I received my Christmas present a bit early this year. A few days before Christmas I headed up to Muskoka Wildlife Centre near Orillia, Ontario, Canada. For me, about a four and a half hour drive away. I’d been eyeing Ontario photographer, Raymond Barlow’s captive wildlife shoot at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre for several months. And well, since my hubby was going to be in New Zealand for Christmas, I figured it was time to treat myself and to get out and do something really fun for the holidays. Oh man, I was not disappointed….. (but I’m getting ahead of myself here).
Ray has an arrangement with the wildlife centre where he brings in small groups (max 6) of photographers for a special photo-shoot of some of the centre’s captive wildlife. It brings in revenue for the centre, promotes the centre, and provides (in my opinion) one of the BEST opportunities for photographing captive wildlife that we have around here.
So, I signed up, but tried not to get toooo excited about it because I didn’t want to have a preconceived notion of what it would be like, only to be disappointed by the photo opportunities. For me, this was basically an experiment. An adventure. I’d never photographed captive wildlife before. Initially I had mixed feelings about it. But hey, I’m a biologist. I know that unless I quit my day job and live like Grizzly Adams in the Canadian Rockies, that my likelihood of ever seeing a cougar in the wild, let alone photographing one, is about the same as the likelihood that I’ll win $50million in LottoMax. Actually, I think the probability of me winning the $50million is higher….
So, when you know that it might take 10 consecutive lifetimes to ever see an animal like that in the wild let alone capture it in pixels, you concede that photographing captive wildlife isn’t such a bad idea. And so, I signed up for Ray’s workshop.
We met at the wildlife centre at 9 am and Ray prepped us for the shoot by describing what the setting was like and what the best strategy was for getting good images. In retrospect, all excellent advice. We were then introduced to Dale Gienow, a co-founder of the wildlife centre, expert animal handler and just one heck of a nice guy (and also has the distinction of being the top jouster in Canada – go figure…). Dale gave us an introduction to the wildlife centre, why it exists and how it exists. I was surprised to learn that many of its resident animals are super-stars and that they should be signing autographed photos…. Dale routinely works as Scientific Advisor for wildlife documentary films produced by BBC, National Geographic and aired on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. I was surprised to hear of their international reputation, but once we were in the enclosures and working with the animals, it was abundantly clear that this was a top-notch facility, where the animals are treated like royalty and their health, happiness and safety is an absolute first priority. All I can say is…. IMPRESSIVE!
Dale described how we would be photographing each of the animals for that days photo-shoot: Timber Wolves, Cougar, Silver Fox, Canada Lynx and a Saw whet Owl. All of the larger mammals live in huge, outdoor fence enclosures that contain native vegetation. For all but the cougar, we were in the enclosures with the animals. At no point was I ever concerned about my safety. It was abundantly clear that Dale and his assistant were expert animal handlers and also knew each of these animals personalities like the back of their hands. This meant that we could relax, enjoy the experience, and make the most of our photographic opportunities.
Just as we set out, it started to snow. And snow. And snow. I mean, holy cow, it snowed! Heavy, wet snow. And lighting conditions were challenging – very dark. But hey, you make the most of your situation, whatever it is. I ended up shooting primarily with my Nikon 18-200 mm lens because we were so close to most of the animals. I lugged my Nikon 600 mm bazooka with me, but only used it for photographing Lulu, the super-star Saw whet Owl. We entered the huge, fenced enclosure and when ready, Dale let out two gorgeous Timber Wolves. A male and female pair. Stunningly beautiful animals! At first I cursed the heavy snow and low light conditions. I’d forgotten my lens hood and so snowflakes kept glomming to my lens. I’d quickly try to wipe them off, but instead, smeared water all over my lens. Arrggghhh! But I quickly adapted, got into a rhythm of shooting and made the most of it.
It’s funny how snowy, dull conditions that you first think are miserable shooting conditions and that you curse, quickly become some of the BEST shooting conditions you could ever imagine! Seriously! The photography was challenging. No, actually, that’s a gross understatement. This was some of the most challenging photography I’d EVER done. But oh, it was sooo much fun. I was on a high. The wolves would trot towards us in a relaxed way, pause for a few seconds, sniff around, and then trot off in another direction. All you could hear was the buzz of continuous shutter releases as we all went mad to make images. It was hard. And with the low light conditions, my shutter speed was too slow for a lot of the images and so a lot were blurry. But I was shooting with my Nikon D200 (my trusty, but way too old steed. It’s sooo time to upgrade). The only thing I don’t like about the D200 is that it’s old technology and so shooting at high ISO is not wonderful. Images can be pretty noisy, unlike the new Nikon sensors that let you shoot at high ISO and you don’t even notice a difference. Sigh…
But, you make the most of your situation and I did. When the wolves paused, I made the most of those opportunities and rattled off a lot of frames, careful to compose as best I could and ensure that the fencing was not visible in the background. Dale and his assistant were great at getting the wolves to move around so that there was lots of opportunity to photograph them with only a forest environment visible and no fence in the background. These guys were good, I mean, really good. They worked hard to help us get the good shots, but what I loved was that the animal’s welfare was always their top priority. Just the way it should be….
It wasn’t till I got home and looked at my images that I saw how the slow shutter speed along with the heavy snowfall and dull light conditions made for magical shooting conditions. Have a look at my image of the female Timber Wolf, above. See how the falling snow and slow shutter speed create soft, white, vertical lines? And the dull light conditions actually created a soft feel to the images. Had I had a better camera for the shoot, I would have had a ton more images that were keepers. But I’m still happy with what I did get. And most of all, it was the experience of being in the pen with those wolves that was the real high.
Next on the photo-menu was the cougar. It’s a no-brainer to understand why we were not allowed inside the enclosure with it. Most of these animals have been hand-raised from a young age and so they are used to people. But still. This is a 150 lb cat with millions of years of evolution that have shaped its behaviour and instincts. So we went inside the outer fenced enclosure, but stayed outside the inner enclosure. This meant shooting through the chain-link fence. Another challenge. But to be honest, not that big of a problem. The cougar came so close to us that my 18-200 mm zoom was all that was necessary to capture some beautiful face shots. Dale and his assistant were there to keep things safe. When the cougar walked by us on the other side of the fence, we quietly took a step back just in case. But let me tell you, to be a foot away from a cougar and to have your eyes meet his…. it’s an experience that stirs your soul. I once had a mind-meld with a wild Beluga Whale in Churchill, Manitoba. Looking into the eyes of this cougar was on the same order as that. Indescribable….
Next on our photo safari was a Canada Lynx. For this one, we were in the enclosure with the cat. And what a cat it was. Wow…. Such a beautiful animal. Dale and his assistant kept the cat at a reasonable distance from us, maybe 6 feet away. It was perfect for making some amazing images. At one point I stopped shooting just so I could admire this beautiful cat – it’s huge, snowshoe paws, those dapper, black ear tufts, and the luxurious fur. Ya, I’m a biologist and so for me, it wasn’t entirely about the photography. It was about seeing these animals up close. Animals that even the most active outdoors person is so unlikely to ever encounter.
Next on our safari was a Silver Fox. We photographed him in the same enclosure as the Lynx (after the Lynx had been moved to another pen) and so were able to make images of it from 6 feet away. What a gorgeous animal. And those penetrating copper eyes against the black and smokey grey of its fur….
Our final photographic subject was a beautiful little Saw whet Owl, named Lulu. Lulu is a super-star! She’s the same individual animal that was used to make the Telus Mobility TV ads. So she’s a TV star. I know I should have asked for her autograph…. Dale placed her on several different branches to provide a variety of backgrounds and perches. This is where I hauled out my 600 mm bazooka, took several steps back and began shooting. Wow! The outstanding glass on that lens sure captures the fine details of feathers.
After we’d finished our official photo-shoot, Dale invited us to wander around the centre on our own, to photograph other animals in the outdoor pens or to come back inside to meet the skunks, opossum, Northern Bobwhite, Blanding’s Turtle, and the variety of other interesting critters housed inside.
All I can say is that photo-shoot was one of the BEST experiences I’d ever had. It was some of the most challenging shooting I’d ever done. But also the most satisfying. And to be honest, if I’d come away without any nice images, the entire experience still would have been worth every penny. Would I go back and do it again? You bet! In a heartbeat.
A footnote: I was trolling through the Fine Art America website since I’m working on uploading some images to it for selling. Out of curiosity, I searched for images of wolves, cougars, foxes and the like. I have to say that I was appalled to see that only a few photographers actually listed their images as being those of CAPTIVE wildlife. In fact, the only ones who specified that theirs were images of captive wildlife were the professionals – people who are internationally renowned. The rest didn’t give it a mention. And I swear that one person had images that were also made at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre. Maybe I’m wrong, but the backgrounds looked awfully familiar….. My point here is that as photographers, I think we MUST be honest. I’m a biologist and so I know that most images of wolves, cougars and similar wildlife are of captive animals. Frankly, you can pretty much tell by the kind of image. Anything close up is captive. There were images by Paul Nicklen – images of Lynx and other wildlife that you know are authentic, that you know are of wild animals. But the rest….. come on guys… come clean. There’s an ethical issue here. If it’s an image of a captive animal, say so. Don’t try to pull the wool over the eyes of someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to know that the chances of photographing a cougar, close-up, in the wild are next to nil. And I don’t buy the excuse that they didn’t say they were wild. The omission of the word captive still makes you guilty in my mind. Let’s call a spade a spade….
Bottom line – this was an absolutely fantastic photographic experience on all fronts and I wouldn’t hesitant a second to recommend it. In fact, I hope I’m going back. Maybe in the fall, at the height of the fall colours and hopefully by then, with a better camera for the job….