Celebrating shelter pets: Hopkins Academy grad’s ‘Shelter Me’ series continues on PBS this weekend

  • Actress Allison Janey, who introduces “Shelter Me: New Beginnings,” with Hadley native Steven Latham, the producer and director of the documentary. Both Janey and Latham have adopted dogs from animal shelters. Martin_Ehleben

  • Bill Andeson kisses his newly adopted dog, Hitch (formerly named Knuckles), who was flown from a Los Angeles animal shelter to northern Idaho. Martin Ehleben

  • A dog “playgroup” led by Aimee Sadler, far left, at the Philadelphia animal shelter. Sadler shows animal attendants how to improve the dogs’ well-being by having them socialize, in turn making them better candidates for adoption. Martin_Ehleben

  • A resident of Copper Canyon, an assisted living facility in Tucson, Arizona, helps foster a kitten in the latest “Shelter Me” documentary. Submitted Photo

  • Actress Hilary Swank, host of the latest “Shelter Me” documentary, and Steven Latham, a Hadley native and Hopkins Academy graduate. Submitted Photo

  • A resident of Copper Canyon, an assisted living facility in Tucson, Arizona, helps foster a kitten in the latest “Shelter Me” documentary. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2020 10:46:07 PM
Modified: 2/20/2020 10:45:56 PM

Shelter animals have a best friend in documentary filmmaker Steven Latham, a Hadley native and Hopkins Academy graduate who has spent the past decade producing a series of films designed to inspire people and get them involved in rescuing abandoned pets.

The series, called “Shelter Me,” is aimed at overcoming people’s negative perceptions of shelter dogs and cats by showing how they can make great friends and companions.

“There’s still a perception that animals at a shelter might be damaged,” Latham said Wednesday in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “The Northeast is very good about responsible pet ownership, but there’s still a lot of people buying from breeders.”

The latest installment, “Shelter Me: In Times of Need,” will debut Sunday at 5 p.m. on WGBY-TV, Channel 57.

The Pioneer Valley — with the Dakin Animal Shelter in Leverett and Springfield, and the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center in Springfield — is a better place than most in regard to its acceptance of shelter animals, Latham said, but there is still work to be done.

At Dakin, Executive Director Carmine DiCenso said it’s hard to quantify the impact the “Shelter Me” series has on shelters, but he observes that more messaging about adoption and getting more information to the public about shelters is a good thing. The Northeast, DiCenso said, has long been pro-shelter and pro-rescue, even more so than when he joined the field in 1996.

 ​​​​“Through educational efforts and public messaging, we did get a lot of success. People really want that shelter animal,” DiCenso said. “But other parts of the country still struggle with that perception.”

“I’m hopeful, but we have a long way to go,” Latham said. “It’s still a message that needs to be driven home.”

Latham’s newest hourlong film, hosted by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, is divided into three parts.

One segment is about a program in Tucson, Arizona, where Alzheimer’s facilities foster orphaned kittens. These kittens get the 24-hour care they need to survive while engaging senior citizens in the memory care unit.

The second segment is about a pet that becomes a hospital therapy dog, while the third is on an organization that works in underserved communities to build free fences for people who otherwise would keep their dogs tied up all day.

The latest production is the first of six films in the series that Latham will debut on PBS stations this year, which will bring the total number of documentaries in the “Shelter Me” series to 13.

A 1987 graduate of Hopkins Academy whose parents, Raymond and Esther, still live in Hadley, Latham practices what he preaches, living with two shelter dogs, a Great Dane and a pit bull terrier.

Latham said he has been fortunate to get celebrity hosts like Swank to take part in the documentaries. Others who have done similar roles in Latham’s productions include Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch, John Legend and Allison Janney. Just this week, in fact, Latham filmed a segment in Topanga Canyon with Wendie Malick.

“Every host has said yes because they’ve all said they care about the human-animal bond,” Latham said.

While the “Shelter Me” series is one part of his work, Latham is also completing other documentaries. One of these, “Wild Horses in America,” focused on mustangs. The film played at the Santa Barbara film festival and will premiere at theaters across the country this year.

Previous episodes of “Shelter Me” have looked at ways in which shelter dogs have been trained to help others, such as becoming companions to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or working with fire departments as rescue dogs.

Coming episodes will have segments on a “DogVinci,” a painting dog whose works are sold to raise money for charity, and a police officer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has dogs ride along in hopes of having them adopted into the community.

Latham anticipates that he will have support for telling the stories about the homeless pets and the people who help them, noting that the project is funded by both the Petco Foundation and the Wallis Annenberg PetSpace.

“The secret sauce to ‘Shelter Me’ is this is as much about the people as it is the animals,” Latham said. “It’s really a celebration of the bond between people and animals.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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