I can hardly hold in my excitement, as every year I try to go to Montana and photograph endangered animals at a local game farm and breeding facility. This facility in one of the best in the business and is a part of Zoological Association of America (ZAA) who’s goals is to encourage responsible conservation of genetics through cooperative breeding programs. Reputable companies such PBS Nature, and WWF, film at this facility. Not only am I getting a photographers “dream”, but I’m helping in conservation efforts for several critically endangered species. One of the rarest big cats on the planet, is the Amur Leopard. A new study estimates only 84 remain in the wild, but that is up from 30 counted in 2000. There are approximately 300 in captivity, and that is all that remains of the diversity crucial to maintain a breeding program. I get the chance to photograph one up close and personal.
Arriving at the facility at 7:00 am we are asked to make a list of the animals we would like to photograph. The choices are numerous, from the Amur leopard, to two different snow leopards, a Siberian Tiger, grizzly bear, mountain lions, a full wolf pack, Lynx, several foxes, bobcat, raccoon, badger, and the cute little pine martin. Also each year presents us with new babies. After making the lists the animal handlers combine them into a master list and work to organize our shooting schedule for the next 4 days. Shortly we are off to our first destination, and several acres area out in the Montana wilderness, especially prepared and fenced to allow these animals freedom of movement.
This year, I am concentrating on the big cats, although I will also have a couple sessions with wolves. My number one priority is the snow leopard and the juvenile male named Mystique is up first. This boy is almost full grown but still has the playfulness of a cub. His handler, brings him out to snow covered forested area, where the leopard parades around in the snow. It is absolutely amazing to me to be able to see such an animal up close and watch his antics. He is teased with a piece of fur, tied to a pole and moved around like you would play with a kitten. The animal loves it. But then he runs up to the top of some large boulders and rocks, and with a little encouragement rushed down and make a mighty leap from the last edge. The leopard spreads his legs in the fashion of a flying squirrel, and in a brief instance your hear in your mind, “It’s a bird…, no a plane…, no it Super leopard!” This happens so fast that my first set of photos are blurred with motion. Not to fret however, as after a few minutes the handler leads the leopard up to the top of the boulders and down he comes again to give us a second chance at a photo, this time fully prepared for the action! We get almost a full hour photographing and she is such a ham, she’s was having more fun than anyone else.
Next up is a juvenile mountain lion “DeeDee”, she is so pretty, and is just losing here cub spots. We move to an adjoining area free of foot prints and with a little better lighting. There is an area for her to run up into the trees and come down and play in the snow. It looks like you’re on a trail and she just pops into sight and then stands and poses for you. The photographs are magnificent.
After Khia we have one more photo session this morning. A Siberian Lynx named Nika. She is a beautiful creature, spotted ambers, creams and browns. She is a bit more shy, and takes a little while to warm up to the situation but then the hunt is on and she is constantly, stalking and pouncing on a small fur pelt attached on a string. The images are amazing, actions you can seldom get in any other manner. Finally we get a get a lunch break and return to the facility.
In the afternoon, we get to photograph, Gracie, a cream colored, Tundra wolf. We are led to an enclosure, where we are mere feet(15) from our subject. She acts like a big pet, but you know she has the wild in her veins. Yet again, the beauty of this animal is so mesmerizing. She is so strong, so magnificent, so calm. She prances around the area, smoothly moving back and forth with such “grace”. Its hard not to take a impressive photo. After a while her handler asks what would you like to see her do. I ask if she could go through the woods and appear to exit the forest. Within a couple minutes I have the shot I want.
The weather is still cooperating so we really stretch our opportunities and get a second wolf for a last session on the first day, This one is dark gray, Big John. He is the leader of the pack! so intense! The images are just flying onto my SD card.
The next day we start with an arctic wolf. She's pure white on s snow background, meaning I needed a bit of exposure compensation. Wolves look so much like domestic dogs that its hard to realize this is a wild animal, that can be very dangerous. This photo looks like she's a friendly dog coming to say hello. but when you see her up close you realize how much bigger she is from the majority of dogs.
Next came an animal most people never see. The badger.
Coming next is the Canadian lynx.
Next day the highlight was Kapulo a female Amur leopard. Amur leopards are one of the most endangered animals, with less than 100 left in the wild. Kapulo is one of less than 300 left in captivity and part of a ZAA approved breeding program attempting to keep the Amur's DNA diverse.
Next up was Kali the mountains lion. Who gave us a show prancing around and chasing things. She has such a beautiful coat. And such a hunter.
This trip is completed with a session with Hershey, a Siberian tiger. This is the largest species of tiger and Hersey is a magnificent example.