Pssst! Wanna see a picture of my pets?
I love to take pictures, especially of my pets. And yet, I realized recently that quite some time had passed since I've made my long-suffering dogs sit nicely and look alert while I tried to capture a perfect moment, suitable for framing.
What made me realize how long it had been was one of life's little tragedies: the death of my parrot, Patrick. I had him more than a year, and I never once took his picture. I guess I figured he'd be with me for decades, and that as his feather-picked body continued to mend he'd get better-looking. Things didn't turn out that way at all.
And now, the pets who remain are suffering because of my regret, even more since I bought a nifty new digital camera. They're almost as tired of getting their pictures taken as my friends are of seeing the images.
So what, I say. I'm still shooting. And I've gotten pretty good over the years, mostly by following a few tried-and-true tips:
-- Get your children involved. I have to rely on my niece and nephew since I have no kids of my own, but they're wonderful photographer's assistants. Get a kid to help you with your pictures by teasing your pet with a toy, or zoom in close to get pictures of kids and pets together.
-- Head outdoors. Natural light -- early morning is best -- avoids the dreaded red-eye shot, where the flash makes your beautiful pet come out looking like a monster. Taking pictures outside gives your pet a more natural, healthy look. If your pet is a solid, dark color, use your flash outdoors (if your camera enables you to do so). The flash brings out the detail in your pet's face. If you do end up with red-eye, though, don't despair. One of the nifty things about digital photography is that you can remove red-eye in the finished product. I do this with Photoshop, but lots of less-expensive programs will do the same.
Bear in mind that being outdoors can be risky for some pets. If you take your bird outside, make sure his wings have been properly and recently clipped. Without a proper wing trim, a bird may be able to gain enough loft to fly out of reach. And indoor cats may be tempted to bolt. So be careful.
-- Get close. If you want a good picture, you need to go where your pet is. Shoot at just below your pet's eye level and zoom in as closely as you can for good detail.
-- Watch your backgrounds. Think neutral -- a plain wall, not a cluttered cabinet. Think contrast -- light for a dark pet, dark for a light one. If your cat loves to sleep on the busy fabric of your sofa, for example, consider throwing a solid blanket down first.
-- Be creative. If you want your pet to kiss your children, do as the pros do: Put a little butter on your children and let the pet kiss it off. This is a tip I got years ago when I interviewed a woman who trained animals for commercials. I've smiled every time I've seen a dog smooch a kid on TV since, knowing that more than affection was at play.
The best advice, and perhaps the hardest to follow, is to be patient and have fun. Film is cheap, and digital images are free once you have the gear. Take lots of shots, enjoy the good ones, and toss the rest. Just don't forget to get some pictures. You can be assured I've learned my lesson: Any animal who's here more than a day will be "shot," so I never have to regret not having a picture.
PETS ON THE WEB
No fancy graphics on this Web site (or graphics at all, for that matter) and not a lot in the way of text. But you don't need either to enjoy the Songs of Brazilian Birds Web site (www.mma.gov.br/ingles/CGMI/cantoave/cantoi.html), with its 51 recordings of sounds you'd usually have to be standing in the rain forest to hear. Some you might not hear even if you were in Brazil, since a few of the recordings are of birds whose future in the wild is very much in doubt. Among them, the hyacinth macaw, a stunning blue bird who's the largest of the parrots kept as pets. The raspy sound of their cries fades hauntingly away in the offered clip.
How odd that two books about dogs in the workplace should cross my desk the same week. Of the two, I found myself smiling more at "Working Dogs: Tales From Animal Planet's K-9 to 5 World," by Colleen Needles and Kit Carlson, with photographs by Kim Levin (Discovery Books, $15.95). The photographs are extraordinary, and they capture the spirit of dogs from Gidget, the famous Taco Bell spokesdog, to such workaday lugs as Bosco, the Labrador who fetches errant pins in a bowling alley.
"Dogs With Jobs: Working Dogs Around the World," by Merrily Weisboro and Kim Kachanoff, DVM, (Pocket Books, $24.95), is a more thoughtful exploration of the same ground, with writing that will sometimes bring you to tears. The story of Happy Ralph, a racing greyhound at the end of his career, is especially well-done, his story told with love, heart and honesty. These are two books I won't be parting with anytime soon.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am moving to a new neighborhood that has other dogs, all in pens. I don't have the money to fence the yard just now, much less buy my dogs their own pen each. I need a short-term solution to keep them in my yard and not the neighbors' yards.
I've heard that pouring ammonia around the perimeter will keep the dogs in their place, but does it really work? Please respond. I don't have much time! -- N.L., via e-mail
A: Ammonia won't work, sorry. Your dogs won't like the smell, but it won't slow them down for a second in their hurry to explore their new neighborhood.
A fencing is the only long-term solution. In the short term, you'll need to take them out on leashes or put them on tethers.
Tethering is not a good long-term solution, so please don't even consider it as a permanent fix to your problem. Dogs do not do well tied up; some even become vicious as a result. Tethering has other hazards, too. Your dogs can tangle up their lines and become unable to reach food, water or shade, or loose dogs can attack them. For these reasons, I recommend tethering for short periods at a time, and always under supervision. And remember: Never use choke-chain collar with a tether. It's too easy for a dog to strangle himself.
If you cannot afford to fence the whole yard right away, look into ready-made dog runs. You can find them relatively cheaply for less than a couple of hundred dollars, less if you are able to find one secondhand. These will keep your dogs safe during their potty breaks.
Q: I am trying to find out at what age we should introduce our kittens to canned food. Also, how soon should we have our cat spayed after having kittens? -- D.C., via e-mail
A: Mother cats start tiring of nursing when their kittens are around 3 weeks old. You should make solid food available from that point on. Softening dry food with water and placing a dab on each kitten's nose makes the transition easier. As the mother shows less and less interest in nursing, the kittens will gradually move over to solid food. By the age of 7 weeks, they should be completely weaned.
Cats can become pregnant not long after weaning their babies, so don't delay in calling your veterinarian to arrange a spay. Many an "oops" litter has become a "double oops" because someone didn't realize just how prolific a breeder a cat can be.
When you're discussing the mother cat's spaying, ask your veterinarian about neutering the kittens as well. Spaying and neutering are now routinely and safely performed on kittens and puppies as young as 8 weeks of age. With so many unwanted cats and kittens, you'll be taking a positive step toward ending the cycle of misery if you ensure that all your cats and kittens will not be reproducing.
While you're thinking about weaning, here's something else to work in to the routine: helping your kittens learn to use a litter box. At the same time you start weaning them, have clean litter boxes available. The mother cat will teach the kittens how to use them.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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