How do I deal with losing a pet?

Twinks - Winnie The Pooh Quote, If ever there is tomorrow... one era of my Mom's cats, those furry bodies that comforted me with non-judging purrs and warm laps through high school and college, passes into memory... I count myself lucky for having had the opportunity to meet, capture, and fall in love with some of my clients' pets who have since then passed... I worry and fret over my each strand of grey fur on Katze, who is oblivious, curled up between my arms and the keyboard, purring away, sometimes resting her chin on top of my hand, riding the tip-tapping of my typing.

I try to savor every moment I have with her, and I believe we all do the same with our furry best friends. Knowing that some day Katze and Jayla will be gone, like their predecessors makes my eyes hot and my heart fill with emotions.

Losing a pet hurts, it hurts bad, and it hurts deep

The heart doesn't know the difference between the loss of a human and the loss of an animal. The loss is the same, yet everyone grieves differently.

So here's my advice on what to say or not to say to your loved one whose pet just passed on, coming fresh from losing my last childhood pet.

Please don't say-

'There's a lot of other cats out there.'/ 'There's a lot of other dogs out there.'

Yes, believe me, as most animal lovers are, I'm well aware. However, pets are as unique as snowflakes, there's only one, and there will never be another like that one. You will most likely make the grieving person feel worse by throwing this phrase their way.

It goes without saying that yes, likely another cat or dog will steal our heart again and a new book of memories will start writing itself which will be its own legacy and epic in every way, unique and different to its predecessor. No better or worse than its predecessor, just different.

Instead of asking, "But, hey, don't you have (other pet’s name) still?" 

Try asking, "How is (other pet) handling the loss?” By asking this, you recognize that pets are not interchangeable, and you understand the other pet is grieving a loss as well. 

What should you say?

Do say what a great cat/dog, he or she was, and how they also left little paw prints all over your own heart. That's comforting to a pet owner, knowing that their pet's greatness was not only recognized by themselves as their owner, but by others. We're proud of our pets.

If you can think of a funny story of something their pet did, remind them of it now, and make sure they know how you'll never forget that memory.

And if none of this feels right, one last piece of advice. I'm old fashioned, I love giving and receiving a good greeting card. It will always feel momentous to receive one, knowing that someone else took the time to stop and pick one out just for me. I've been known to spend a good 15-20 minutes stewing over the options before I find the perfect one to give, depending on the occasion. When you're wordless, or at a loss, wander over to the card aisle and let someone else help you say the right thing.

Do you have any other suggestions on what to say or not to say to someone grieving a pet? Leave me a note in the comments. 

Duncan and family - Winnie the Pooh Quote - How Lucky I am...


This is What Happily Ever After Looks Like

Natalie and I have been friends since we met on the school bus in first grade. I haven't seen her and her husband Ben for two years! A lot has changed in those two years! They've moved back to their home state of Indiana with their baby girl Nora and their two rescues Costello, on the right, and Lexi on the left. This is the first time I've met their daughter and their dogs! They've created a very easy-going, furry family of five. 

Natalie wanted 'down to earth' grassy family shots, which my Aunt and Uncle's backyard delivered. It was perfect, we could let the dogs off-leash without any worries, and the only distractions were an occasional bird or squirrel. 

Here are two similar shots, but different focal lengths. I couldn't make up my mind if I liked the naturalistic shot with the large depth of field (more detail in the background), or the more artistic looking small depth of field (very blurry background).

This is what happily ever after looks like. 

Furry family of five family portrait, grassy wooded area, Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Furry family of five family portrait, bokeh background Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Seeing Nora feels like traveling back in time and seeing Natalie as a baby. Those eyes. Those cheeks! Oh my goodness! The drawer that Nora is sitting in was refinished by Natalie, and the blue knitted blanket in the background is the first knitted blanket Natalie ever made. I was there when she knitted it, probably ten years ago, because I learned to knit alongside Natalie. One of the many things I adore about Natalie is how she's so thoughtful and puts so much sentiment and meaning into everything she does.

chubby cheeks baby photo, distressed drawer, bokeh background Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

chubby cheeks baby photo, distressed drawer, bokeh background | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

nuzzling dad, bokeh background family photo | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

bokeh background, baby and parents | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Here are some shots of Costello. He was the first furbaby Natalie and Ben adopted after moving to Colorado! He was a little timid at first, but I gave him plenty of space and used my zoom until he trusted me more. What a handsome, fluffy guy! 

Pet photography, rescued, Australian shepherd mix, bokeh background | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Pet photography, rescued, Australian shepherd mix, bokeh background | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Pet photography, rescued, Australian shepherd mix | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Whenever a camera is around, Lexi does her best Audrey Hepburn, doe-eyed wistful look. She is the ultimate people lover, and lives to greet people. She's always by Natalie's side in the house, helping put Nora to sleep for naps, and hanging out during changing time. She loves protecting her family and nanny-ing baby Nora. Nana from Peter Pan would approve!

Bokeh, back-lit, pet photography, wooded area | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Pet portraits, sniffing | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Love, Love, Love. Just in case you didn't notice, those lilac colored flowers match Lexi's collar! Seriously!

Pet portraits, bokeh, wooded area | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

I worked with Costello and Lexi while Nora had an outfit change, but like the good watchdogs they are they kept checking on Momma and baby periodically. 

Dogs checking up on Momma and baby | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

This was a touching end to our session! Natalie's husband had the sweet idea to go back to Main Street, Zionsville and recreate some of their wedding shots from 2008! Those were taken in a snowy November, so the contrast and change is really fantastic. I hope they keep doing updates as their family grows and changes over the years. Can you imagine a wall gallery in their home of the changes over time? 

Furry family photos in downtown Zionsville, Indiana | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Furry family photos in downtown Zionsville, Indiana | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

Momma hand and baby hand | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015

What a joy! It was so rewarding to shoot this session for my best friend. One of our favorite things to do in High School was photo shoots in Arbuckle park in Brownsburg and neighboring corn fields. Some things never change!

And because I just can't resist, here's a picture of Natalie and I in first or second grade, at the Indianapolis Zoo, visiting the polar bears of course! That's my big brother Shawn on the left. Fanny packs! Oh boy!

90s kids wearing fanny backs at the Indianapolis Zoo polar bear exhibit | Photo by Polar Bear Studio, Copyright 2015


Classic Catnap

I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks about pets who are long gone. Marmalade is the ‘one who started it all’ for me. His memory certainly lives on in my home through my girls Katze and Jayla. What better way to honor a pet who has passed by opening up your heart and home to a new pet who needs love?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the keeper of my family’s photos. This photo of us together means more to me than I could ever express in words.

Photo of a baby and orange tabby cat sleeping together, Copyright Polar Bear Studio, LLC

One of the creative projects I’m currently working on is a visual exploration of my family’s long history of pet ownership and how it’s landed me where I am now. This is the first image for that project that has the working title: Forever Felines.

This photo inspired me to create a self-portrait photo shoot with Katze and Jayla that would honor Marmalade’s legacy.

Some things change, some things will never change. There’s just something timelessly wonderful about a catnap with your cat. In order to tell that story I resurrected my old passion for digital collage, which was my medium of choice for my senior thesis at Ringling College of Art & Design.

With cats, you can’t predict things. You have to assemble the image beforehand and hope they’ll react as you expect them to. However, cats love nothing more than to ‘help’ when you’re sorting through papers or photos, especially smelly old photos. 

The odds were certainly in my favor with this concept. Sorting through papers and photos is mentally exhausting work which also led to the story I wanted to tell of how my habit of cat naps with cats continues to this day. 

First, a close-up, and below it the whole composition.

Digital Collage Classic Catnap by Polar Bear Studio

I really enjoy the visual juxtaposition of the floral bed sheet in the 80’s to the modern floral sheets of today. I have the baby blankets in the shot three ways, in the original photo, underneath the photo, and in the modern interpretation, a constant visual element. A big fan of the daydreamy-movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I ensured a golden knob on my victorian-style trundle bed from my office shined through.

I used a tripod, remote, timer, and digitally painted the two images together with Photoshop. I’d work on the collage, let it sit for a day, and play with it more. I was content with the final image after 3 evenings of tinkering.

The Forever Felines project will be a personal project that I’ll continue to play with while also working on another project that I haven’t announced yet. It will require volunteer models again! I’m so excited about it, something totally unique and as far as I’ve googl-ed, it hasn’t been done before! I just need to update all the signup forms and finish the details before the announcement.

A New Project

I hate it when I can’t find something. I wanted to share a specific old photo with you. It is probably my first pet photo I ever took, and I’ve been digging through all my photo boxes I have for the past month looking for it

My first pet photography experience, photographing my bestie Marmalade

I was 8 or 9 years old when I was in 4-H and entered into the photography category. We had gorgeous flowers in our backyard that year, without a doubt the best flower beds of my childhood, full of various pink impatiens, red geraniums (our 4-H fundraiser) that smelled wonderful, and our mystery perennials who had resided in our yard longer than us.

It seemed obvious, at that time, that for my 4-H photography project I should take pictures of the flower beds. And I did. But some sort of creative impulse took me at the last moment, and I asked my Mom for permission to take Marmalade, my BFF (best furry friend) since I was a baby, out into the garden to take some shots of him amongst the flowers. Even though he was an indoor cat my Mom gave me permission, but warned me to be careful that he didn't run away. I had once lost a pet turtle who ran away. Think about that for a moment.

I tied a white ribbon with scalloped edges around his neck for a bit of pizzazz. The photo shoot went just as I had imagined it. Marmalade trusted me completely. I set him into the flower bed with his white ribbon, and I imagined he thought, "Meowow, this is pretty awesome." He wasn't afraid, and he didn't try to run away. It was just like a scene out of The Three Lives of Thomasina, one of my all-time favorite movies.

I got an awesome shot with my little disposable Kodak camera with real film (yes I'm dating myself a child of the 90s for sure)!

Afterwards, we put our dog Wendy, a mystery mutt with an ample amount of beagle, into my green soccer jersey. Then with my Mom as the photographer, my older brother Shawn and I posed with Marmalade and Wendy in different groupings of four or two around the back yard.

When I finally arranged my final project on white poster board, without a doubt the picture of Marmalade amongst the flowers in his white ribbon was my favorite. I did use the other flower shots, but I made sure to put Marmalade center stage of all of the shots.

With his long, orange silky-fur with the white spot at the tip of his tail, his darling ear hairs curling wildly, and bright green eyes that sometimes changed to yellow, he was a bonafide star in my mind.

I won a blue ribbon, pretty impressive for a disposable camera after I realized most of the others in my category were with 'real' cameras and some even developed in a darkroom. If those other contestants had known I had just simply had my film developed by the local pharmacy they probably would have been horrified. I was naive, and clueless. If I had known that beforehand I probably would have never entered into the photography category at all, I would have been intimidated and ashamed as if I was breaking the rules.

But to be clear, there were several blue ribbons, not just one. So I was sort of special,not the most. Regardless, it gave me a confidence boost, and I felt vindicated. This entire creative process has really stuck with me, but it has taken nearly twenty years for me to stop resisting my yearning for pet photography.

So, what does this have to do with my next project? The title of the post, but I have not mentioned yet. I’m getting to it, hang on. 

Katze Helping Me With My Family Photos

I’ve dug up so many treasured photos of Marmalade, as well as pets of my parents, Grandparents, and even Great-Grandparents. I’m the official keeper of the family photos since I whipped everyone into shape a few years back. With my Mom and maternal Grandparents moving here, everyone’s photos fell into my lap and I’ve separated them into something resembling order into archival photo boxes, with Katze's help of course.

Here are some of the earliest and cutest photos of Marmalade and I, circa 1987. I even still have the pink and yellow blankets. My girls, Katze and Jayla, love these blankets, just like Marmalade did.

And here’s the last photo of Marmalade and I, shortly before he died. I was 16.

One thing I’ve discovered is the extensive lineage of animal-loving nut cases in my family is impressive!

It’s inspired me to create a new collection of work around it. I’ll be visually exploring my family’s long history of pet ownership and how it’s landed me where I am now. It will be a mix of modern photography with antique and vintage, and very dreamy. I’ll be mixing digital collage illustration with pet photography.

To see how other families have captured their cats across the ages, I’ve been collecting images into a specific Pinterest board you can follow or check out here:  Follow Polar Bear Studio's board Antique & Vintage Cat Photos on Pinterest.

And in the meantime, I’ve been submitting my collection of Dogs of Manatee County calendar images to various contests and publications, and if I hear any good news you’ll be the first to know!

Do you have any family heirloom pet photos? Leave me a comment below if you’re on the blog page, or if you’re viewing this in the newsletter click through to the blog post and share your memories or photos if you have them! I’d love to see them!

Talk to you soon! 

Featured in New Barker Magazine

I have wonderful news!

The Dogs of Manatee County Calendar was featured in a 2-page spread in the Winter issue of The New Barker magazine! A very proud moment for me, and I hope all of the calendar volunteers feel the same!

Cover Art by John LaFree for The New Barker Magazine Winter 2014-2015

You can check out the article by clicking here, a PDF scan of the spread. It may take a few moments to load.

Have you heard of The New Barker MagazineThe New Barker is Florida’s top dog magazine, a quarterly lifestyle magazine  for dogs and their people. Each cover features an original painting by a different Florida artist, this issue (above) showcased caricature artist John LaFree!

I asked Jayla and Katze what they thought, and if they were impressed by seeing my work featured:

Jayla (above) missed the question entirely, and said the magazine was really comfy, and smelled nice. Thanks Jayla...

Jayla (above) missed the question entirely, and said the magazine was really comfy, and smelled nice

Thanks Jayla...
And after much deliberation, and pretending to read....

Katze (above) thought, nice, even though there’s no cats!

Katze (above) thought, nice, even though there’s no cats!
I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season with your loved ones!
Sebastian, Katze, Jayla, and I had a fantastic time! It was a BIG family Christmas with a house full of company, my favorite! Sebastian’s parents and sister live in Germany, and we don’t get to see them more than once or twice a year, if we’re lucky. This year we were really lucky and they were with us for both Christmas and New Year’s!

Mueller Annual Christmas Card Photo 2014 With Katze and Jayla

Here’s our 2014 Christmas Card photo, my favorite one so far, and the first one to feature Katze and Jayla. Sebastian and I love coming up with creative Christmas card photos, and have been surprising our family with them every year since 2009, the year we married.

When photographing cats, it really helps to know their routine, and use their routine to your advantage. Believe it or not this shot was a piece of cake! 

The only part that is photoshopped is Sebastian because we took turns posing. The trick was using a tripod and being careful not to move it. We set up the composition we liked first, knowing we had to build from Jayla’s favorite spot on top of the couch. 

There’s a permanent ‘Jayla-size’ indent in the top of it! Katze always wants to sit with me when I get home from work in the evening. That particular evening I made a point NOT to sit down, and like a dependable little shadow she followed me around until I did.

Sebastian posed first, while we waited for Jayla to settle in. Once Jayla saw ‘her human’ laying down, she settled into her spot for the evening catnap. Sebastian and I switch tasks, and I sit on ‘my side’ of the couch with Jayla, and Katze being so impatient practically jumped up with me before I could even get comfortable. She had her own schedule to keep!

Katze and Jayla were sleepy, so I just plopped down the little German hats on their heads and Sebastian snapped a few shots. We were done before they even knew what happened or what I’d done. The whole shoot took perhaps 15 minutes! 


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