MAIN ST ¬ó Row after row of cages, Santa Monican Steven Latham still remembers his first trip to an animal shelter.

“The spigot never turns off — animals are constantly coming in,” he said. “It’s an absolute societal tragedy.”

Latham, 43, adopted his first shelter pet five years ago. Now, half a decade later, the filmmaker is busy premiering the first episode of his new PBS series “Shelter Me,” which documents the plight of shelter pets and the lives they can change.

The series, which premieres tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Theatre on Second Street, also shines the spotlight on some of the problems prevalent in shelters, such as overpopulation created by those who fail to spay or neuter their pets, which leads to euthanization.

This first installment is a result of three years of bare bones sketching, planning, producing, directing and distributing.

“I didn’t get any notes from executives. The film I wanted to make was the end product,” Latham said. “It’s one of those things that if it wasn’t for the passion of our team [at Steven Latham Productions], a project like this would never get done.”

The incentive was certainly not monetary, he added. The film received outside help from A-list celebrities, as it was funded by Ellen Degeneres’ pet food company Halo: Purely For Pets and hosted by actress and animal activist Katherine Heigl.

But passion is evident in the film, which places a heavy emphasis on local involvement. All politics are local, and the only way to solve the shelter crisis is to call people to action and get them involved at their local shelters, Latham said.

“When somebody asks me what breed my dog is, I always say it’s a shelter dog — versus a breed,” Latham said recently over coffee at Santa Monica’s Urth Caffé. “Having a shelter pet is the new black; it’s the hip thing to have.”

Latham’s tongue-in-cheek statement exemplifies the need for adopting shelter animals. It’s obvious when you see the problems in the shelters, he said.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, roughly 5-7 million animals enter shelters nationwide every year, and approximately 3-4 million of those are euthanized.

¬ìThe way that we¬íre dealing with our companion animals is we¬íre killing … them,¬î Latham said.

Latham said pets enter shelters for a number of reasons, but strays and broken-home pets account for a large number of the dogs and cats in shelters. Pets are also euthanized for failing a temperament test, old age or abandonment.

His series, however, seeks to exploit the crisis with a silver lining: The three segments of “Shelter Me” not only illustrate how these animals are saved, but also how they impact the lives of their new owners.

“Shelter Me” first takes viewers to a shelter to capture the realities of the problem. The second snapshot, titled “Second Chances,” shows a women’s prison in Southern California where inmates train shelter dogs to become service pets for disabled people; and the last portion, titled “Coming Home,” portrays the relationships between Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and their shelter dogs, who assuage the pangs of their trauma.

“There are a lot of social issues that could really use bigger thinking, better marketing, better filmmaking, better ways to engage people — this is just subject matter that is near and dear to me,” Latham said. “Growing up I always had a passion and a love of animals.”

Latham was born in Springfield, Mass., but he spent his childhood in a small town called Hadley. Growing up he didn’t know that his passion was destined for the screen, so he attended Syracuse University to pursue an education in liberal arts.

Upon graduating from Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, the filmmaker followed the opportunities that were presented. Latham started working at some of Los Angeles’ big marketing and public relations firms, such as Ketchum Communications and Grey Advertising. Following a stint at Universal Worldwide Television, Latham started his eponymous production company.

It was through his work in the movie and television industries, Latham said, that he started to get inspiration for his own filmmaking.

“In 1999, I had this thought, ‘We’re never going to be in this position again, where we have people alive who have set foot in three separate centuries,’” he said.

This spark led to Latham’s first major project, “The Living Century,” which would become a PBS series about centenarians living in the 20th century. Co-produced with Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman of Barwood Films, episodes from “The Living Century” won 18 film festivals and helped launch Latham into his career as a filmmaker — specifically as the producer and director of a number of films, including “The Last Editor: The Jim Bellows Story,” “Saved by the Sun” and now “Shelter Me.”

Latham hopes to show his audience the positive aspects of adopting shelter pets, stressing that the film is really about redemption.

“I’m not sitting here, I’m not doing a polemic, I’m not preaching to people, I’m not doing sad, Sarah McLachlan commercials … my whole show is about hope, optimism and solving this problem,” he said. “It’s about celebrating these animals and celebrating the shelters — it’s a completely different tonality about how to address this issue.”


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