As every prospective Tinder dater knows, the first spark often starts with a photo. Kentucky photographer Maggie Epling is using that philosophy to help a group in desperate need of matchmaking: rescue pets at the Pike County Animal Shelter.
A 20-year-old writing, rhetoric, and digital studies major at the University of Kentucky, it's in Epling's nature to find ways to help and give back. So when her grandfather underwent open heart surgery earlier this year, there was no doubt that Epling would be spending the summer in Pikeville, Ky., about three hours from her studies in Lexington. In addition to helping her grandparents, Epling wanted to find something else to keep her busy and involved in the community during her summer months.
"I was going to do an internship, but I wanted something that would give me flexibility to take my grandfather to his appointments," Epling tells Daily Paws. It was that desire for flexibility that led her to the local animal shelter.
"The Pike County Animal Shelter is often overwhelmed and at capacity," she says. "There are no spay-and-neuter laws in Kentucky, and here in Appalachia stray dogs and cats are a big problem. When I offered to help, they seemed really grateful and appreciative."
Epling spends as much of her free time as possible at the shelter, getting to know some of its hundreds of animals and doing her best to help them find forever homes by giving them the best possible start: a good looking photo.
"Because the shelter is so inundated, the staff and volunteers are way too busy to spend time photographing the dogs," she says. "I spend anywhere from half an hour to an hour with each dog. I really think it's key to be patient.
"Because it's time-consuming, I usually only get to four or five dogs per day," she adds. "But I think it's worth it. I'm not just trying to take photos of what the dog looks like, I also want to capture their personalities."
The results of that time and patience are often remarkable. The photos that Epling provides for the shelter are often engaging, lighthearted, and show each animal's personality and inner warmth. These aren't just stray dogs and cats to scroll through on a website: Through Epling's lens, these animals are transformed into living, breathing friends who want someone to love.
It can be a slow process. Each dog or cat that Epling works with comes with their own personality that she needs to figure out. Sometimes there's an unknown, past trauma that she needs to work through to gain their trust. Other times, it's just a matter of working through the pent-up energy of a good dog in a small kennel. Epling does her best to meet each animal where they are.
"The goal is making the dog 100% comfortable before we go to the studio, since the lights can be a bit scary for them," she says. "If they trust me and are relaxed, it makes the photo process much less stressful. I would never force a dog to do something that made them uncomfortable; if they're really stressed, we just try again the next day."
All of that work and love and patience is beginning to pay off. Epling says that the shelter has seen an uptick in interest coming from people who say they've seen the new photos, and recently the shelter had its first adoption that was a direct result of Epling's work: a beagle named Wynonna.
"She is such a precious dog and had huge puppy dog eyes, but had issues finding a home because there are so many hound dogs looking for homes around here," Epling says. "I posted her photos to my Facebook page on a Saturday, and when I went to the shelter on Tuesday the staff told me someone had come in and said they knew they had to adopt her after seeing those photos. It really warmed my heart and instantly made all the effort worthwhile."
When the summer comes to an end, Epling will go back to Lexington to resume her studies. But as long as there are shelters full of animals looking for homes, the efforts of shelter volunteers and people like Epling with huge hearts and a desire to help will always be appreciated.
"I bond with every dog I photograph," she says. "It takes extra effort but I think it makes a big difference. People have told me they've fallen in love with a certain dog from my photos alone."