The Faces of Adoption

Why an Oxford photographer gives his time and talent to the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society with the mission of finding loving homes for every cat in need.


It’s the first morning of daylight saving, the full moon beaming brightly in the 6 a.m. sky. I arrive at the front door of the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society, and Robert Jordan, director of photography at the University of Mississippi, unlocks the glass door to greet me.

White fluorescent lights twitch on inside the lobby, which smells of animal funk and bleach. A few dogs bark from the back of the building. Against the far wall, three kitten siblings jump from shelf to shelf in a playpen. They’re little white fur balls of waking energy. On top of their pen, a cloth-covered plastic bin rumbles with a muddle of surrendered guinea pigs inside.

Jordan, a slender man with ginger hair and a neatly trimmed beard, asks me to help him move the “stage” from the lobby and into one of the two cat-adoption rooms. As we lift the small but heavy wooden table, he whispers to speak softly. The cats won’t cooperate if they’re too awake, too riled. After we carry the table down the hallway and push it to the window, Jordan draws the blind for the photo session backdrop and drapes a white bath towel across the tabletop for a soft catwalk.

The cinder-block room is narrow and dark, the walls lined with occupied steel-cage cat kennels. Owl-faced felines curiously watch as Jordan preps the shoot.  I notice a rheumy-eyed calico resting coyly in her dark kennel. “It’s like kindergarten,” Jordan says. “They get colds; they’re shy.”  One precocious girl, a sleek golden-eyed tortoise, arches her back and stretches. I read the name tag taped on her kennel and learn she is Jolene. She rubs her back along the latched door and purrs like a chainsaw.

Every predawn Sunday for the past five years, Jordan has set up a makeshift studio at the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society to photograph adoptable cats and kittens.

“Cats have always fascinated me, and I really enjoy their company,” Jordan says.

He has two cats, one he found outside his office and the other he adopted from 9 Lives Cat Rescue, where he was a volunteer.

Jordan cinches his answer, explaining photographing the OLHS cats gives him a chance to combine two things he enjoys: cameras and cats.

As he sets up his equipment, Penni Bolton, wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans, her silver-streaked hair tied into a ponytail, joins us.  Jordan tells me he worries about his collaborator riding her bike in darkness along McElroy Drive, but that’s what she does to reach her volunteer job as his “cat whisperer.”

Before the photo shoot begins, Jordan, with the help of a catalog, determines which cats have already been photographed and which cats are new. The catalog is the equivalent of a runway model look book, complete with headshots, shelter names, sex identification, a brief description and approximate age. Potential adopters nationwide can access all of the photos and information online. “I’d like to encourage people to help by donating, volunteering, and adopting rather than buying pets,” Jordan says. After flipping the pages, Jordan tells me he and Bolton will fetch a cat named Colonel and the three lobby kittens: Whisper, Smooch, and Kissy.

Whisper, a boy kitten, is up first. Like his littermates, he’s mostly white with amber-green eyes, his black tail standing straight up like an exclamation point. I’m struck by how calm he is; he responds like a professional kitten model, sweetly gazing into the 50 mm lens of Jordan’s camera. As the shutter clicks, Whisper grows more animated, purring and rolling around on the bath towel.

“You can tell a lot about these guys from their body language,” Jordan says. “Another five minutes and we won’t be able to do anything with him.” Whisper takes a playful swat at the lens.

As Jordan and Bolton move Whisper out of the cat room, I approximate there must be 20-something cats in this one of two cat rooms. Bolton returns with Smooch. Jordan hands me Smooch’s sister, Kissy. I ask how long the shelter typically keeps the cats. If they’re not adopted, how long does the staff wait before they euthanize the cats? Jordan pauses, uncomfortable, perhaps irritated by my question. “I don’t know. When they’re here and gone, I tell myself they’ve been adopted.”

Beneath two 250-watt fluorescent light bulbs screwed into reflecting mylar umbrellas, Smooch sits. Bolton, like an orchestra conductor, bobs a feathered wand above his whiskered head, and the session resumes. In my arms, Kissy purrs, almost as loud as Jolene.  She looks at me with smiling eyes. I can barely resist her pink nose and the tufts of long fur in her dandelion ears. It takes everything I have not to cup her into my raincoat pocket and leave.

As sunlight pales the hallway, we head to the second cat room to coax Colonel out of his cage. We’ve been at the shelter for over an hour, and Jordan tells me he’ll spend another hour-and-a-half editing the morning’s photographs. Most Sundays, he spends around three hours shooting, editing and posting the portraits on social media.

Though no one has officially tracked the adoption rate of his kittens and cats posted on Facebook, Inside Oxford, and his Flickr account (where his 4,769 edited photographs are stored), it’s safe to assume that many of these snapshots have sealed the deal for folks considering adoption.

Jordan and Bolton gingerly pose Colonel on the towel-covered catwalk. The other male cats in the room stare rigidly at this enormous beast. He’s white with orange-tabby patches and deep scratches across his nose suggesting a feline bar fight. “I wish we had a room with nothing in it. He’s very distracted,” Jordan says as kenneled Felix hisses between his bars.

Bolton offers kibbles from her pocket and tries to settle Colonel.  His coat is dirty, a bit greasy. I can’t help but wonder if taking his adoption photograph is worth the effort, especially since kitten season is around the corner and the doors of the humane society will flood with newly surrendered sweet-faced litters.

I hear more commotion from the dogs, the howls and barks growing louder, signaling the end of the near-quiet needed to keep the cats relaxed enough for modeling sessions.  Jordan reaches for Colonel and, startled, the big Tom bites his hand. Bolton begins to break down the stage. I look past Jordan’s shoulder toward loud-purring Jolene and say how beautiful I think she is.

“They’re all beautiful,” Jordan says, pressing a Kleenex to the bite mark on his hand.

BLAIR HOBBS is an artist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Mississippi where she teaches undergraduate creative writing.