Features & Essays

The Animal Project

A Fort Collins photographer commits to a 100-day challenge in hopes of reconnecting to her passion.

SCROLLING THROUGH HER Facebook feed one gray day in early January 2016, photographer Erin Thames paused on a post, intrigued. She’d been feeling restless; whereas her longtime photography passion had once satiated her, it now felt like she’d reached some sort of plateau. Pulling her Canon out of the case didn’t excite her the way it once had.

The post challenged members of a private photography group to participate in a 100-day passion project where they committed to spending 10 minutes a day, 100 days in a row, on a chosen project. It offered a way for artists to tackle a meaningful project, while holding each other accountable and sharing valuable feedback along the journey.

Thames mulled the idea over for an afternoon, trying to envision a project that would help her rekindle the flame. “Animals are the one subject I never tire of,” explains Thames about her decision to pursue what she called her 100 Days of Animals project. “It’s kind of hard to explain but I’ve always felt like I could communicate with them on an energetic level.”

That’s not surprising, considering Thames’s naturally intuitive, gentle disposition. She’s been volunteering her time at local animal shelters, taking photos of orphaned animals for years now. Even animals that suffered previous abuse and distrusted strangers have been known to sidle up to her in two sniffs. Perhaps its because Thames has battled chronic pain for a dozen years and knows what it’s like to hurt.

And maybe that was part of the impetus for her project as well, even if she didn’t realize it at the time. Behind the lens, the hurt fades away.

Thames has gravitated toward nearly every animal she encounters since she was a tiny, tow-headed toddler. She’s drawn to their unconditional love, and vice versa.

At the start of the project, Thames envisioned snapping photos of loveable dogs and cats, perhaps a rogue gerbil and maybe even a handful of farm animals, if she was lucky. Hoping to dig a bit deeper, she put out a social media casting call. Within two days, more than 75 people reached out.

Immediately the original “10 minutes per day” parameters went out the window. For more than three months, Thames wove her way around Fort Collins and the surrounding area, hiking up mountainsides and venturing into barns, lying on many a hair-covered couch or floor with a singular mission: To photograph as many different types of critters as she could. She even overcame her lifelong squeamish reaction to creepy crawlies to visit Colorado State University’s Bug Zoo, where she documented termites, Hercules beetles, tarantulas and scorpions.

In the end, she photographed more than 150 animals, the types of which went far beyond just cats (11) and dogs (40-plus). Part of the list reads like a toddler board book focused on teaching numbers and animals concurrently: One hamster, one hedgehog, two guinea pigs, two lizards, three bunnies, four turtles, five horses, six types of birds and seven goats.

At one home, Thames took photos of the family’s four beloved pets: a dog, two gerbils and a rosy boa constrictor named Killer Dirt. Despite being slightly phobic when it comes to snakes, Thames bravely photographed the reptile, letting loose just a few high-pitched screams as he moved toward her lens.

One of the most beloved photos from the project is of a hedgehog named Clover who is pictured perched in a delicate teacup. Thames got the shot shortly after Clover briefly escaped, scurrying under the couch to her owner’s dismay. “I’d never been around a hedgehog before and I was surprised at how spikey they feel and that they huff at you when they’re nervous,” Thames says.

Unbeknownst to Thames, quite a few of the subjects were sick at the time. “By the end of the project, twelve of the animals had passed away,” Thames said. “It meant so much to me to be able to document these beloved pets for their humans.”

Clover was one of the unlucky ones—she died suddenly from wobbly hedgehog syndrome shortly before the project ended. But her memory lives on—that hedgehog in a teacup photo is Thames’s top-selling greeting card.

The most memorable shoot involved two Akita dogs, Yoko, who is 10 years old, and her younger pal, Fonzy.

“As I had them on the hillside of the Poudre Canyon posing together, Sonny, the family’s cat, walked right in front of them and I was able to capture all three animals. It was almost as if Sonny was saying ‘Don’t mess with my dogs.’ It was a perfect moment to capture.”

A blind 11-year-old Australian cattle dog named Molly is featured in a handful of the photos from the project. Molly, who Thames refers to as her “muse” because their connection was strong from the minute they met, was next on the kill list at a shelter in Adams County back in 2009 when her owners rescued her. A degenerative retinal disease has left her completely blind for two-and-a-half years now, but that hasn’t changed her sweet demeanor.

“Molly is so trusting of humans, especially her person, Crystal, that she let me put her on high staircases and ledges and Molly would listen and trust to stay there for the shots. And to get the best high ears and faces out of her, we’d ask her, ‘want to go see grandma?’ or ‘want to go see your kitty?’”

Over at Flower Lion Farm, a small family farm that raises and sells Nigerian dwarf and mini Nubian goats, Thames had the chance to photograph a pair of tiny baby goats born just two hours prior.

“They were learning to walk and talk while I was there. I’ve since fallen in love with goats,” Thames says.

Thames discovered her most animated subject in a talkative Russian Blue cat named Matchka.

“She was such a little ham,” Thames says. “Her parents were so ecstatic for her session; they kept showing me more and more of her tricks. She was very much their baby.” Thames captured a photo of Matchka fully stretched out on her back, looking at the camera as she yawned.

Thanks to this project, Thames has found a bit of niche. Pet parents book her regularly for photo sessions of their beloved animals. There has also been a lot of interest in end-of-life sessions.

“It’s so important to these families to have really beautiful photos of their pets to remember them by,” Thames says. “Luckily, two or three of the sessions I’ve done for dogs who had cancer have since gone into remission. It’s awesome.”

It’s clear the passion that once waned for Thames has since returned. There’s new meaning and a renewed sense of purpose that shines through her recent work.

Reinvigorated, Thames recently got certified for Reiki—a healing technique where a therapist aims to restore physical and emotional well-being to a patient by touching and channeling energy into them, activating the body’s natural healing process. And this spring, Thames kicked off her next passion project, dubbed “Connection,” which will mostly include animals but might include people as well. The project kicked off with Violet, a pot-bellied pig, and Chance, a German shepherd. The two are buddies and cuddle up for naptime.

“I want to show that despite our differences, love is everywhere. We are living in a time of division and I know for me and others, there is a lot of anxiety for the future of our country,” Thames says. “That being said, you see so many people coming together to support each other and create change. At the very least, I want to lighten people’s hearts a bit. Love has no boundaries.”

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