Give Me Shelter: Hadley native’s new documentaries look at artistic dog, cat adoptions in city hall

  • Dagger, also known as “DogVinci,” shows off one of his paintings in “Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness,” a new documentary by Hadley native Steven Latham. IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVEN LATHAM

  • Actress and comedian Wendie Malick introduces one of Steven Latham’s new documentaries on shelter animals, “Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness.” IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVEN LATHAM

  • In a scene from “Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness,” a dog named Luka searches through rubble to find a “victim” at a center in California that trains rescue dogs. Image courtesy Steven Latham

  • City Hall in Long Beach, California becomes “Kitty Hall” for one day each year as volunteers and animal shelter staff encourage adoptions of cats. IMAGE BY STEVEN LATHAM

  • A cat finds a new home at the “Kitty Hall” adoption staged in Long Beach, Calif., in a scene from Hadley native Steve Latham’s film “Shelter Me: Building Inspiration.” IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVEN LATHAM

  • Hadley native and filmmaker Steven Latham with actress Wendie Malick, who introduces “Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness.” IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVEN LATHAM

  • Steven Latham, at left, and his film crew pose with Jackson Galaxy, middle of front row, who introduces “Shelter Me: Building Inspiration.” IMAGE COURTESY OF STEVE LATHAM

Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2021 10:14:45 AM

In the months after the pandemic hit in early 2020, there was a rush on animal shelters in many parts of the country as people and families isolated at home went looking for four-legged companions.

But as Steven Latham sees it, that rush was a temporary blip in an otherwise sad situation in which millions of dogs and cats languish in shelters, typically from the neglect of previous owners, and because some people have negative perceptions of shelter animals and are unwilling to adopt them.

Latham, a Hadley native turned California filmmaker, has been on a mission for almost a decade now to raise awareness of the plight of shelter animals by making documentary films that highlight the different ways in which volunteers, animal trainers and specific communities try to improve conditions for these dogs and cats — and to find homes for them.

Latham’s “Shelter Me” film series has profiled volunteers who fly shelter dogs to people living in remote parts of the country; a group that takes shelter kittens to Alzheimer’s facilities to help elderly people engage more with life through caring for the animals; and trainers who work with shelter staff to improve ways to socialize abandoned dogs.

And at their heart, the films are also about the bonds people and animals can share.

Two new films by Latham, “Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness,” and “Shelter Me: Building Inspiration,” are set to air on WGBY-TV/NEPM in Springfield at different times on April 8, April 11 and April 15. His new documentaries examine a number of topics, including shelter dogs that are trained at a California facility to become rescue animals, as well as a city that turns its city hall once a year into a center for cat adoptions.

In a recent call from Los Angeles, Latham, a 1987 Hopkins Academy graduate who later studied communications at Syracuse University, said a key focus of his films has been finding stories “that address larger social issues. It’s not just about people adopting a dog or cat, but the way helping these animals can bring people together for a bigger cause or spark creative thinking.”

For instance, one segment of “Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness” profiles painter Yvonne Dagger, who lives in a town on Long Island, New York, and has taught her rescue dog, Dagger, to hold a paintbrush in its mouth and paint canvases. The story of “DogVinci,” as the black lab/golden retriever mix is known, went viral a few years ago, and Yvonne Dagger and her black-furred friend have since been featured in media stories from around the world.

More appealing to Latham, however, was the fact that Yvonne Dagger takes her dog — wearing a red beret — into countless schools to lead painting workshops for children and encourage their creativity. DogVinci’s paintings have also been widely sold, with the money going to a range of charities (Latham bought one himself, as did his parents, Raymond and Esther, who still live in Hadley).

“I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a gimmick, not just a cute story,” he said. “So we [his film company] spent time on location with Yvonne and Dagger, and I was struck by how this was just a great example of the way animals can bring people together for really good causes.” 

That aside, it’s fun in the film to watch Dagger lay down his brushstrokes — Yvonne Dagger prepares the dog’s paintbrush and turns his canvases so that he can reach all parts of them — and to hear her say, without irony, “His style is pure, abstract art.”

“Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness” also looks at the work done in a training center in southern California, where shelter dogs learn how to find victims from disasters; the dogs negotiate piles of rubble, sprawled train cars and other mock settings that mimic the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, highway collapses and train wrecks.

Latham said the training center specifically works to bring in shelter dogs that have been deemed too antsy and energetic for home adoption and could well be euthanized otherwise. Firefighters and other emergency responders from around the country come out to volunteer their time to work with the dogs.

“Again, it’s people coming together to share their love of animals, and in this case, it’s also to train dogs to save lives,” Latham said. 

“Shelter Me: Building Inspiration” offers a short segment on how Long Beach, California, with the cooperation of Mayor Robert Garcia, turns its city hall once a year into a “Kitty Hall,” as a local animal shelter and volunteers encourage people to adopt a cat there. The film also profiles a Florida group, Rescue Rebuild, that, with the help of scores of volunteers, redesigns animal shelters to make them both a more comfortable place for animals and a more welcoming location for people to adopt a pet.

Latham has enlisted a number of Hollywood personalities over the years, such as Hillary Swank, Jon Hamm, and Kristen Bell, to introduce the “Shelter Me” films; the new ones are introduced by Wendie Malick and Jackson Galaxy. The filmmaker also practices what he preaches, having adopted a number of shelter dogs himself.

He says he’ll be debuting some additional films in the series in June, and he’s also been working on a film about wild horses — mustangs — in the U.S. and the debate surrounding their future.

His films about animals, he said, “are a passion for me. I love connecting people on this issue.”

“Shelter Me: The Art of Kindness” is scheduled to air on WGBY/NEPM April 8 at 10 p.m. and April 11 at 3 p.m. “Shelter Me: Building Inspiration” is scheduled to run April 11 at 4 p.m. and April 15 at 10 p.m. Visit nepm.org/#stream/0 for more information.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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