SOUTH LOOP — After Lauren Paris and her boyfriend Jason Bartlett adopted their cat Bruno — who had gone viral because of his “thicc” body type and penchant for standing on his hind legs — they knew the only way to manage his internet fame was to start an Instagram account.
“When I first saw his pictures I freaked out and I know that reaction was not unique: He’s hilarious,” Paris said.
Within weeks, South Loop resident Bruno had more than 70,000 followers and is now represented by The Dog Agency, a pet talent agency that works with more than 100 unique pets.
Now, Paris said, “the greatest responsibility that we have for Bruno’s platform is sharing shelters and adoptable animals specifically where Bruno came from which is Wright-Way Rescue.”
The suburban Morton Grove-based shelter needs help financially, and spreading the word about adoptable pets, she said.
In an age of social media oversharing, cute critters are not only subject to their owner’s photo whims, but also are influential presences in their own right, snagging media coverage and sponsorship deals from big brands.
But some of these animals, like Bruno, use their platform to raise awareness about the large numbers of pets needing to be adopted. Although these numbers have been declining since 2011, 6.5 million animals enter shelters in the U.S. each year and 1.5 million are euthanized, according to ASPCA.
In Chicago, shelters have recently faced an overwhelming number of rescue cats and the city’s largest no-kill shelter PAWS has dealt with capacity issues.
Many shelters, such as the Logan Square-based One Tail at a Time, turn to social media to connect potential owners with pets. Adoption center manager Alli Rooney said many learn about the shelter through Instagram, where it has more than 21,000 followers.
“The dogs all have pretty distinct personalities, so it’s more just about being at the right place and time to get a good pic…” Rooney said. “The most important thing is to have fun with it. We’ve increased our followers by 10,000 in this past year, and I think it’s due in part to the fun voice the account has and how cute our dogs are.”
Through a Facebook post from ALIVE Rescue in North Center, real estate property manager Jackie Kahn met Boz, a white cat with heterochromia, meaning he has two different colored eyes. While she originally shared feline photos on Facebook, Khan grew sick of people calling her a cat lady. She switched to Instagram, where “bad boy” Boz has garnered over 20,000 followers.
While she joked that she didn’t even know what a hashtag was when she started, Instagram is a place to not only promote “adopt not shop” but also educate about the responsibility of pet ownership.
“It’s a lifetime commitment if you do want to adopt a cat or a dog or a bunny around Easter,” she said. “It’s about being responsible that I still have to feed this cat. It’s not just posting pictures on the internet.”
Others are drawn to their pet’s background story, such as Sarah McVey whose Pomeranian, American Eskimo and Pomsky-mix Queso was rescued from a flood and sent to a kill shelter before ending up in Chicago.
While he had kennel cough, ear infections and belly rashes, McVey knew his quirky personality would shine on Instagram.
“There are so many people who wouldn’t want to take in a senior dog or a dog like Queso who had a lot of problems when we got him, but look at him now,” she said. “He’s thriving. He’s a diva.”
Queso now has over 5,600 followers and McVey, who works in social media marketing, has scored partnerships with animal-focused brands.
“He’s very silly, really positive and upbeat and also likes to capitalize on in the moment things that are happening in Chicago,” she said. “If it’s been a big snowstorm storm or something he’ll want to talk about that. He’ll talk about the Cubs.”
Katie Reynolds, a Logan Square vet tech, grew up with horses, but when she met a blind Pomeranian named Jack-Jack she fell in love — and felt that dogs with health problems deserved some Instagram love, too. She started her Instagram account for Jack-Jack, who was rescued from from a puppy mill, years ago. When Jack-Jack passed away from canine cancer, his “siblings” Oliver and Rachel took over the account.
“I’ve made a lot of friends from it all over the country, some even overseas who also preach advocacy for rescues,” Reynolds said.
She also encourages adopting older and black dogs like Rachel. She said they’re overlooked at shelters because “you can’t see their eyes as well so you don’t really get the same connection. But I see her eyes all the time.”
When it comes to advice for photographing animals, she highlighted the importance of lighting, photographing from animal face level and using toys or treats to get them to look at the camera.
“I can look back and smile,” Reynolds said, referencing old photos of Jack-Jack. “Most of my friends take pictures of their kids and mine are all pictures of my dogs.”