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Three greyhounds, two hairless cats, a turtle, a guinea pig … and a partridge in a pear tree? Santa’s white-gloved hands are full posing for pics across the country with everyone’s furry—or not-so-furry—family members. Shelters as far apart as Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee, Motley Zoo in Redmond, Washington, and Utah Humane Society in Murray offer locals and their pets face time with the big guy, often in return for a donation.
Finding the right Santa—a volunteer who loves animals, people and posing for many, many photos—is crucial to the tradition.
The beard won’t hide a grumpy attitude, says Jme Thomas, executive director at Motley Zoo, so if you want avoid photos that look like “Santa’s mug shot,” you need to choose wisely. “The key is to find someone who is happy, willing and—whether or not they look like Santa—will be in the spirit of the event and really smile,” Thomas says.
“Our Santa is the real deal, beard and all,” says Angela Speed, vice president of communications at Wisconsin Humane, which offers $10 photos with Santa (some families donate more). “He's a regular volunteer, but I swear ‘Santa’ is his favorite position here.”
At Motley Zoo’s yearly “Yappy Holidays” craft bazaar and bake sale, attendees can pose with Santa for a suggested $30 donation. This year, so many families wanted photos that the shelter couldn’t accommodate everyone in one day—which is why organizations like the Humane Rescue Alliance in D.C., which charges $20 a snap, rotates locations and Santas for three full weekends of Santa portraits in December.
Some shelters offer free photos, like Central Nebraska Humane Society in Grand Island, where staffers snap a photo on each person’s phone while those awaiting their turn with Santa enjoy cider and cookies, says director Laurie Dethloff. “It’s faster, easier and more relaxing for everyone and the pets,” she says. (For those seeking professional photos, the local Petco also teams up with the Nebraska shelter for two Saturdays in December.) But many shelters enlist a volunteer professional photographer, like Scott Gianchetta of The Photo Box, who’s been taking festive photos at Utah Humane for five years.
“I would estimate we have raised over $40,000 during these events over the years, and it has been an amazing turnout,” he says. “The joy we see on people’s faces when they leave their session with an 8-by-10 in hand is priceless.”
Holiday photos can also preserve memorable moments in shelter history—like Santa’s photo with Notorious P.I.G, a “micro pig” who was surrendered to Motley Zoo in late 2013. “She was like a human baby with very sharp teeth and a destructive little snout. … She was a very smart pig and trouble!” says Thomas, who was initially excited to foster the 10-pound pig but was happy to find her a new home with an experienced pig parent after “two long months.”
Notorious P.I.G. screamed “bloody murder” throughout her nonetheless adorable photo with Santa (scroll through, above, to see the shot). “It was quite an experience,” says Thomas.
Of course, all creatures great and micro are clueless about the man in the red suit—the events are really for the people behind the pets. But that’s what’s so great about the tradition, says Rachelle LeJeune, Wisconsin Humane event director.
“One of my favorite things about Santa pics is that we see many of the same families every year, year after year. I get to watch the kids grow up and see their families change with new additions,” she says. “It builds a cool sense of connection to be a part of such a memorable experience.”