Lollypop Favorites 2013-2-17

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I tried something new while taking my photos at Lollypop Farm today.  Instead of printing out the report of cats/small animals that need pictures, I ran the report on my iPad and exported it to a PDF.  Then, I used a neat PDF markup app that I found to write down the picture numbers on the iPad.  It worked pretty well, and I’m now paperless.  I volunteer at the shelter taking pictures for their adoption website.

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This little guy was my favorite this week.  “Bootsy” was meowing the minute I walked into cat adoption.  I think he would wind up being a little more aloof once he gets a home, but he was super friendly in the adoption area.  We played for a few minutes before he went out for an adoption interview.  I didn’t have to take a picture of him for the adoption website, but I decided to take a couple since I was playing with him.

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How to Adopt a Shelter Cat

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Mark Twain said that cats are unique in the animal kingdom in that they will never submit to any authority but their own.  There’s a lot of truth to that.  Cats live with us at their pleasure, not through the pack bonds that dogs have.  Picking a cat to adopt is very tricky.  How can you tell if the cat you’re interested in will fit into your home and lifestyle?  It gets even harder with kittens, who haven’t really developed all of their personality yet.  That’s the first thing to realize when you’re looking at cats.  Each one has a personality that may change or develop over time.  Cats do have some personality archetypes that you can use to pick the right cat for you.  I’ve found that cats have some combination of two traits that play into adoption.  There are cats that associate strongly with the place they live in, and there are cats that associate strongly with the people they live with.

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Place cats tend to shy away from human contact.  In a family setting, they may bond very strongly to one person at the expense of everyone else.  My cat is a strong place cat.  She doesn’t like to be picked up, and only accepts affection on her terms.  She seeks attention when I can’t move around much.  In bed, in the bathroom, or sitting down.  Even then, it’s just barely at arm’s reach.  I’ve never done anything to intimidate or threaten her, but she remains aloof and distant.  She was a 5 month old feral stray when I adopted her.  She never had the human socialization as a kitten that would imprint humans as family or comrades.  She’s learning.  I like to say that she’s still getting used to me, 15 years after I adopted her.  Twitch is definitely on the Place side of the cat spectrum.  She still associates with me as a human (maybe a big, ugly, not so smart cat?) and a companion to some degree.  She misses me terribly when I go out of the house, she just doesn’t show it in an affectionate way.  Her territoriality has made it impossible for me to adopt another cat, too.  She’s never gotten along with any of the cats I’ve fostered, either fighting or hiding until the trespasser leaves.

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People cats thrive on contact.  They’re always seeking attention from the humans in the house.  Cats on this end of the spectrum are more gregarious and engaging than place cats.  They’re more willing to be picked up and played with.  A lap cat is a People cat.  They’re either predisposed or socialized to humans and see them as part of the family.  Cats you adopt from a breeder will have a lot of socialization before they’re available for adoption.  It’s part of the breeder’s job to give new kittens exposure to a lot of different stimuli, including different people.  That exposure doesn’t guarantee a People cat, just a well adjusted cat.  People cats require more emotional maintenance than Place cats, and rely more on their family to keep social bonds strong.  A People cat who doesn’t get enough attention may wander or even run away.  Twitch never goes more than 10 feet away from the house, even when I leave the back door open for the dog. (socializing a Place cat to a dog is a COMPLETELY different post)

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The distinction between a Place cat and a People cat isn’t meant to help you avoid one in favor of the other.  All cats have some combination of both traits.  It’s up to the adopter to examine their lifestyle and decide what combination works best.  An adopter who spends a lot of time away from home may want to weight their choice towards a Place cat.  That way, the cat has a foundation that they can rely on when you’re not at home.  A large family will want a more outgoing cat that can deal with the constant attention they’re sure to get. Once you’ve marked a spot between Place and People cats, you can move on to refining the personality that’s right for you.

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Many animal shelters have started to use personality cards to describe their cats.  The cards are based on the adoptability evaluation that each cat gets when they enter the shelter.  The cards give you a more fine grained idea of how your cat will act after you adopt him/her.  The adoring fan, the CEO, the Head Coach, etc.  After deciding the general personality traits you’re looking for, you’re ready to start meeting cats at the shelter.  This is the hardest part of the adoption process, harder than the introspection you just did.  Cats have moods, just like people.  You may meet the perfect cat who’s having a bad day, or the wrong cat who’s having a rare mood.  Here are some things to keep in mind while you’re meeting cats.

Set aside several weeks to visit the shelter.  Don’t assume that you will find the perfect cat on your first visit.  Also, don’t worry that you’ll miss the perfect cat if you don’t adopt one this week.  In the 7 years I volunteered at the shelter, I met at least 1 cat each week that I could adopt.  Not just a suitable adoption, either, a really good adoption.  When you first start looking at cats, they all seem the same.  It takes time to develop a feeling for the subtle differences between cats.  It also takes time to develop a personal sense of which cats you like and which ones you don’t.  A cat may do something incredibly cute on your first visit, then come home and live in your basement like an ogre.  You may also think that a people cat is right for you, only to change your mind after meeting several.

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Don’t adopt a cat for purely emotional reasons.  Cats don’t have the fine grained personalities that humans do.  The perfect cat for you is really a small range of cats.  It sounds detached, but you should evaluate each cat that you meet, just as the shelter does.  Otherwise, you may wind up taking the cat back to the shelter, which is traumatic for you and the cat.  Using more reason when you choose a cat will lead to better emotional bonds later on.

Don’t adopt a cat with the expectation that it will make you feel better or fill a gap in your life.  Be honest about this, there’s no one to criticize you for evaluating your own feelings.  If you rely on your new cat for emotional support, you will inevitably be disappointed.  Not because they’re mean… they’re cats.  You’re adopting a new companion with its own emotions, failings, and ambitions.  Cats share our space with us, they don’t fill that space.

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This picture looks scary, but this was one of the friendliest People cats I ever met at the shelter.  Reaching for me with his paws and vocalizing is a sign of intense interest.  Pawing is an intimate gesture among cats, usually between a kitten and its mother.  I pictured this cat stretching, so it looks like he’s swatting at me.

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This cat’s hunched back tells me that he’s cautious towards me.  His forward facing ears tell me that he’s curious about me.  Sniffing my finger is a sign of interest.  We wound up playing for 15 minutes.  This was a very friendly People cat who gnawed on my camera strap as much as purred in my ear.

Don’t try to anthropomorphize a cat’s emotions.  Cats have emotions, and they give physical queues to show you what those emotions are, but they aren’t human emotions.  They also don’t use human expressions.  Cats don’t “smile” or “frown”.  A nervous cat will change the perk of its ears or stand a little stiffer than a calm cat, not make a facial expression.  It takes time to get used to the unique body language that cats use to communicate their mood to other beings.

Try to get a private room to meet cats.  Most shelters provide small meet and greet rooms.  It’s hard to meet a cat that has a lot of distractions competing for its attention.  A room with a desk or a bench is a good place because you want to see what kind of hiding instinct the cat has.  Don’t worry if s/he bolts into the tightest corner of the room at first, s/he may just be stressed out by the moment.

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Ask the shelter staff for the cat’s cage card.  This is the sheet of paper for each cat describing daily appetite, mood and medications.  Volunteers occasionally put notes on the cage cards that can tell you more about the cat’s interactions with the staff.  If you get a card with a lot of hearts and “Super cat!” all over it, that’s a people cat.  It takes a really gregarious cat to warrant a comment on the cage card.  Cats also have papers filled out by the person who gave the cat up for adoption.  Many times, these are very favorable reviews that overlook any flaws.  Who’s going to give a cat up for adoption, then write bad things on the admission form?  It’s a good document to read, though, because you can find out all the positives in one place.  If the cat doesn’t have much information on the admission card, it’s most likely a stray.  That’s not a bad thing, just another piece of information.  Strays can be just as affectionate and loyal as a family cat.

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Don’t judge the people who gave the animal up for adoption.  People give up animals for a million reasons.  For most people, it was the only course of action they could take.  For the others, at least they’re making an effort to give the pet a future.  By the same token, don’t judge a cat as unwanted, just because someone gave it up for adoption.

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Talk to the volunteer or staff member who is helping you.  They see the cats day in and day out.  Most of them there can think of a really special cat, maybe one that’s waiting in the back for an adoption space to open up.  Don’t ask for any special consideration, just try to use the intimate knowledge they have.  Most shelters don’t allow you to put an animal on hold without some payment.  Don’t ask them to change the  policy.  Once an animal has been adopted, it goes into a temporary limbo where it doesn’t get as much attention because it’s about to go home.  Once you’ve decided to adopt a pet, it’s best to take it home the same day.

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Before you ask to meet a cat, watch it in its cage for a while.  See how it reacts to the volunteers and people that pass by.  This can tell you if the cat is tired and sleepy, or alert and active.  You can also tell how outgoing a cat is by watching it in its cage.  Kittens can get hyper stimulated and bounce all over the cages until they collapse into a nice nap.  If you show up just before or after they fall asleep, don’t assume that they’re like that all the time.

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Is the shelter really crowded?  Are there a lot of people or animals there?  When a shelter gets very crowded, the animals tend to burrow or hide more than they do when the shelter is under capacity.  A very gregarious cat may scoot under the greeting room bench if the shelter is packed to the rafters.  Let the cat find its own way out from under the bench.  You may wind up sitting there for a few minutes until s/he comes out to see who else is in the room.  If you think about it from the cat’s perspective, it’s reasonable.   They can tell that the other cats around them are under stress, and they feel safe in their cage, under a blanket.  Suddenly, someone takes them and puts them in a small room with strangers.  The same principle applies if there are a lot of humans in the shelter.  Weekdays, there is a steady, slow routine that the cats get used to.  Saturday and Sunday, there are lots of people around, and they may wind up seeing several other groups before you.

Once a cat has poked its head out into the greeting room, try not to advance on it to make contact.  Cat’s have a personal space that they take very seriously.  The edge of the space is about as far as they can reach their paw without shifting their weight, maybe 6 inches away from most cats.  If you get too close too fast, even a friendly cat may give you a clawless swipe to keep your distance.

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Cats have a great sense of smell, even better than dogs.  They’re going to meet you first with their nose.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been peeling onions all day… to a cat, you’re a specific human covered in onion smell.  Let them get a good snootful and don’t try to pet them until they’ve had a chance to “look” you over.  That first encounter determines a lot for a cat.  In nature, animals decide very quickly, and with some finality, if they like a newcomer or not.  Cats have been “domesticated”, so they’re not likely to see you as a threat, but they may decide right off the bat that you’re not their kind of human.  If a cat avoids gentle outreach and contact, you may have just hit the wrong chord somewhere.  It’s best to meet a new cat rather than force a relationship with an unwilling feline (see the Mark Twain quote above).

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Some cats will go right into a chin rub and  seek attention immediately.  If you’re looking for a people cat, that’s a good first sign.  It’s not conclusive, though.  Twitch hid under a desk, then came out and wanted all kinds of attention.  She surprised me when she became more aloof at home.  Try to last through that first blush of contact without getting the cat too excited.  You want to see what the cat is like in a calm state.  That’s (hopefully) what they’ll be like when you get them home.  A chin rub or a scratch is fine, just don’t escalate the cat’s mood with too much play.

After you’ve met the cat, try to pick it up.  Just put a hand under its belly and see if it shies away.  Don’t be aggressive and don’t put your hand there with the intention of picking up the cat right away.  You just want to know if the cat is utterly opposed to the prospect of being picked up.  If the cat doesn’t mind, try gently picking it up.  Support the cat when you pick it up.  One hand under the ribcage and one under the belly is usually fine.  Don’t pick a cat up by the scruff of the neck, that’s dominate behavior to an adult cat, and s/he won’t be as friendly after that tazer like effect goes away.  Once you pick up a cat, let it settle into a comfortable position.  Most cats like to have their feet beneath them and a sense of solidity underneath that.  I’ve met a few that were true acrobats and perched on my shoulders, they were all People cats.  A Place cat may shy away from being picked up, or jump down shortly after settling in.

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Once they’re past the initial excitement of meeting a new person, the two of you can see if you’re really compatible.  There are no fast rules about evaluating a cat for adoption at this stage.  Just spend some time together and let things happen as naturally as you can.  You’re evaluating the unspoken bond that makes cats such special pets.  Do you like a bossy cat?  Some people find it endearing that a creature so dependent on them for everything makes a big deal out of everything else.  Do you like a timid cat?  A noisy cat?  That’s what you’re trying to find out in these meetings.  Don’t make any commitments until you’ve had a chance to experience a range of cat personalities.  Meeting a cat in an adoption setting is a very personal thing.  If you’ve brought the whole family, pay attention to the emotional cues that the cat is giving you as well as those it gives to the other people there.  It’s easy to watch the cat interact with your kids and make a decision based on that, but that does you an injustice.  A family pet should fit into the whole fabric of your family, not just one or two members.  Some people like a pet that will strongly associate with a single family member, that’s a personal decision.

Adopting a pet for the first time is a hazardous undertaking.  You’re trying to evaluate a bond that you don’t know much about… not in an intuitive way, at least.  The best thing you can do is remind yourself to suspend your cute factor until you have a better sense of what you want from a cat relationship.  Get a good feel for what traits all cats share in common before you look for the specific ones that are perfect for you.  The only way to do that is to meet a lot of cats before you make your decision.

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The hardest thing about cat adoption is saying “no” after meeting a really cute cat.  It’s OK to pass on an adoption because you don’t feel like you know enough about your own needs to make an informed decision.  Passing on a seemingly perfect cat is part of the process.  You have to suspend the most instinctual part of your nature when you’re looking at cats.  They tug at our hearts in such an effortless way that we’re befuddled before we know it.  Sometimes, the best thing you can do is walk away from the perfect cat.  It’s not like picking a human companion.  There are other perfect cats out there waiting for you to recognize the internal connections that will make for your perfect pet.

Picking a cat for adoption is about suppressing your emotional reactions, and relying on your own sense of your needs;  But it relies on an emotional connection to make it right.  It’s a very delicate balancing act that you don’t want to rush into.  Take your time when you’re choosing a cat.  You will have years to develop a unique relationship with your new pet, it makes sense to take a few weeks to be sure that  you’ve made the right decision.

The Sweet Exposure

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I usually take pictures in Aperture Priority mode, it’s what I’m comfortable with.  I like to control the depth of field in my pictures and let the camera take care of the shutter speed.  For each picture, there is a range of settings that will result in a good picture.  F5.6 at 1/120 shutter speed is the same exposure as F6.4 at 1/90 shutter speed.  The pictures look different because you’re taking in more light faster at the lower F stop.  Getting a sweet exposure, where the capture of light matches up with the exposure settings is a tricky thing.  The range of settings that give that natural lighting is narrower than the range for a good shot.  I usually can’t get the effect by pushing an exposure in an image editor after the fact, so I have to get it on site.  The colors and objects in the picture seem righter or realer to the eye than a documentary picture.  The caboose picture on the right is overexposed.  I was trying to make the red really pop.  I kind of like the effect, but it’s not what I think of as a sweet exposure.  The kittens on the left have that natural, indirect light that makes it a sweet exposure, but it’s not just indirect lighting that creates the effect.

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When I was taking pictures at Lollypop, I always wanted to create documentary pictures for the website.  The pictures that are displayed in the adoption pages are small, so I felt it was important to shoot everything at +1EV, F11 and push towards overexposing the pictures.  I wanted to keep the pictures bright, and make it easier for the viewers to see the cats.  I relied on the flash to  put out a ton of light to cover my exposure choices.  I used my flash to manually change the exposures when I wanted to take a second shot for myself.  I use an SB-600 speedlight with an infrared link, so I can hold the flash in my left hand while taking pictures with my right.  Like the old timey photographers, angling the flash gives more or less light on the subject.  On the left is a regular picture I took for the adoption website.  On the right, I’m pointing the flash mostly at the volunteer’s back instead of the cat.  Even though the camera is set to +1EV, I’m muting the flash(0EV) by pointing it away from the subject.  Using a remote flash is the easiest way to change the exposure you get.  Once you’re comfortable with the way your camera will react to a given scene, you can leave the settings on the camera alone for the most part, and change the light with the flash.

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Getting a sweet exposure without a flash is a little harder.  Now, you’re relying on your ability to change your settings or bracket to get the sweet exposure.  I don’t usually bracket unless I’m at a fixed location with a tripod.  It’s a shortcoming of mine that springs from laziness.  I’m working on it.  The image on the left is a good example of a miss.  It’s a hard picture to get the right exposure on.  There is a lot of contrast in the scene.  No matter what exposure I used, I had to accept that the sky would be blown out so I could get the pipes at the right exposure.  I came within a stop of getting the sweet exposure on the pipes.  My thought was to use center weighted metering, combining the values for the dark pipes, and the lighter wall, and let the sky overexpose.  What I should have done is use a spot meter on the pipes, and push the EV -1.  It’s pretty close to what I did, but the camera is doing different things to get there.  In center weighted mode, the camera is using the pipes for 80% of the exposure value, and wall/pipes for 20% of the exposure value.  The value that the camera came up with was weighted towards the wall, and I underexposed this image by almost a full stop.  With a spot meter, the camera would only be using the pipes to calculate the exposure value, and I could make adjustments for the wall using my EV dial.  On the right is an example of a sweet exposure.  To me, the holes in the door are realer somehow, and the colors seem more natural.  This is a flat, low contrast scene, so the exposure is easier.  Center weighting with the spot covering a rust patch lowered the exposure enough to get it into the smaller range of really good exposures.  Another way to get there would be to spot meter the blue door, and adjust +EV a half stop or so to cover the rust.

Lollypop

When I first started going to Lollypop Farm, my motives were simple.  I love photography, and I love animals.  I also wanted to make up for adopting a dog and returning it to the shelter.  I volunteered there for almost 7 years, taking pictures of cats and small animals.  During that whole time, I never felt welcome there.  No amount of staring at the floor could blunt the hostility I felt as I walked the hallways.  I understand that a middle aged man in a shelter full of young people seems out of place.  I thought that time might blunt that hostility.  Surely, several years of averted eyes and friendly overtures would convince them that I wasn’t the terrible person their eyes and actions accused me of being.  My perseverance didn’t work.  A couple people there started to actively try to have me kicked out.   They reported me to the volunteer manager for insignificant things.

I took a picture of a boa constrictor once.  It struck at the camera lens as I was taking the picture.  It’s a natural reaction for a snake seeing a foreign object entering its tank.  The snake wasn’t harmed and I got a good picture for the adoption website.  An angry volunteer accosted me for abusing the snake, and I had to sit with the reptile specialist several times.  I’ve owned several snakes, I’m familiar with their characteristics, this was just a repeated attempt by one person to get me in trouble.  I stopped taking reptile pictures after that experience.

I got in trouble for taking small animal pictures.  The same person found me in the small animal room once taking rabbit pictures.  She reported me to the volunteer manager for harassing the animals.   I stopped taking pictures in the small animal room after that. I was reported for holding a ferret while taking its picture.  Ferret’s are slippery critters, and opening a cage to take a picture just lets a ferret run around the room for a minute.  I stopped taking ferret pictures after that.  At the end, I felt like I could only take pictures in the cat adoption area where there were several witnesses that I wasn’t abusing the animals.  Taking 3-4 pictures a week wasn’t worth going there, so I stopped going.  I respect the work they do at Lollypop to protect and nurture the animals in their care.  I just don’t think they treat their humans half as well.

EDIT 10-18-11: During the time that I volunteered at Lollypop, I kept 2,500 pictures.  My habit was to only keep a few pictures that I liked artistically each week.  I think I met over 4,500 cats while I was there.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jheaneyphotos/sets/72157627790032432/

Lollypop Favorites

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This was a good week for me at Lollypop.  It’s still crowded in the cat spaces, but there seem to be some vacancies in the dog areas.  I met some nice cats.  Amber doesn’t seem taken with the two in the administration offices as everyone else.  The volunteers and staff bring up Flash, the super licking, heart murmur kitten every time I’m there.  I let them out of the community relations office when I get there, so they can get some more space in the volunteer outer office.  Corralling them when I’m done has been a bit trickier.  Today, I grabbed, Flash, who started to lick my face.  Then I went after Bunny.  Just walking slowly behind her to the office, I could tell that she was “watching” me.  Her ears were pointed straight back.  Just as we’re getting to the inner office, Bunny goes inside, but Flash jumps up on a bookshelf.    I tried to keep Bunny in the office with my foot as I reached for Flash.  Amber was no help, she was keeping her distance.  The cats are always perfectly calm and wandering around when I come back to the office, but Amber always seems nervous to me.  I think she’s jealous, she gets really needy whenever Flash is redecorating my face.

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These two were very friendly, we played for a while.  They should be up in the adoption space this week or next.

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http://www.lollypop.org

Lollypop Favorites

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The petting farm at Lollypop is closed again for another week.  The goats are rutting, so, they might take it the wrong way if a kid came up and yanked their ears.  Folks must have been missing all the petting, because Amber got a lot of attention as we walked around the adoption areas.  I don’t take Amber into the adoption suites, but the dogs can see her walking in the hallway.  A small dog in one of the cages looked at me for the longest time.  He was like a Pomeranian and something bigger…  An Aussie Shepard maybe.  He weighed about 30 pounds.  He chose me just from watching Amber and I walk down the hallway.  I skipped the Cat Holding pictures I had to take because I knew I’d have to walk by his cage again, and I’d adopt him if I did.

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This little guy wasn’t hissing at me, just complaining about being cooped up.  The minute I walked into Cat Adoption, I could hear him meowing.  When I got to him in the list, I had to kind of block him in his cage to keep him from bolting across the room.  Just whip the cage open, turn the cat around gently, and take the picture in that half second they turn around again.  Easy, like taking peanuts from an elephant. 🙂

http://www.lollypop.org

Lollypop Long Weekend

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These two have been in the admin offices for the last 6 weeks.  The tuxedo climbs all over everyone and licks their faces.  The gray tiger is a little more sheepish, but a bit jealous of all the attention that the tuxedo gets, I think.  Amber was really jealous of the tuxedo, too.  She got really needy just as the cat was settling in to chin rub my nose.  Amber was so excited when I got back from taking pictures that I wondered if they were bothering her.

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DSC_0024 These two Chows are up for adoption as a pair.  I wish I could have 3 dogs, but the 3 musketeers running around the house might be a bit much.  They are a really friendly pair, though.  The shelter is still very full, so if you’re thinking of getting a pet, this is a good time to head out to Lollypop

http://www.lollypop.org