(photo by Sharon Hardy)

NINTH STREET — The Santa Monica Animal Shelter has a number of feline and canine friends that want to be your Valentine, and they’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Thanks to dedicated volunteers Sharon Hardy and Carmen Molinari, the animals at the shelter got glammed up for a Valentine’s Day photo shoot that shows them at their best to potential adopters.

The products, richly-colored shots featuring relaxed animals decked out in holiday finery surrounded by bouquets of roses and balloons, are a far cry from the quick snaps normally posted at Petfinder.com, the advertising service used by the shelter.

Prospective adopters come into the shelter expecting it to be a drab place with sad, morose animals, Molinari said.

“At this shelter, it’s not about just getting them food, water and a bed,” she said. “We spoil them.”

They certainly look spoiled.

Take Flo, a pit bull and lab mix adorned with a flowery headband sitting tranquilly on a pale pink throw, or Francisco, an orange tabby sunk luxuriously into a big, white cushion.

“It starts a dialogue about how we run the shelters, and do we need more donations or volunteers,” Molinari said. “The main thing is to get the community involved with us, to show them that the shelter is not a scary place, and there’s a lot of warmth and love here for the animals.”

Molinari will be the first to say that she approached Hardy about doing the photo shoots out of self interest.

She was looking for pictures for a shelter news letter that would catch the eye around Christmas time, and the generic shots of the animals poking at toys on the shelter yard weren’t cutting it.

Hardy began volunteering at the shelter two years ago when she was laid off of her job as a researcher for late night talk show host Conan O’Brien in the tumultuous time after he left NBC before his new show was picked up by TBS.

Although she later rejoined the new TBS show, Hardy explored the idea of a career move that would marry her photography hobby with her love of animals.

Molinari and Hardy got together and, with the support of other volunteers and the shelter leadership, put together first a Christmas and then New Year-themed shoots for the animals.

By round three, Valentine’s Day, the team had it down to a science. They baited the dogs and cats in, played with them, calmed them down and took the pictures.

The whole process took two days, and they managed to photograph over 20 animals.

The real trick was getting to know the dogs well enough to know what motivated their good behavior.

“For some it’s treats, for others they need balls or toys,” Hardy said.

The women wrapped up the shoot in style.

“After we knew we had all the shots we needed, we let the most energetic dog at the time, a pit bull named Ajax, come in and trample all of the balloons on set,” Hardy wrote in an e-mail. “One by one, he popped every single one of them.”

The dog, now happily adopted, had the time of his life, Hardy said.

The work whetted Hardy’s appetite for her new artistic pursuit. Just last year, she decided to leave the entertainment world to focus full time on Sweet Potato Pet Photos.

“It was a hard decision, I’d spent all of my adult life at the show,” Hardy said. Her former co-workers have been very supportive, some sending photography gigs her way, she said.

Both women credit Martin Hernandez and the shelter staff for giving them the latitude to take on the project.

Pictures do make a difference, Hernandez, the volunteer coordinator at the shelter, said.

“It’s a nice way for people to see the dogs,” Hernandez said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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