Shelters Need Photographers to Take Pictures of Rescue Dogs · The Wildest

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Fashion Photographer Mike Ruiz Uses His Photo Magic to Get Shelter Pups Adopted

Shelters are in desperate need of photographers, so he's calling on his colleagues to do the same.

by Charles Manning
May 21, 2024
Mike Ruiz and a black pit bull dog.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Ruiz

Mike Ruiz didn’t think he could have a dog. He was too busy. Over the course of his career, he’s photographed everyone from Jennifer Lopez and Prince to Anne Hathaway and Lindsey Lohan. Around 2012, he was shooting for magazines like Vanity Fair, Interview, and Dazed & Confused. He was also appearing as a judge on hit TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and America’s Next Top Model. There was absolutely no room in his life for a dog. 

Then, he met a Pit Bull rescue named Oliver who changed his mind forever.

“I was staying with a friend in LA, and Oliver was one of his fosters,” Ruiz tells us. “I walked into the house, and he just ran right up to me and stood there with his big brown eyes. I got this weird feeling in my soul. I went to lay down, and he laid his head on the side of the bed and just stared at me for, like, two hours. I was done. I called the shelter, and within 24 hours he was mine ... I fell in love with this dog, so I made it work.”

a brown dog

Ruiz brought Oliver back to Manhattan, but he felt guilty keeping him in an apartment. So, he sold his home in the city and bought a house in a rural New Jersey farming community with lots of land for Oliver to run around on. And when Oliver developed hip dysplasia and couldn’t run anymore, Ruiz installed a pool, so he could swim instead. 

From Pit Bull dad to Pit Bull advocate

After Oliver came into his life, Ruiz started reading up about Pit Bulls. He found out how unfairly maligned they are and how often they end up in shelters, victims of neglect and abuse. “I wanted to do something about it,” he says. “And soon, that desire to help spread to all dogs.”

Ruiz started shooting the Hunks and Hounds calendar to raise money for various animal welfare and rescue organizations. He also started reaching out to shelters in his area to offer his services as a photographer. 

At first, the shelters weren’t interested in his help, but Ruiz was persistent. “I had to call nine times before I got a call back,” he says. In some cases, he went internet sleuthing for hours, searching for the names of volunteers at the organizations he wanted to work with, connecting with them, and then using them as a bridge to the people in charge. 

a black and white dog

It was all worth it, though. Ruiz’s photos were a hit online and every dog he worked with got adopted. 

“A good picture makes all the difference,” Ruiz says. “Shelters photograph their dogs and put them online, but an iPhone pic is not going to stand out the way a really stylized image will. Something slick and professional. That’s really going to be eye catching on social media.”

“I’m a fashion photographer, so I always want to frame things up and compose the image in a particular way,” Ruiz adds. “For these photos, I bring in a backdrop, and I try to set up in an outdoor space with a little shade, so I can use natural light. That way there’s not a lot of equipment and no flashing lights to [potentially spook] the dogs.”

Photographing dogs in a shelter setting can be challenging, he adds. He says he wants them to feel as comfortable as possible during a shoot. If they are particularly stressed out, he calms them down by getting on the ground and speaking softly. “I let them sniff me and get used to me. I don’t just immediately start with the squeaky toy. I ease them into it, and then I reward them with a treat. I want it to be a positive experience for them.”

a black dog in a hat
Photo: Mike Ruiz

The complicated emotions of rescue work

It’s a rewarding experience for Ruiz, too, but one that is tinged with sadness. It’s hard to walk past all the kennels full of dogs desperate for attention, especially in the kill shelters. “I photograph the dogs with a smile on my face, then I go into the bathroom and sob uncontrollably until I can compose myself enough to get into the car and drive home,” he says.

Still, Ruiz insists it is all worth it. And though he takes a certain satisfaction in his volunteer work and benefits from it in his heart and soul, he doesn’t do it to feel good. He does it to be of service.  

Of course, Ruiz is just one man, and there are so many dogs in need, so he is constantly working to recruit other fashion and celebrity photographers to go into shelters and offer their services. He also recently put out a call to his followers on Instagram, urging the photographers among them (amateur and professional alike) to get involved and to DM him with any questions they might have about getting started. 

In addition to working with shelters directly, Ruiz also volunteers with Stand Up for Pits — photographing dogs for their annual Hope campaign — and New Leash on Life USA, an Philadelphia-based organization that brings rescue dogs into the prison system where they are trained by incarcerated individuals before being adopted. “The program runs for three months at a time,” Ruiz says. “I photographed their graduating class for the first time a few months ago and then I photographed the latest graduates [and their trainers] today.”

a dog with a person

Often, when Ruiz talks about dogs, he gets teary, especially when he talks about dogs in need. He wasn’t always like this, he says, but Oliver really opened something inside of him. 

When Oliver died in 2018, Ruiz immediately adopted another dog, Julia (pictured with Ruiz above), who lives with him now. When he got her she was only 32 pounds (she’s 65 pounds now) and covered in lacerations from bring horribly abused.

“It was heartbreaking: She used to stand facing the corner with her ears down,” Ruiz says. “It took two and a half years before she would even look me in the eyes.” But he kept at it, dedicating himself to her care even as he grieved the loss of Oliver.

Continuing the work after loss

Of course, there are many people who would insist on taking a break after the death of a beloved pet. Indeed, Ruiz often encounters former pet parents who say they could never adopt again, that they can’t imagine going through the inevitable heartbreak of another loss. But Ruiz is insistent that the best way to heal is to help another dog in need, especially since shelters across the U.S. are so overcrowded.

“You can bond [with a new dog] and grieve [an old dog] at the same time,” he says. “My therapist told me that and it’s true. The best way to honor your dog is to save another one.”

And if you can’t save them through adoption, maybe you can pick up a camera and help connect them with someone who can.

Any action you can take to help them will be a much-needed act of service. And if there is one thing Ruiz is certain of, it’s that helping them will help you, too. “It’s satisfying in a way that nothing else is,” he says. “Being a [dog parent] and helping dogs is the most gratifying part of my life.”

Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.

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