Interview With : Lisa Prince Fishler, Pet Photographer, Founder & Executive Director, HeARTs Speak
Updated on: 15 Nov 2015
An idealist, artist and advocate, it was hard for Lisa Prince Fishler to find a place in the traditional workforce that resonated with her. That is, until she founded the nonprofit HeARTs Speak, a global network of photographers, writers, artists and animal advocates who provide their time and professional services, pro bono, to animal welfare organizations, with a goal of finding permanent homes for all homeless animals. In this interview, Fishler and I discuss how she came to be a voice for these animals, and she shares the rewards and challenges of following her passion to find her purposeful work.
Caroline Kim Oh: So, what is your story? What were you doing before you founded HeARTs Speak?
Lisa Prince Fishler: My parents have always been my models for how I wanted to live. My mother was an abstract artist, and she loved animals more than she loved most people. [laughs] I learned about love and respect for all beings from my parents. My dad, who was a research scientist, would get up at 5am and work all day. He developed a solvent that cleans the blood of hepatitis B and AIDS, and he discovered the first hepatitis B vaccine. He absolutely loved what he did. He was a big deal in his field, but never acted like he was one. He treated everyone like they were important, because to him they were.
Having grown up around them, I had a tough time finding my way after college. I would get a job, and it felt as if everyone was stuck in a little box with a "boss" who was more concerned with asserting their authority than listening to any ideas they might have. It didn't feel like the right way to live.
In 2005, I adopted my dog Iggy; he is very, very special, and I love him dearly. Because of Iggy, I learned that 8 million animals enter the U.S. shelter system each year and that only about 35% are adopted. A whopping 2.7 million animals are euthanized annually, and a large percentage of them are just like Iggy. The activist in me woke up at that moment. I started volunteering for a local rescue organization and photographing adoptable dogs to help them get noticed and adopted. This led to opening my own pet photography business, Printz Photography. For me, my love for animals helped me find my artistic medium and meaningful work for myself.
How did you start HeARTs Speak?
2.7 million animals being put to sleep is disheartening, but I learned that if we could simply increase the number of people adopting by 5%, these numbers could be reduced to zero. I continued to photograph rescue and shelter animals on a pro bono basis, and found that many photographers did not feel the same about the issue as I did. As a business owner, I was too often torn between working for paying clients and volunteering my time to help animals that, in some cases, were in danger of being killed in kill shelters. In 2009, I started a Facebook page to seek a community of like-minded photographers willing to help save animals at risk of euthanization.
Social media was powerful. A few hundred people from all over the world joined the page in the first month. Clearly there was a need. We incorporated in 2010. Many of the people who joined our Facebook page in 2009 are still working with me. At that time, I was clear on what I wanted to do, but I wasn't certain how I might make it happen. But every single person who wanted to get involved to get the organization off the ground had something unique to contribute. Letting everyone do what they did best for the cause was what allowed HeARTs Speak to become what it is today.
Tell me more about the work you do at HeARTs Speak.
A photograph of a frightened dog hovering in the corner does not compel most people to run to the shelter to adopt. Our professional photographers capture their personalities: the humor and wonder in each animal we work with. They literally shine the light on these animals.
One program we are very proud of is the Perfect Exposure Project (PEP). PEP equips high-intake shelters with professional photography equipment and two-day training workshops. Our professional photographers and volunteers help bring out the creative skills of shelter staff and volunteers when photographing and promoting adoptable animals. This format not only address the immediate needs of animals currently in the shelter system, but also helps to dispel the shelter pet stereotypes.
This woman, Sherry Stinson, who has been a long-time HeARTs Speak volunteer, works with Tulsa Animal Welfare. The shelter's euthanasia rate when Sherry initially started was 65% of the over 12,000 animals admitted. When we checked a year ago, 78% of their dogs made it out alive.
Another member, Kaye Ness, has photographed about 800 animals. KC Pet Project in Kansas City, the shelter Kaye helps most regularly, has gone from a 31.4% adoption rate in 2006 to a remarkable 93.8% in 2013, and a large factor of this improvement is the quality photographs Kaye helps to provide.
There are 13,600 animal shelters in the US, and 3,312 of them have received help from HeARTs Speak.
How big is your staff?
I'm onboarding our first two full-time staff members this fall. I cannot tell you how excited I am.
When I tell people that I've been doing this work just with my wonderful board of six and mostly volunteer staff, they are always surprised. Currently we have more than 500 active members, including photographers, videographers, authors, graphic designers, sculptors and painters, working in 46 states.