take new photos of the animals.
"Now we have a white canopy event tent that we bring out every week. A lot of the clothes we use in the photos once belonged to our own children. They are either their outgrown clothes or clothes that have been donated."
Swarek says they look in Goodwill and yard sales for additional clothes to make an outfit.
Anything that can be washed and re-used gets donated to a charity that needs it.
Swarek works with the shelter's manager, Tanja, to match up the animal to the outfit.
"It's a 50/50 split. Sometimes I come up with the outfit and Tanja finds the animal that would be a good fit," Swarek said. "It's amazing. Up to 300 animals in the shelter and she knows all of their personalities and back stories."
She said sometimes Tanja will tell her the story of an animal and they will create an outfit to perfectly match the animal.
One example is Dave.
Swarek said at one point Dave had been adopted out to a local family. He was sent to obedience school and graduated, but his nose got him in a little bit of trouble.
After the family cooked a meal one evening, Dave thought it was for him. Dave jumped up and grabbed a roast off the table and ate it. That move landed Dave back in the shelter.
Inspired by his back story, Swarek created a chef outfit for Dave to showcase him "as a foodie."
"It really gives people an insight into his personality," she said.
Dave is still looking for his forever home.
While a lot of people have taken to the photos and enjoyed the photos and the shoots, there are also some naysayers.
Swarek said some people say the photos are a novelty and it will wear off and the animals will land right back in the shelter.
But she said that's not the case.
She said the photos have garnered huge attention for the animals who have been featured. Previously, there might have been zero applications for an animal - now there could be a dozen.
It allows the shelter to be able to find the best fit for the animal.
She estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the animals that have been photographed have been adopted out or sent to other shelters where they can find their forever home.
Swarek says she's happy to be able to bring attention to the animals and the shelter, but says the photography is therapy for her, as well.
Her son has autism and her mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease. She's the primary caregiver for both.
"It's hard when you are photographing people. You can't just cancel on people who have had hair and makeup done for a photoshoot," Swarek said.
She said she is able to work with the shelter to get there about once a week.
And she doesn't see herself slowing down.
"I made a commitment to photograph every animal in the shelter," she said. "My dream to have a photographer volunteer at every animal shelter. There are professional photographers everywhere and we can make a difference."