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Pet Shots



George Ireland has driven 40 minutes from his photo studio in Rogers Park to a client's home in Buffalo Grove, and as he sets up in the sunroom, he hopes it won't be a wasted trip. One of his portrait subjects is hiding behind a stair post. The other is zonked out on sedatives.

"Never, never, I swear to you, will I do this again," says Ginger Lane, hugging the drowsy-eyed Teddi. She picks up a bottle of pills and dumps it in the trash. Last year about this time Ireland and his assistant, Wendy Wagoner, spent hours chasing the two cats up and down stairs.

In her living room Lane has professional photos of her two cats standing alongside those of human family members. She has a glass cabinet filled with cat figurines, a plastic tunnel in the dining room, an elaborate scratching post, a cat hammock, and a 17-book set of Lilian Jackson Braun's cat mysteries. On a wall in Lane's study hangs a diploma certifying that she has a correspondence degree in animal sciences.

Lane brings in Annie, the unsedated cat, and closes the door. As soon as Lane puts her down, Annie springs away and runs right into the door. Teddi, suddenly full of energy, chases her and also runs into the door. Lane and Wagoner try to pose the cats under a Christmas tree, but Ireland never gets more than a shot or two before one cat looks away or simply gets up and walks off.

Ireland suggests that Lane and Wagoner stick the cats in a hatbox and close the lid, then rap on the top and lift the lid. He manages to get several shots of them leaping out of the box before they scatter.

A couple of weeks later he delivers Lane a box of Christmas cards that she'll sign "From Annie and Teddi." The cards cost her more than $150, but Lane says her cats mean everything to her. She says she had her first cat, Echo, for 17 years. "He was my very best friend. When he died I realized I didn't have many pictures of him. I said, never again."

People can watch through the windows of Ireland's studio, Great and Small Photography, at 2410 W. Lunt, as he snaps photos of parrots, dogs, snakes, cats, iguanas, and sometimes people. He charges $179 for a sitting, a proof portfolio of six pictures, and a mounted 11-by-14 print. For $20 more you get eight wallet-size photos. For $500 more you get a 24-by-30 canvas-mounted print.

Ireland, who's 30, spent his teen years in Tennessee, where he knew mostly hunting dogs. "I didn't know that dogs could fulfill so many other roles, that they didn't all have to have the run of the farm to be pretty happy." His ideas began to change when he became the guardian of his navy unit's mutt mascot. "Part of it was having this little dog that I came to feel strongly for. Once I started to open my mind up to learning about dogs, I found that there was a lot more to them."

He moved to Chicago seven years ago to get married, then enrolled in the University of Illinois' industrial-design program, which required him to take a course in photography. "I hated my industrial-design professor but adored my photography teacher." He wound up with a bachelor's degree in photography.

Ireland and his wife got a dog and cat, and he began taking pictures of them. When the couple divorced she got custody of the pets. He missed them. He started reading up on animals and became a volunteer dog-obedience trainer at the Anti-Cruelty Society. He adopted two cats and took more pictures. Then friends began paying him to take pictures of their pets.

In the spring of 1995 Ireland rented the storefront on Lunt and spent months remodeling it with the help of a neighbor. He's the first to admit that not everyone thinks pet photography is a great idea. "There are people who walk by and say that it's really cool, and other people who walk by and say, this is absurd."

Sometimes it seems a little absurd to him. He recalls a customer whose dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Rufus, sat for his photos wearing a black hat and beard. When Ireland visited the customer's home he saw a wall of paintings of rabbis, and among them was the photo of Rufus. "I just take the pictures," he says, chuckling.

On another morning Alan Rapata, a dog trainer, is trying to get his seven German shepherds and one Great Dane to stay still. He's bending on one knee, trying to smile for Ireland's camera, when suddenly he falls backward. One of his dogs jumps up and gives him a slobbery kiss on the cheek. When everybody's back in position, the Great Dane stands up. Ireland walks over and pats the dog's butt, and he sits. Ireland runs back to his camera and squeezes a squeaky toy. One of the shepherds jumps up and runs toward him. Rapata calls the dog back.

"Whose butt am I seeing?" Ireland asks. Rapata gets the dog to turn around, and Ireland squeaks the toy. The shepherd runs toward him again. Rapata calls the dog back again.

Rapata and Ireland have been friendly for about three years. When Ireland was learning to photograph animals he practiced with some of Rapata's dogs. Rapata, who has AIDS, wants new pictures because he's looking for homes for the dogs. "I don't want it to come down to the last minute and I'm too ill to take care of them," he explains.

In the studio Amy Pedraja sets up her three rabbits. This is a new animal for Ireland, who admits he doesn't know much about rabbits. Scout, the first to be photographed, is bobbing his head up and down.

"Is he a happy rabbit right now?" asks Ireland, wary of taking a photo of a frightened rabbit.

"He's a little bit scared, but 90 percent inquisitive," says Pedraja. She turns to Scout. "What are you doing? That's a good boy. Good boy."

Next up is Minnie, who's ten. She's wearing a diaper and sitting in what looks like an Easter basket because she's paralyzed from the waist down. "She is so lively with her face," says a friend of Pedraja who's watching the session.

Ireland sets up Scout for a "mug shot," placing under his chin a small board with "Scout," some numbers, and "Chicago Police Department" written on it. Ireland manages to take several pictures before something spooks Scout and he jumps three feet backward over a cardboard backdrop.

As Ireland finishes with the rabbits, Dianalynn Schilz, supervisor of Indian Boundary Park, comes in with her parrot, Bucko. "Meow," says Bucko, a 16-year-old female. "Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow." The bird starts singing, then whistles like a construction worker. "Thank you," one of Pedraja's friends jokes.

The parrot seems to gravitate toward the women and away from Ireland. Schilz says Bucko trusts women more than men, probably because the first voice she ever heard was female. "It's just how parrots are," she says.

Ireland decides to let Schilz set up her bird. She puts Bucko on a perch, and Ireland puts on a CD of chirping birds, barking dogs, and howling wolves. Schilz puts her hand near Bucko's face, and the parrot turns toward her. As Ireland snaps shots, Bucko begins to preen, cocking her head this way and that and occasionally walking along the perch--all as if posing for the camera.

After the shoot Ireland manages to get close to Bucko without spooking her. Schilz later says she was amazed, because Bucko normally ruffles her feathers whenever a man comes close.

Ireland says that pictures of people account for about 25 percent of his business. "If I could make animals 100 percent I would." He lives with two cats, three pugs, several tropical fish, and an iguana in a case so large Ireland had to get rid of his television set.

Some people who know him say that Ireland relates better to animals than to people. "It's the kind of thing that initially you want to deny," he says. "I find it easier to have these relationships. You can really show how much you care about these animals. I can connect with them and probably put more effort into understanding them and what their needs are than some of the people in my life."

Why? "If I could answer that question I could probably save a lot of money on psychoanalysis later in life," Ireland says, laughing. "I see people who have a wonderful grasp of understanding human nature, but they have no idea what role they should fulfill in their animal's life. There's no reason that you shouldn't do both.

"I feel strongly about animals' place in society and relationships to people. They follow us into our high-rise apartments, but they're part of nature. They're like bread crumbs--they'll help us find our way back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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