Karen Stevenson had the usual suspects as pets growing up: golden retrievers, cats, bunnies, and "a guinea pig at one point," though she describes cats as her current "pet of choice."
Her love for animals, though, has been a constant. And after adopting a cat from the Old Lyme Animal Control a few years back, she realized she could do more for the other pets waiting for homes at facilities across the state.
Stevenson, a photographer and the owner of Thumbnail Designs, a local graphic and web design business, launched The Shelter Me Project three years ago to help out shelter animals of all stripes, feathers and furs. The proceeds Stevenson raises from sales of the Shelter Me art calendar and prints of her photos is donated to regional rescue groups.
Stevenson's photographic approach to her subjects is a departure from the images of sadness or abandonment most often associated with shelters and the animals in their care.
"There is so much personification of sad little shelter pets," she says. "It pulls on the heart strings, but guilt doesn't translate into adoption. I try to show a more positive side. I just show happy they are for the attention and the love, even if it's five minutes of your day. They're just so excited."
Stevenson wants the animals to be seen "as the amazing pets" they would be, she says. "The perception is that they're the animals that nobody wants, and it's just not true. They're wonderful."
Black and white images, she says, help her capture her subject's expression, and offer a little window into the personality of each.
Last year, Stevenson, a native of Old Lyme now living in New London, was able to donate roughly $900 to the organizations included in the calendar.
But beyond financial support, Stevenson wants to get the word out on the spectrum of rescue work going on across the state.
"The overall thing is to raise awareness. There are over 300 shelter and rescue organizations," in Connecticut alone, she says.
The response so far, she adds, has been wonderful.
"One thing I was really surprised at — [the calendar] got picked up by the Daily Candy blog out of New York, and sales completely spiked," she says. "I've been selling to California, Boston, Seattle ... it shows people want to help in general."
With so many humane organizations working statewide, Stevenson says she had to come up with criteria for choosing which to profile. The groups featured in Shelter Me are 501(c) non-profits, no-kill and privately funded.
Diversity also factored into her selection.
"Everyone thinks cats and dogs," she says, "But there are ducks and geese rescue, chinchilla, ferret, miniature ponies ... just over the border in the New York, there's a hamster rescue. And then, of course, bunny rescue."
Hop-A-long Hollow in Norwalk, a rabbit and small animal rescue, is featured in the 2012 calendar, along with Forgotten Felines; Majestic Waterfowl Sanctuary of Lebanon; Ray of Light Farm in East Haddam, a large animal rescue and animal-assisted therapy center; Greener Pastures, an equestrian rescue in Salem; PAWS in Norwalk; the Meriden Humane Society; and Beech Brook Farm Equine Rescue in Mystic.
Stevenson's goal is to eventually work with 12 organizations, and devote a month to each. She said she hopes those who buy the calendar enjoy the images of the animals and the knowledge that they are helping to provide for their care.
"It would be too much to ask people to love the calendar as much as I do, because it's just that personal for me, but I hope they enjoy the beauty of these animals and seeing into their personalities."
And although she prefers being a cat owner, she said she's found something of a calling in rabbit photography.
"Photographing bunnies is the best thing ever," she smiles.