Spring is here in many parts of the country! The grass is growing, the flowers are blooming, and whatever-the-heck is throwing off pollen in Florida has my sinuses in an uproar. Easter is just a couple of weeks away. Wait – EASTER? Ohmygosh, it’s time to get pictures of the kids with freshly hatched baby chicks, ducks, and rabbits! (Wait. Rabbits don’t hatch. Oh, you know what I mean….).
Using live animals such as baby chicks, ducks, and rabbits in photo shoots is a popular spring portrait theme. As with many of our TrendSpotter posing techniques, I completely see the adorable factor in these images, and I understand why people want them. I just want to talk a little bit about what to think about when you’re planning these kinds of portraits.
FOR PARENTS TO CONSIDER:
- Live animals can bite and scratch. It’s unlikely, but possible, and you need to be aware of it.
- Baby animals are fragile. Kids drop things all the time. Baby animals aren’t designed to be dropped.
- Chicks and ducklings can harbor salmonella. In fact, the CDC recommends that children under the age of five not handle baby chicks and ducks for this reason. As a mom whose 9-month-old son got salmonella from contaminated watermelon, please let me assure you that you do NOT want your child to get it. Yes, it runs its course in most healthy kids in a couple of weeks and leaves no trace of harm behind – but two weeks of diarrhea in a diaper-wearing child is a nightmare. Despite my best efforts, my son got a rash so bad it made ME cry. (This might be TMI, but we’re talking bleeding diaper rash here. He’s ten now. I might still cry, thinking about it.)
- Baby animals will poop and/or urinate in the portrait studio. This is just a fact. The animal may be near your kid when it does its business, or perhaps even sitting on his/her lap. Just a heads up.
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS TO CONSIDER:
- Everything listed above as concerns for the parents.
- Having hatched and raised chicks myself, I can tell you that for such cute little buggers, they STINK. WOW. They dirty up their cages with alarming speed, and require bedding changes daily just to keep the stink at a manageable level.
- Babies grow fast. The window for which to attain images of a child with a teensy baby chickie or duckie is very, very small. The photographer will have to very carefully schedule these sessions, with strict attention to getting 2-day-old chicks in the studio for the sessions.
- Babies are babies. They need lots of rest. You cannot expect to have one chick in your studio and pass it from child to child all day long – this could harm the chick. You will need to have more than one animal available. Keep the animal’s best interests in mind.
- These animals are considered more ‘exotic’ pets, and they do require special care. Often baby animals require warming lamps to stay alive, since they don’t have their fur/feathers yet.
- What’s going to happen to those babies after the portrait sessions? Unless you borrow animals for the sessions, you’re going to need a plan for them after your sessions are complete. You might think it will be easy – “Oh, I’ll just put an ad on Craigslist offering free chicks, someone will take them…” – but that’s not smart. You need to have a plan BEFORE you get the animals.
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So should you, as a parent, take your kids to portrait sessions with live animals? Should you, as a photographer, offer these sessions?
My answer is a resounding “Yes, BUT.” Here’s what I’d recommend to keep the children – and the animals – safe.
- If the child is under the age of five, keep the CDC recommendations in mind. Consider a setup where the children are sitting (or laying on their bellies) near the animals, rather than holding them. Many photographers choose this option, to keep things safe for both child and animals – and the images are adorable! If you do opt to have the child actually hold the animals, be ready with the antibacterial gel the instant the animal comes out of their hands, and then go to the bathroom and wash wash wash again. Also remember the speed with which small children can get their hands from their laps to their mouths – and stay within reach, so that the hands, with or without an animal in them!, do not go into the mouth before you can disinfect.
- Extra hands are a good thing to have at these sessions. Wrangling little ones of multiple species requires more than one adult! Put someone in charge of handling the animals, and someone in charge of handling the children.
- Have a soft basket to keep the animals in when they are not being photographed, so that they can be quickly and carefully set in a safe place if needed during the session.
- Tell the children that you will hand the animals to them and take them out of their hands. Instruct them not to set the animals down, as they could accidentally drop them while trying to do so.
- Remember to tell the kids that the animals are fragile. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen parents hand a newborn chick to a two year old at Tractor Supply without telling them this is a tiny baby! Explain that when handled correctly, they will not hurt the child in any way. Show them how to touch carefully, with one finger, to avoid accidental over-hugging.
- Let the child determine how much, or how little, contact he/she would like to have with the animal. If they don’t want to hold it, don’t insist.
- Be ready with a roll of paper towels and disinfectant spray to deal with any messes instantly. Because they will happen, and without warning. Have a change of clothes for the children, in case they get pooped on.
To get a little perspective from a professional photographer who does these types of sessions, I spoke to Mary of Mary Barnett Photography, who provided the adorable bunny pictures at the top of this post. She also walked me through her process from start to finish, and had some great tips to share!
Mary says: “I have done bunny sessions for many years and gotten them in various ways but the BEST bunnies to use are those who are family or classroom pets. My first priority is the safety of both the kids and the bunnies. Knowing that the animals have been handled daily by children since they were very young puts everyone at ease. My bunny sessions usually last approximately 20 minutes – about 10 of which they are actually in contact with the animal.
When using animals (bunnies) in sessions I always try to get a feel for how the child will react to the animal. When a client arrives I show the child the bunnies in their cage. I then pick one up and ask if they would like to pet it. I snuggle with the bunny and give it lots of kisses to assure the child that the bunny is calm and gentle. (Of course the bunny has to actually BE calm and gentle – this goes back to the source of the bunnies. I discourage getting bunnies from a mass breeder – they typically are not handled and should not be around small children. ) By asking if they’d like to pet it you can easily tell how eager the child is to be around the animal.
When it’s time to start shooting I first close the door to the room I’m using to shoot. I always start the session with the child in the position I’d like them to be in and put the bunny in a basket on the floor next to them. This lets them be close without actually touching the animal. After a few shots and giggles I ask if they would like to pet the bunny. After a few more shots we then move on to actually holding the bunny if they are comfortable. I make sure they are sitting on the floor and that if the bunny does hop off it can’t be hurt by a fall. I show them how to support the bunny’s feet and if at any time they don’t want to hold them bunny just tell me and we will take it away. I triple check that they are ready to hold the bunny and gently place it in their lap. Some kids will be perfectly comfortable doing this and some will do it to please mom or dad but have a terrified look on their face. That’s when I take the bunny and do some non-bunny shots to give the kid and bunny a break. I also have some hay on hand (provided by the owner) to ask the kids if they’d like to feed the bunnies. This sometimes aids in getting them closer to the bunnies to get some cute shots.
I always have more than one bunny and alternate which one I use. Oh, and always be prepared. Bunnies pee and poop a lot. You will not get through a bunny session day without some of both.”
Thank you so much for the tips and the images, Mary!
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AND….ONE MORE THING, PHOTOGRAPHERS:
While researching this article, the topic of licensing came to my attention. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that a license might be required to use animals in your portrait sessions, but I called the USDA and spoke to a lady named Vicky in their Raleigh office. Here’s what Vicky told me:
- Photographers do count as ‘promotional exhibitors’ in terms of animals. So they do need to be licensed yearly by the USDA to legally use animals in sessions.
- The fee for this licensing is not prohibitive. You have to fill out an application, and then have a simple inspection of where you’ll be using the animals to get licensed. The fee can be up to $45 for the application and inspection, depending on your area (it may be less). Then, the yearly licensing fee depends on how many animals you are going to use. For 1-5 animals the yearly fee is $40. For 6-25 animals the fee is $85.
- Ducks, chicks and reptiles are not animals that are covered under these USDA guidelines. So to shoot those animals you do not need a permit or USDA licensing. The licensing requirement applies to mammals – so using bunnies or lambs in your spring portraits would require that you get the license.
- One of the stipulations of getting the license is that you have to ‘provide vet care’ for the animals. This does not mean you have to have a veterinarian on site. I gave Vicky a hypothetical setup – let’s say I got licensed to work with bunnies, and I have a vet I normally work with for my dogs and cats. If I contact that vet and have him on standby, knowing that I may call him for veterinary assistance while I am working with these animals, does that count as ‘providing vet care?’ Vicky said yes it does, that is sufficient. They just need to know you have a safety net for the animals in case it is needed.