Friday, July 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – July Story

That one perfect moment. (L-R: Twiga, Kiko, Mstari)

I've often referred to my method of taking pictures of animals as "brute force photography". I'm not a true practitioner of the art, per se: I don't pay that much attention to lighting, location, time of day, filters, etc., etc., etc. What I do is visit an animal I want to try to get a photo of, choose a spot with a relatively clean view (and as devoid of other people as possible), set up there, and wait for my subject to do something interesting – which sometimes means simply showing up at all. I will wait a very long time for an opportunity (I spent over four hours on one morning in May to get some photos of our lynx kittens) and, far more often than not, I am rewarded for my patience. I shoot in bursts and refine the best captures in "post-production"; I also seem to have a bit of a knack for predicting the moves of an animal and zeroing in on facial expressions or unusual moments, which helps quite a bit. Most of my best pictures are a result of this method, but every now and then I will stumble upon a scene which I recognize as an instant "classic" – as was the case with my photo for February of this year. Sometimes, too, it all comes down to simply being in the right place at the right time and being ready to shoot.

Which is what happened when I captured the above photo for July, 2016.

My first glimpse of Kiko on exhibit
Kiko came to the Toronto Zoo from the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina in late May of 2015. His mandatory 30-day quarantine period was timed to end at the end of June, which should have put Kiko on exhibit by Canada Day – or July 4, at the very latest. But Kiko was stubborn and gave the vets and keepers a very hard time when they tried to get enough blood drawn to end the quarantine, causing his myriad fans (who watched his birth live on the Zoo's giraffe cam) to grow a little concerned by a delay in his appearance which ultimately exceeded two months beyond the anticipated 30 days. Nevertheless, on the very last day of August the Toronto keepers were finally given the green light and began to allow Kiko access to the outside paddock – should he choose to accept it, that is. He balked at this opportunity for a couple of days, finally walking back out into the sunlight on September 2nd because that was the one day that week I could not be at the Zoo. Seriously, it's downright astounding how often that very thing happens to me. But I digress. The following day – September 3 – I came early and took a few photos of the new hunky star settling in nicely to his surroundings. He seemed to get along swimmingly with both Mstari and her mom, Twiga, from the very beginning.

My very first glimpse of Mstari – 1 week old!
Mstari, on the other hand, has a very interesting claim to fame at the Toronto Zoo. On October 22, 2013 the remaining three African elephants in the Zoo's collection departed for their very controversial long drive to California, where they were being transferred. As keepers and vets and other staff and volunteers gathered that morning to lend support to the elephant keepers and their charges, a call came over the radio. Twiga, the younger of the two female Masai giraffes remaining at the Zoo, was in the process of giving birth and help was immediately requested at the giraffe paddock and house. From several accounts, it seems to me that this was a not entirely expected event. As I followed the elephant saga from home on Twitter (I couldn't bring myself to show up at the Zoo), I saw in a reporter's feed that was "some good news to report: a baby giraffe" and thought to myself, "Sure, in San Diego, maybe... but what did that have to do with Toronto?" You see, there was no male giraffe at that time, Stripes having passed away the previous fall. As the day went on, however, I read that news a few more times on Twitter (with the same confusion) until I eventually became aware of an account that was less than a week old: @TOZookeepers. I wasn't immediately convinced that this was a "real" account, until I took a look at who was following them. This new account also tweeted out the giraffe news, but confirmed that the birth was at the Toronto Zoo. Then it finally clicked: Masai giraffes have a gestation period of 14-15 months. Stripes had been gone for, I think, about 13 months when Mstari was born – going out with a "bang", apparently! On that day of sorrow and angst, we had a new giraffe baby...which was pretty incredible. For the first little while, the not-so-tiny one had the nickname "Elly" (although I'm not positive how it was spelled) in honour of the departed pachyderms, but eventually that became too heavy a reminder and she was officially named "Mstari" in honour of her late father. The story that went around (and perpetuates today) is that mstari means "stripes" in Swahili; this is not, technically, 100% correct. The closest translation of "stripes" in Swahili is "kupigwa" (which I think would have been so cool, because I absolutely would shorten that to "kupi" and probably pronounce it "kewpie"!); "mstari" means "band" or "row" or "line" more accurately. Moreover, for it to be plural, it would have to be spelled "mistari". Since her dad was named after the American flag (I cannot confirm this, but I have been told that he and another giraffe were born at the Cleveland Zoo quite close together in late June of 1991 and they were called "Stars" and "Stripes" because of course they were), "bands" or "lines" actually makes some sense. Still, though, the spelling could have been better. No matter: her mom was named "Twiga" which actually means "giraffe". So Mstari is better off than that!

A very doting mother
 Twiga was a great mom. I don't recall where I looked this up, but somewhere I came up with the information that she and Stripes had seven babies together (if anyone knows differently, please let me know). And she and Mstari formed a very strong bond, particularly after auntie Ginetta passed away in early 2014 at 30 years of age – which was quite an achievement. If she had one small "failing" (which is too strong a word), it was that whenever Mstari tried to get a few nibbles during Keeper Talks, Twiga would always try to eat the food before Mstari could get her tongue around it. However, these were just "snacks" and Mstari certainly had no issue in trying to thrive overall. And when Kiko came to town and was finally able to go on exhibit with the two ladies, Twiga gave him a very thorough looking over for the first couple of days before she permitted Mstari to get too close to him on her own. Fortunately for me, though – especially in terms of this month's photo – all three got along pretty well right off the bat. Kiko did seem to prefer the company of Twiga in the early days – likely because he was very young himself and missing his own mother – but eventually spent more and more time with Mstari as time went on. Twiga must have been hanging on to be sure that her last child was going to be well taken care of, because on October 24 of last year, shortly after all three of them had celebrated birthdays, Twiga collapsed on exhibit and had to be euthanized. She was 25 years old. The two youngsters seemed to be quite shaken by this turn of events and it's taken them until this summer to really start to come around again. However, all of that trauma was still well in the future when I turned up on the afternoon of September 14th to see how the new family was getting on.

Alison feeding Kiko (front) and Twiga
It was a gorgeous day but there were not very many people at the Zoo as it was rapidly approaching closing time. Keeper Alison had just fed the three of them some treats from just behind the giraffe house and I had taken up a position to shoot from a good angle to capture that. The few other visitors in the area seemed to all have come there specifically to get pictures of the newest arrival and were scattered about along the wall overlooking the giraffe enclosure. When Alison disappeared back inside, the giraffes restlessly shuffled off in different directions and most of the other folks took that opportunity to check out their own equipment or change their positions to get a better vantage point on Kiko, the star. I, however, came armed with quite a bit of prior experience in the circling patterns of these giraffes and the knowledge that, when they had even a slight idea that food may still be forthcoming, they tended not to shuffle off too far before returning to where they might expect to see more treats.

(L-R) Kiko, Mstari and Twiga circling the wagons
And so it was that the two gals, veteran residents of the Toronto Zoo that they were, almost immediately made their way back to the fence from where they could watch the door to the barn very carefully for any signs of Alison's return. They positioned themselves a few feet apart and stared intently at the building. Kiko – new to the exhibit – wandered off much further afield, causing every other photographer in attendance to train their lenses on only him which, in turn, meant they failed to notice the actions of the other two giraffes. I, however, stayed put, keeping one eye on mother and daughter and the other on the arc of Kiko, now sweeping widely back towards the outdoor yard. As he narrowed the distance to this yard, it became rapidly apparent to me that there was a very good chance he would at some point perfectly fit the gap Mstari and Twiga had left between them. I raised my camera and focused on that gap, awaiting the imminent arrival of Kiko into the edge of my frame. It began to dawn on the other visitors what was about to transpire and I heard from behind me quite a rustle as they all attempted to get into a good position for the shot...but they had left it far too late. Kiko appeared, I held down the shutter release, and shot off a whole series of photos in rapid succession as he strolled into the position you see above. There was an audible sigh and outtake of breath from behind me and we all knew what I had managed to capture. If you look closely at the resulting photo, you will see that Twiga has lifted her right foreleg in preparation for beginning to circle away once again, meaning the timing of this one perfect shot had to be absolutely precise.

So yes, this was a case of "right place, right time"; however, I created that possibility through anticipation of the animals I knew so well and it came to fruition by the actions of the one unknown: Kiko. For all the technical aspects of photography that I am light years behind in, I am very pleased with my ability to recognize patterns and habits of the creatures that I spend so much of my days with. They have rewarded my patience and powers of observation time and time again and that is why I still return with my camera on so many days where I do not have a scheduled shift at the Zoo. I hope – oh, do I hope – that I never lose that passion. With subjects like these, could I, really?

Next month: another huge animal, and a photo taken not too far from where I stood to snap the one for July. I hope, this time, I have it ready for the first of the month!

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