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VOL. 119 | NO. 3 | Wednesday, January 5, 2005

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By Andy Meek

Mobile Photography Studio Caters to Pet Owners


The Daily News

Michael Sondag has a special affection for the two dogs and three cats he keeps as pets. It partly comes from being around animals nearly all his life, first during his childhood on a farm in Southern Illinois and later through the various animal-related jobs hes held in his career.

Recognizing a need. And last summer, that love of animals gave him an idea. After noticing a lack of diverse local services for pet owners, Sondag and three partners decided to start a business with them in mind. The result was Lil Pals Pet Photography, a mobile photography studio that opened in August and is already preparing to expand beyond Metro Memphis. In addition to pet photos, the business sells personalized merchandise to pet owners whose furry companions are ready for their close-up.

Sondag owns the business along with Jim Wells, Dan Wilmoth and Ren Netherland.

We saw an opening and an opportunity there that really wasnt being met, Sondag said. There are so many people today that treat their pet as a family member and would like to get pictures of their pet taken, and theyll ask the groomers and the vet clinics to provide them this service. What we do is provide this ourselves, so that way the groomers and vet clinics dont have to go out and find somebody to take pictures or do it on their own.

Office on wheels. Sondag spent four months securing an 8-foot by 20-foot trailer that was fitted with a digital photography studio and an office. Employees drive the studio-on-wheels to customers across Metro Memphis. Sondags stepson photographs the animals, and customers who leave the studio with prints of their pets can choose among 50 different personalized items available for purchase everything from mousepads to mugs to keychains.

We want to be busy every week, Sondag said. And weve been out as far as Tupelo, Selmer and Corinth (Miss.), and weve done West Memphis, too.

Sondag said the mobile studio also has served customers in Collierville, Germantown and Olive Branch. He believes the success the venture has seen so far is due to the tight bond that exists between pets and their owners.

One of the family. Its a trend other animal professionals have noticed, too. Heather Godsey, owner of a pet-sitting service based in the Berclair and Walnut Grove neighborhoods, said more pet owners are treating their animals like part of the family.

I see that more and more with every year that goes by, people treating their pets like family members, she said. I can definitely tell a difference in my dogs, when theyre inside with us more often. Theyre more obedient and act better.

Sondag said pet owners come to him with a variety of requests, and the studio accommodates them, for example, by dressing pets up in mini-costumes. A special table has been installed in the studio that can be elevated in case a pet gets restless. When the table is raised, the pet is usually afraid to jump off and stays in place long enough for the photo.

Interesting situations. The business has several props that can be used to create photographs of all kinds, be they serious or light-hearted. Situations involving the latter happen frequently, and Sondag recalled several situations in which pet owners brought in up to five dogs at a time to be photographed.

Or lets say they have three dogs and a cat, and the dogs are afraid of the cat, he said, remembering other photo shoots. We had a big rottweiler in Hernando, and we had the rottweiler sitting on a table with a little pug, and the pug just wouldnt leave that rottweiler alone. He could have just bit him and been gone, but he caused all kind of havoc on that table.

Which leads to the inevitable comparison are pets as difficult to situate for photographs as young children are?

Pets are easier, Sondag said, matter-of-factly.

Expansion plans. At the moment, Sondag is looking to expand the studios reach. He is eyeing markets in Nashville, Little Rock and Dallas, and hes close to opening another studio in St. Louis. That is in addition to expanding his reach locally.

Lil Pals caters to customers with pets ranging from parrots to dogs, by far the most popular subjects for photos so far. And Sondag said no order yet has been too tall to fill.

We havent turned anybody away, he said. In fact, I remember we had rabbits at one animal hospital. It was the last sitting of the day, and (the owner) wanted a little Western scene with little cowboy hats on the rabbits.


Lil Pals Pet Photography

Owners: Michael Sondag, Jim Wells, Dan Wilmoth and Ren Netherland

Founded: 2004

Basics: The studio-on-wheels offers photography and personalized merchandise for pet owners.


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