When pet photographer Carli Davidson found out that she had successfully sold her first book, a collection of shaking-dog pictures called Shake, she was standing outside a grocery store in Portland, Oregon. With her agent on the line, she started jumping in the air. The path to publication had been a long and difficult journey for Davidson. Just a few years before, she had been shoveling shit–literally–in a zoo.
These days, however, her career and artistic work are going quite well. Speaking on the phone, Davidson, whom I’ve known from the New York punk rock scene since we were teenagers, talked about how she’s been hiring her friends to work on television commercial crews for huge brands like National Geographic and Purina. Her newest book, Shake Cats, is due late this October. “I work with my friends on crazy jobs where you have a budget, fly to California, set stuff up, get a whole crew together, execute projects. . . . It’s one of the things I enjoy the most, actually.”
Davidson didn’t always know she was going to be a pet photographer. The daughter of a Madison Avenue art director, Davidson was exposed to the advertising industry from a young age. But she worked a series of odd jobs after moving to the Pacific Northwest at age 20–jobs that ranged from being a “grease monkey” at a Jiffy Lube car repair shop to working the door at a bar to serving as a shop clerk in an adult bookstore. In between, Davidson also worked more prestigious side jobs, including a stint as a photographer for Washington state’s House of Representatives. But although she liked photography, Davidson says she lacked the passion to do it for a living.
In Portland, she ended up making a fateful work decision. To keep herself from spending all her free time drinking at the bar with her friends, Davidson looked for volunteer opportunities that involved working with animals. The Portland Zoo needed volunteers, and Davidson quickly found herself working in animal “enrichment.”
“Enrichment is what we try to give animals to stimulate them so they’re not totally bored and unhealthy,” Davidson told me. “You create it to simulate behavior they’d have in the wild. I made ice treats for sea otters, for instance. It helps them have a healthy mental state closer to what a wild otter would have.”
“We would take an empty bottle, fill it with shellfish and water, freeze it, and then they would spend time breaking the bottle with a shell to get at the ice. One of the fun things for me is animal care because I don’t generally like to see animals in captivity, but I like giving animals a better quality of life. Enrichment was a puzzle, and you want to see what you can do to make animals as happy as they can possibly be in captivity. That creativity was really fun for me.” It also made her realize that her future career path would involve working with animals rather than working in retail.
Then a car accident in 2009 set Davidson on a new path–one that would see her return to photography. At the time of her accident, Davidson had been working at the Oregon Zoo with school groups and on the institution’s birds-of-prey show. Davidson had to quit due to injuries from the accident that made it impossible for her to do manual labor. The heavy lifting and close physical work with animals that is an integral part of zoo life was now impossible for her.
“I asked around with my friends at retail shops, bars, and elsewhere for work while I was getting better, but nobody had work. I mean, my friends were letting their employees go. I couldn’t even get a dog-walking job. It was that desperation of not being able to get another job that gave me a push to just pick up a camera and go shooting.” When she was working at the zoo, she would take pictures of animals like polar bears in action during their enrichment activities. A friend who worked at the zoo told her she had a knack for photographing animals, and encouraged her to keep at it.
Dealing with unemployment and looking for a way to stay creative while between jobs, her animal photography projects became more and more frequent. The photos built a cult following on social networking sites and in Portland, which eventually led to a book deal. Her breakthrough project was a photo collection of disabled pets, which introduced her to a mass audience.
“I was never good at selling myself on that level necessarily, but taking all these photos and working on these projects . . . within a year of doing that, my work got really popular. It was just kind of a desperate situation that worked.” Three years later, Davidson’s book made the New York Times best-seller list.
Living in Portland with her husband, Tim, and pets Saul and Yoshi, Davidson now has an envious job: getting paid to take pictures of dogs and cats being ridiculous. And she enjoys it: As she put it, she gets to work with animals all day, understand how to get them to enjoy being photographed, travel frequently, and run a business on her own terms. A gallery of her work can be found here.