Posted on

Continuing Crisis of Conscience

My friend Derek and I went for a morning drive up Highway 40 into Kananaskis last week. It was raining, grey and while we were initially headed up to the Highwood Pass to take pictures of the pikas, we were also keeping our eyes peeled for anything else we might find, especially bears.

Derek is an incredibly skilled painter and tattoo artist, the owner of Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore. His photography skills are pretty tight as well, so when it comes to art, we have a lot in common.

We never made it up to the Pass because it started to snow quite heavily as we gained elevation, but it was a quiet morning, very little traffic and we saw quite a few bears. Seven grizzlies and a black bear.

While we both got some very nice pictures, a few I can even paint from, the whole experience was tainted by my ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ guilt over taking the photos in the first place.
One of the most difficult parts of painting wildlife, even in my whimsical wildlife style, is the gathering of reference. Before I became proficient with a camera, I would often borrow from generous photographer friends or buy stock photos. I still do buy reference from time to time when taking the shots myself would just be unrealistic. For example, my recent underwater painting of an Orca would require a drastic lifestyle change and a lottery win to be able to gather those shots.

I’ve taken plenty of photos at Discovery Wildlife Park and at the Calgary Zoo, many of which have resulted in finished paintings. But even though I’ve made peace with the fact that both of those facilities are doing their best to aid in conservation and that the animals are receiving the best care possible, they’re still captive animals. My support of those places has drawn some criticism and I accept that. I still believe in both places and their best intentions, for lack of a perfect solution.

What many fail to understand is that when they say animals should be left to be free in the wild; there are very few places in the world where that’s still possible. Outside of national and provincial parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, most animals are at constant risk from the most dangerous predator around. Us.

My friend, Serena, head keeper at Discovery Wildlife Park, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to bears and other wildlife. She’s big on leaving bears alone in the wild, that pulling over in your car introduces people smells and habituation risks to bears, even in parks where they’re protected. Part of their bear presentation twice a day at the park is all about educating people on being bear aware in the wild, including being a responsible tourist.

Having lived in and near Canada’s most famous national park for the past twenty-five years, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when tourists forget themselves, and close in like a mob on a grizzly bear, in order to snap that pic for Facebook. If the bear defends itself, or becomes too used to humans, they sometimes have to shoot the bear.

Apparently shooting tourists is frowned upon.

I spend most of my life feeling guilty for my choices. Even with the best of intentions, trying to be an advocate for wildlife protection AND making a good chunk of my living painting whimsical wildlife portraits, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer to where I should get my reference. If I were a wildlife photographer, it would be even harder.

If I take the photos of a captive animal, no matter how well cared for or considering their circumstances, I’m a bad person for supporting that practice. If I take photos in the wild or in parks, well I’m a bad person for stopping to get a photo, even if I’m trying to minimize my impact on the animal.
Derek and I did our best to be responsible, as we always do. We both had long lenses, so we parked a good distance from all of the bears we encountered. We stayed in my car, either taking shots from our windows or out the sunroof. We were careful to limit our time with the bears we encountered, even though we would have liked to have stayed all day, especially near the grizzly and her cubs.

We even justified those pics because on the other side of those trees behind them is a campground with plenty of people smells already there. And Parks was on scene monitoring them.

That still feels hypocritical, telling myself whatever I need to, in order to justify the shots.
Basically, there is no right answer because everybody has their own opinion and judging others by the most rigid standards of hyper morality is at the core of being human. We compare our own best traits to the worst traits in others, convinced we’re better than most. (see: social media)

If another driver fails to signal a turn, they’re a stupid asshole, deserving of a long blast on the horn, shouting and obscene finger gestures. If we fail to signal, however, well we’re only human and it was an innocent mistake. Get over it.

Think on that, next time you’re in traffic.

I will continue to wrestle with this moral dilemma, convinced there is no answer that will please everyone. Just like my artwork, I am a work in progress.

Take care,
Patrick
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Cattle Call

In need of a getaway, I spent four nights last week at the cabin near Caroline that friends and I rent from time to time. This little slice of heavenly Alberta ranch land never fails to recharge the batteries and provide new inspiration.

I was alone at the cabin for the first night and my friend Darrel arrived Monday for the next three. Having known each other most of our lives, it’s one of those rare friendships where we can go months without seeing each other and just pick up where we left off like no time has passed.

Over the five days, we explored more of the property we hadn’t yet seen, took daily drives down gravel and dirt roads, looking for critters and anything else of interest.

On one drive west, we ventured down a rough muddy road to get to Camp Worthington, beside the Clearwater River. In recent years, it’s been used as a survival training camp for Air Cadets. In the early nineties, however, I’d been out there multiple times as an instructor with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. Hadn’t been back since, and was surprised how little has changed, though flooding in recent years has altered some of the landscape.

The cabins, mess hall and other structures were unlocked and in good repair, clearly maintained. Amazing how opening a door can bring back a flood of fond memories.

Of course, wherever we went, I was looking for animals.


On our drives and around the cabin, we saw plenty of birds, wild and domestic horses, deer, and I even saw a moose right outside the kitchen window at 5am one morning. By the time I got dressed, grabbed the camera, and figured out where she’d gone, however, she had made it across the pasture, out of range.

Shonna said that a real artist would have gone out au naturel to get the shot. I’m sure the mosquitoes would have loved that.

Apparently there has been a grizzly in the area, but we didn’t encounter that particular neighbour. I can’t say it wasn’t on my mind around the cabin, especially on my own the first night.

I’ve wanted to paint some more domesticated animals in my whimsical style, farm and ranch critters to add to the gallery of funny looking animals I’ve created. On recent visits to KB Trails, I’ve been fortunate to get some pretty wonderful reference for some horse paintings I’m planning.
This time around, I was going to visit the neighbours to take some reference photos of their cows, but when I arrived on Sunday afternoon, our hosts told me we’d have some new neighbours of our own at the cabin. Turns out they’d leased the adjacent pasture to a friend for his herd of cattle and I was delighted at the news.


Of all the animals I photographed this time, the majority were cows. After going through the four hundred or so I took, keeping only the best of the bunch, I ended up with a great selection of reference and I’m looking forward to painting from them soon. Little cows, big cows, a group of cows, there’s no shortage of inspiration and material there.

The rest of the trip was what you’d expect from two boring middle-aged guys. Enjoyed good food and drink, played games and guitar, listened to music, and fell into naps in our chairs, mid-conversation. Weather was good, bugs weren’t bad, and the welcome quiet was surreal. We could have easily stayed another week if not for that whole work thing.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

The Start of Calgary Expo 2019

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you already know that the Calgary Expo has been my biggest undertaking of the year for the past six years. For people who do trade or gift shows on a regular basis, this sort of thing is routine, so the big deal I make about it each year seems like nothing to them. If I did these sort of shows a lot, I would easily see it from their perspective, but it’s not just the show that’s a challenge, it’s getting away FOR the show.

As half of my business is editorial cartooning, which requires following the news for  a living and producing satirical illustrated commentary almost every day, taking five days away to focus on this show is more difficult than getting away for a vacation. My newspapers still have to be covered and when I get home exhausted late Sunday night, I’ll still be up at 5am on Monday morning drawing cartoons.

Managing the logistics to prep for this show is a lot of work because I also have to keep my papers supplied with cartoons while I’m away, which means drawing more in the week before and hoping no news of great importance breaks while I’m gone, because I can’t just abandon my booth or drive back to Canmore to get a cartoon done in between the show hours.

I’m also an introvert who spends most of time working alone in the comfort of my home, so this event takes a lot out of me, having to be ON for five days, surrounded by a lot of people.

That being said, it’s usually a fun show. Once I’m there, I really do enjoy it, even though Sunday will be a very long slog of a day. I rarely encounter somebody at this show who doesn’t want to be there and few who aren’t having a good time. Each year, my booth gets better, I learn something new for the next go ’round and streamline the process.

I recorded a video this past weekend which showed the booth set up in my garage, offered some thoughts on why I set things up the way I do, and shared it with my newsletter audience. You can watch it here if you like.

Here are some images of the prep this week. Beginning with the two sides of the booth set up in the garage, this is something I do every year to make things easier when I’m on site. With no time pressure, I’m free to leave it set up for a couple of days, nitpicking print placement and trying different things. Then I take photos of the setup and refer to it when I’m on site.


Once I’m happy with it, I pack it all up, go over the checklist and have it all together in one pile, ready to load. The snowshoes stay home.

My trusty Pontiac Vibe may not be the most flashy or cool car around, but you can sure put a lot into it. The cargo capacity on this thing is impressive. There are two six foot tables in here, four 2′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall, two 1′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall and everything you see above. That being said, there is no room for anything else.

“Is there a problem, Officer?”

Once on site Wednesday, I set it all up, made everything nice and tidy, ensured the lights were working, in order to leave as little work for myself as possible when I returned on Thursday.

All that remained was to hang the canvas and aluminum, put the prints in the bins, the magnets on the board, the floor down and turn on the lights. It took about an hour yesterday to finish getting it show ready, the result below.

As I’m writing this in my hotel room Friday morning after the first evening, I was pleased with the first day’s sales, all things considered.

On the positive side of things, quite a few of my repeat customers I’ve gotten to know over the years came by to add to their collections and just to chat and catch up. That really is my favorite part of this show. Some of these people have been buying my work since my first year and I’m always grateful for their support. When more than a few customers greet you with a hug, you’re doing something right.

That being said, there is initially a different feel this year, confirmed by my fellow vendors and some attendees I know pretty well. It doesn’t appear that they sold out of exhibitor space this year which is a bad sign. Usually this show is FULL early on. There used to be a long waiting list.

This year, there’s actual empty space between some booths, you can see that in my above photo. When I arrived on Thursday, my neighbour on the right side of the pic had moved closer to me and said I could take advantage of it as well. I moved my far wall another two feet.

Having extra space at Expo is bizarre. We’re usually fighting for every inch. I know a couple of other vendors in the hall who had the same luxury.

Fan Expo bought the Calgary Expo a couple of years back and while changes were evident last year, the old familiar faces were still around and on the team. I haven’t seen anyone in administration that I recognize this year, so clearly they were obligated to be part of last year’s transition. In my opinion, it was those hardworking folks who made this con what it is and set the tone for the culture.

While clearly a commercial venture on all sides, there was always a feeling that we were all in this together, vendors and organizers. I’ve seen no evidence that exists any longer. Even the announcers sound bored.

Fan Expo (a subsidiary of Informa Exhibitions) doesn’t seem to be popular with the fans. At one time, I had considered doing the Edmonton, Regina and Vancouver Expos, but vendors talk with each other and there’s no incentive for me to give that any more thought. Many have become dissatisfied with those experiences and are abandoning them.

While my sales Thursday night were good, comparable with last year, I credit that to my great location on a main thoroughfare near an entrance, because there were noticeably fewer people in attendance. Thursday is usually quieter anyway, but this was the quietest I’ve ever seen.

Rumblings among the vendors is that the best days of the Calgary Expo might be behind us. One of my close friends, Michelle, a loyal Expo attendee, decided to skip this year. I’ve heard a couple of my neighbouring vendors say that this is their last year and depending on how the weekend goes, we’ll see how I feel about rebooking when Sunday comes.

If this good thing does come to an end and I bid farewell to the Calgary Expo, I’ll be disappointed, just as I was when I stopped attending Photoshop World for very similar reasons. But hanging on, expecting it to become what it used to be would be myopic, foolish and just bad business.

That being said, I still plan to have a good time this weekend, try my best to help others do the same, and I look forward to meeting and greeting my customers, both old and new.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

This past weekend, I returned once again to the little cabin near Caroline that my friends and I rent from time to time, this trip booked in early December.

With one eye on the forecast, my plan was to head up Thursday morning, with Jim and Al coming up later that day when they finished work.

The owner’s son, Wilson, called me Wednesday evening to ask me what I was driving. He said there was a large section of the road covered in water and he was concerned that it might be too deep for a car. I drive a Pontiac Vibe, a modern version of a station wagon.

I thanked him for the call, and then spent the rest of the evening dealing with all of the what-ifs flooding my overactive imagination. At the darkest end of the unlikely scenarios created by my obsessive psyche, I’d try to go through the water, underestimate its depth, water would splash up into the air intake, damage the engine, and I’d have to buy a new car.

An unrealistic and foolish prediction, I know, but when my mind goes exploring these dark places, it’s like trying to talk logic to a kid throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. The pin is out, the grenade thrown.

Never mind that I had already been presented with simple solutions. Wilson has said if I got there and it wasn’t passable, I could just come back to their house, load my stuff into their truck and get to the cabin that way. The other option, wait for Jim and Al to arrive, and ferry my stuff in their truck.

The silly thing about this whole scenario is that whenever life presents me with unexpected situations, I don’t curl up in the fetal position. I’ve never shrunk from a challenge, unable to cope.
I once stopped on the side of a highway in a winter storm in northern Alberta, the first responder to a scene where a guy had hit the guardrail and was lying on the ground outside of his car. Lucky for him, I was a new EMT at the time, and handled the situation without hesitation. As a student on my EMT practicum in Calgary in the early nineties, I once pushed my way through a room full of firefighters to help a dying AIDS patient, because everyone else seemed afraid to touch him.

During the 2013 flood, when we had to evacuate our home, Shonna and I dealt with it. No tears, no freaking out, we just worked the situation.

My track record of handling unexpected situations and difficult problems is pretty solid, especially if I don’t have a lot of time to think about it.
A few years ago, while with these same friends, we were driving up a familiar dirt road to a lake we frequent in BC. It can be challenging at times, but most often, slow and careful gets the job done. Almost to the lake, we stopped to admire the view and I heard a hissing sound. Sure enough, a flat tire.

I’d barely begun unloading my gear before Al and Jim were jacking up the car, and putting my spare donut on it.

To make sure we got our preferred spot, they took half of my stuff with them up to the lake and I had to drive back down the road to the highway and then to Canadian Tire in Invermere to get it changed, about three or four hours round trip.

Now, had you told me a day or two before that I was going to get a flat tire on the road up to the lake, my mind would have turned it into a disaster, throwing up dozens of unanswerable what-if questions. What part of the road? Is the rim damaged? Will I be able to get out of there? Is the rest of the car damaged? Was the spare good enough? Can you even drive on that road on a donut? Was it really worth the risk or should I just cancel?

Even knowing the unlikelihood, my mind goes straight to the worst case scenario in a futile attempt to control it.

The irony is that I don’t remember any other specifics from that weekend other than the fact that the weather was great and we had a good time. What I remember most is the flat tire, and it’s not a bad memory, it’s just another story to tell.

The whole thing was an inconvenience. I wasn’t even that put out by it. Had a nice lunch at a café while waiting for the car to be done and I got out of gathering and splitting wood, which is the first chore to be done on arriving at the lake.

All because I didn’t know about it in advance, so I couldn’t worry about it. Every year, I worry about that road and on dozens of trips, that’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Fast forward to this past weekend.

I woke up in a better frame of mind, determined to simply deal with whatever I was presented. I have winter boots and hiking boots, but never had the need for rubber boots. Given the warning call about the water, however, I stopped in Cochrane and picked up a pair.

Upon arriving at the house, Wilson met me and said it might not be as bad as he initially thought. I told him I’d head down and if it wasn’t passable, I’d come back.

On the road down to the cabin, I came to the water hazard across the road, put on my rubber boots and walked through. It was about three car lengths long, maybe six inches at the deepest. Sure, you wouldn’t want to race a car through that, but it certainly wasn’t impassable.

All of that worrying for nothing. Story of my life.

And still, in retrospect, I’m glad he called. With so much spring melt and what became three beautiful sunny days, anytime we were out of the cabin and off the deck, we had to wear rubber boots because there was water and mud everywhere. I would have destroyed my hiking boots or shoes. I even went for a hike down to the Clearwater River, which meant crossing a creek three times, something I could only do in the rubber boots.
It was a great weekend. Sunshine, lots of laughs, no politics, spent time with the horses, and got to hang with Jingles a little. Sure would have hated to have missed it over what amounted to little more than a big puddle.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say that the lesson learned is not to worry about every little thing, to let it go, to just take life as it comes, but the truth is that I’ve been presented with that lesson countless times and I still haven’t learned it. I know you can’t control everything and that it will always be the thing you DIDN’T think of that bites you in the ass.

Like angry beavers.
It’s just the way I’m wired, and as annoying as it might be to my friends and family, it’s nothing compared to how much it bothers me, because the noise of it never stops. But I’m always working on it. I still manage to face my worries, rather than hide from them. Feel the fear, and do it anyway.

I also know this…if everything always went according to plan, if nothing ever went wrong, if it was always sunshine and rainbows, it would be pretty damn boring.

And I’d have nothing to write about.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Kartooning Kenney

When I first started editorial cartooning twenty years ago, I would spend hours nitpicking details, trying to get everything just right. I wasn’t a very good artist then, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Obsessing over the details, often with one eye on the clock before I had to get to my day job, my wife would often caution me about trying to turn every cartoon into The Sistine Chapel.

To this day, whenever I spend a lot of time on a cartoon, we refer to it as a Sistine Chapel.

I realized quite some time ago that many of my competitors and colleagues became editorial cartoonists because they were political animals who enjoyed drawing, whereas I was the opposite. I liked to doodle in my spare time and stumbled upon the gig that would change the course of my life because of an ad in the weekly Banff paper. I was 27 years old. Before that, I paid very little attention to politics or the news.

While learning to be a better artist, I was also learning to follow politics and the news.

In the days when many newspapers had their own in-house cartoonist, that artist could spend an entire day on a cartoon, coming up with the idea, drawing the sketch, presenting the editor with a rough, and delivering the finished cartoon at the end of the day by deadline.

He (they were almost always men) didn’t have to worry that another cartoonist was going to take his spot in the next day’s paper.

These days, with so many newspapers having laid off their staff cartoonist, many use syndicated freelancers, so it’s a dog eat dog world of not only coming up with the cartoon, but getting it drawn fast in order to meet a much earlier deadline.

Quite a few of my weekly newspapers want their cartoons before 9 o’clock on Monday morning in their own time zone. I work weekends.

On top of that, with clients in many provinces, I also have to consider that even though the Alberta election has an impact on the entire country, a cartoon on that topic might not resonate with a weekly paper in Ontario. While I will still send them those cartoons, I will make sure I send them other cartoons so they have more options from which to choose.

What all of that means is that a part of my brain is perpetually on the lookout for cartoon ideas, I am always planning the next day’s (week’s, month’s…) cartoons, and trying to come up with the best use of my time so that the cartoon will still consist of a number of ingredients. It should be funny, but sometimes intentionally not funny. It should be an insightful comment on an issue, but sometimes just a joke about dog poop thawing in the spring. It should be well drawn, but often a simple drawing will suffice to get the message across.

I’m supplying not only an artistic comment for an editorial page, but also a product for my client, and they won’t wait until I’m ready to send it if they’re up against deadline and other cartoonists have already sent in submissions.

I rarely take days off, but that serves my nature. I’m always working on the next cartoon, the next painting, the next blog post, or preparing files for my licensing clients. When I hear friends talk about looking forward to their retirement, I’m just trying to work as long as I can, hoping my eyesight and dexterity hold out before age robs me of both.

Add to that the tenuous nature of a daily deadline for a struggling industry in a gig economy and there are days when I feel more like a factory worker pushing out widgets than an artist. I don’t often get to put as much into a cartoon as I’d like.

Every so often, however, I make time for a Sistine Chapel.

A little background…

The province of Alberta was ruled for 44 years by the Progressive Conservative Party.

In the last election, they managed to anger Albertans so much that people voted for the New Democratic Party en masse and they won a majority, which for this province was a huge upset, a dramatic swing from right to left. I figure people voted for them out of protest in order to give the Conservative Party a spanking to remind them who they worked for.

I don’t think anybody expected the NDP to win. I sure didn’t.

In 2017, the two right wing Progressive Conservatives and Wild Rose parties merged and now the new United Conservative Party is trying to take Alberta back from the NDP in our current election.

Many who support the UCP blame the NDP for anything and everything that has ever been wrong with Alberta, which is ridiculous because the whole reason they got elected was that the previous government had screwed everything up so badly having been corrupted by their sense of entitlement. Since the Wild Rose was made up of former PCs, nobody trusted them either.

Of course, when I say stuff like this, people think I support the NDP, which I don’t. I’ve drawn plenty of cartoons critical of the current government, but when it comes to the lesser of evils, they most certainly are, for one reason.

Because the UCP is led by Jason Kenney.


Jason Kenney was a career federal politician, whose past positions on some pretty important social issues weren’t very popular. Having followed federal politics for many years, I’ve formed the opinion that Jason Kenney’s primary interest is Jason Kenney and if the UCP doesn’t get elected, it’ll be because he’s in charge.

I don’t trust him. A lot of people don’t trust him.

My impression is that Kenney realized he was never going to be the Prime Minister of Canada, so he came back to Alberta, said all of the right things to get people angry, pointed a finger at the NDP, said they’re to blame for everything and thank heavens he showed up just in time to save us from ourselves.

All he’s missing is Make Alberta Great Again embroidered on his fresh off the rack cowboy hat, to go with his pristine blue pickup truck.

The current Premier, Rachel Notley, has a lot of hard work to do. She’s made some unpopular choices with Albertans and there’s plenty of room for improvement. I’m not a fan of hers, either. The primary goal of every party anywhere is to get re-elected and the NDP are shoveling hard.

But Jason Kenney is irresponsible, reckless and dangerous. He is preying on fear and outrage, and will divide Alberta even more than it already is. He is not the solution to what ails us.

So when I decided to draw this cartoon, I allowed more time than I’m used to. I spent hours on the sketch and drawing, painted in little details that nobody will see, tried some stuff that worked, discarded other stuff that didn’t and probably sacrificed a second cartoon that could have been completed had I rushed this one through.

Regardless of where (and if) it gets published, it was well worth my time.

Because it was fun.

Cheers,
Patrick

To see the rest of my current cartoons, here’s the link to that page, updated each week.

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Jingles

In January  of last year, my buddy Darrel and I rented a cabin in central Alberta and were instantly taken with the place and the area around it. A couple of months later, my friend Jim and I went out there and he fell for the place, too. Since then, he’s gone there on his own, introduced another friend to it, and we’ve all had more than a few repeat visits over the course of a year. I’ve been there five times.

The owners of KB Trails have been welcoming, friendly and we’ve all enjoyed getting to know them. We’ve invited them over for drinks while we’ve been on their property, they’ve returned the favour, and Jim and I were even invited for a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the woods.

We wondered if they thought we were a couple.

As always, I’ve often got the camera at the ready, because you never know when an unexpected critter will show up and capture my eye. On those multiple visits to the cabin, I’ve taken plenty of photos of their horses and will shortly be working on my first painting from some of those. I’ll often hang on to reference for quite some time before I get to it. I take a lot of pictures out there.

One of my favorite things about the cabin visits is Jingles. She’s a great ranch/farm dog, friendly to all, likes to be around people, but definitely not a pampered princess. She’s happiest outdoors and Bob and Karen have told us that she’s only interested in sleeping in the house on the coldest of nights. I expect this past February saw her inside more than usual.

But most of the time, Jingles is content to be by Bob or Karen’s side, or out holding court over her 320 acres. She’s always happy to see people, but she tires of it quickly. Squirrels to chase, property to patrol, a dog with things to do.

I remember on one of Bob’s visits, we’d been sitting on the back deck and once the chill set in, the three of us went inside to warm up by the fire. I called Jingles to come in and she did. But it wasn’t long before she was looking expectantly at the door and Bob said she was getting antsy to go back outside. So I opened the door and without hesitation, Jingles was out into the snow.

When Bob was ready to leave, she showed up to jump in the truck and off they went.

Like most dogs I’ve encountered, Jingles doesn’t like having her picture taken, but despite that, I’ve managed to get plenty of shots on our past visits and knew that I’d eventually find the time to paint her. I began this last month and while a slow start, the past few sessions on this have been quite enjoyable and I’m pleased with how it turned out. I do plan to paint her again in the other style, but this was the right choice for this painting. Here’s a closeup.

Before I started writing this post, I wondered on which visit I took the reference pic. I figured it was either in January or March. Turns out I finished this painting exactly one year from when I took the reference. March 11th, when Jim and I were there. Quite the coincidence, and completely unplanned.

We’ll be at the cabin again later this month for the first visit of the year, with more to follow, no doubt.

Cheers,
Patrick

If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

Posted on

Bear Belle (3 of 3)

(This is the third part of a three part post. Here’s a link to Part 1 and to Part 2.)

Walking back to the main building after taking pictures of the wolves, Serena said that I was welcome to join her and Berkley on their evening walk. I really felt I’d taken advantage of their generosity enough and told her so, but she said she was taking her anyway, so it was no imposition.

How could I say No? More importantly, WHY would I say No?I went to the main building for fifteen minutes while Serena and Denise put away the raccoons for the night and took care of some other end of day chores. I’d been told that when I next saw her, Serena would have Berkley with her and she would not be on a leash. Most likely I could expect Berkley to come and check me out and that she might put her nose on my legs, maybe even open her mouth as she did it, but that I shouldn’t be concerned as that’s all it would be.

Sure enough, I saw Serena coming and she asked, “Ready?”
When Berkley saw me, she did indeed come over and check me out. While I didn’t ignore her, I also didn’t make a big deal about it as I wanted her to feel comfortable with me. I was wearing shorts, so I felt a cold wet bear nose bump my leg a couple of times.

I told Serena that I knew not to run, as it would trigger Berkley’s instinct to chase. Even at her small size, she can likely outrun me now. While people think bears are big and lumbering, they are incredibly fast when they want to be. A bear can run up to 40mph in short bursts, faster than a race horse, uphill or downhill. That’s why you’re never advised to run from a bear.

But I asked what else I shouldn’t do.

Serena told me not to ruffle her fur back and forth on her back like you might do to a dog as it’s a signal for aggression, or rough play. A bear cub is very strong and even without meaning to, Berkley could hurt me. So while I didn’t need to be afraid of her, I did need to respect her space.

“But I can still touch her?”

Serena said that I could.
When I first met Berkley, she was about 12 pounds and very small as you can see in the above photo. That was mid-April. When I saw her again last week, she was 54 pounds. The difference is startling, because while she’s still a cub, you can see the adult bear she’s going to become, especially in the way she walks.

I had already doused myself once again in bug spray before they arrived. I had asked if it would bother Berkley, but Serena said the keepers wear it, so the animals are used to the smell. We headed for the tall grass and trees and I instantly realized the spray wasn’t going to cut it. Again, still worth it, but I was scratching for days afterward.

At first, she stuck with Serena and I walking along the path, but eventually Berkley took off into the tall grass, as she often likes to make her own route.
We came to the creek and I was told to sit down on a rock close to the water. Berkley usually crossed a log there and sitting where I was, I might get some good shots. Of course, that didn’t quite work out when Berkley came right to me and started climbing up my shoulders and back. I’ll admit to being quite nervous at this point, but Serena told her to get down and she did.

It should be noted that while Berkley has sharp claws, I’ve never felt them when she’s crawled on me. Not once.

Serena apologized because she suddenly remembered my recent fear of bears, but I was just startled more than anything. Berkley had already found other things to explore, anyway.

Serena told me not to be offended, but that Berkley really wouldn’t be that interested in me. I can’t remember her actual words, but it became clear that I was simply another piece of forest furniture. I was fine with that, because it made following her around and taking photos much more enjoyable and natural.

As we walked, Berkley went this way and that, just having a great time being a bear. She must have climbed more than half a dozen trees and it was amazing to see how easily she did it, scrambling up a trunk as if it was a ladder, then crawling back down to check out something else. She’d dig in the ground, chew on a stick or leaves, eat some grass, whatever caught her interest.
I asked plenty of questions, as I always do, and eventually I realized how comfortable I was walking through the woods with a bear. She never strayed far from Serena, but still did her own thing while we happily snapped photos of her.

We came to one of many large logs across the creek and Serena crossed first, leaving me on the other side with Berkley. She took a few photos of us with her camera but I knew I’d never get to see them until the fall. Summer is so busy for the park staff that any pictures and video you see on their active Facebook page have been taken with Serena’s phone, although they sure don’t look it.

She just hasn’t the time to download and sort through photos from her DSLR during peak season. So I asked if she’d mind taking a few of Berkley and I with my camera. It warrants mentioning that a lot of my photos from the walk are only good because Serena gave me some tips on shooting in the woods in low light.

I leaned across the creek and nervously handed my camera across to her, remembering my broken lens last month when I fell on some rocks on Vancouver Island.
My standing up and then sitting back down attracted Berkley’s attention, which made for a great photo. But then she decided I was worth checking out again and she crawled up on my shoulder. This time, I wasn’t so nervous until she started snuffling my hair, which is when Serena called her off.
Berkley crawled off and crossed the log, once again letting me know that know I’m not THAT interesting.

On the other side of the creek, Serena was looking at the photos in her camera, when Berkley came up behind her, started pulling on the string of her backpack. Serena leaned back so Berkley could crawl up on her and I got this shot.
This kind of photo can be misleading and people might think Berkley is as tame as their dog or cat. She’s not.

Berkley is a cub and only six months old and they’re still getting to know her and how she reacts to other people. One bear’s personality will be different from the next. Still, the most unpredictable ingredient in these encounters will be the person, not the bear. They can’t risk somebody thinking she’s so cute and reaching out to cuddle her or push her around. People might have the best of intentions, but she’s still a bear with wild instincts.

This experience of walking with her in the woods is not something they can make available to most people. I honestly didn’t expect to be offered this opportunity again after the first time because she’s getting bigger. Serena told me that the keepers have been around me enough to know that I’m not going to do anything to endanger the animals, staff or myself. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve gained their trust, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Serena knows Berkley best as she still takes her home every night. It’s a lengthy process getting Berkley used to being alone for extended periods of time. She has a small barn on the property where she goes to sleep during the day and that’s a comfortable space for her. Eventually, she will have a very large enclosure all of her own, and it’s there waiting for her. But to introduce her to such a large space all at once would be frightening so it will be done carefully and gradually. Until then, she demands a lot of Serena’s time, with the nightly walks and constant care, but as she said, “that’s the commitment I made when we adopted her.”

When you see photos and videos of Berkley playing or cuddling with Serena on Discovery Wildlife Park’s Facebook page, it’s because she might as well be her Mom. Berkley trusts her completely. She’s also that comfortable with Serena’s Dad, Doug. At the end of the evening when she saw him in a golf cart, she went right over and climbed up the front of it to see him, putting her face right up to his. Serena’s husband and kids are used to having all sorts of little animals at home, too.

This family knows bears. And lions, tigers, wolves, ostriches, beavers, raccoons…it’s a long list.

I’m sure they’re getting sick of me thanking them for the opportunities they’ve made available to me at Discovery Wildlife Park. It has been a great privilege to be granted such access to their animals and to continue to build relationships with the staff. Learning about the animals and their behaviour has been as rewarding as taking the photos.
Just like many of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park, Berkley is an ambassador for her species. Post-secondary Biology students are getting the opportunity to visit with her and watch her explore, just like I did. She is providing baseline health stats for a healthy Kodiak bear cub and will do so her whole life. She has already been trained to give urine and has started the training to give blood. That data is shared with universities and researchers to give them a better understanding of bear physiology, which will in turn help with populations in the wild.

I look forward to many more visits to the park and if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great place for families and there are education opportunities for all ages. Ask questions, even the uncomfortable ones, but please do so with respect. The keepers are more than willing to answer them.

Responsible wildlife sanctuaries offer many benefits. They provide homes for orphaned animals whose unfortunate circumstances prevent reintroduction into the wild. They provide valuable insight into behaviour and physiology that is often too difficult or unsafe to observe in the wild. And when people have an opportunity to see wildlife up close, it fosters more empathy, and instills in many a desire to protect them.

It certainly has in me.

Cheers,
Patrick
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!

Posted on

Time with Two Wolves (2 of 3)

(This is the second part of a three part post. To start at the beginning, here’s the link.)

After we put Tunk the skunk back in his kennel with his siblings, Serena (head zookeeper) asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day. I told her I was going to see my folks, deliver some prints, but other than that, I was free.

A photographer had booked a shoot with the wolves on Saturday, but ended up canceling at the last minute. Serena and her staff had done a fair bit of work setting it all up and were disappointed they weren’t going to be able to do it. She said that if I could come back just before closing at 7:00 that evening, I could have a shoot with Nissa and Lupé.

She basically sounded like she was apologizing for asking me to come back and help them, like it was a big inconvenience for me, which made me laugh. An unexpected private photo shoot with a couple of wolves? I don’t know. Let me check my schedule.

We checked to see if Denise (another keeper) was available that evening to ‘play’ as well, another indication how the keepers view their jobs. After they’re done working with the animals all day, they’re still up for more time with them in the evenings.

Photography shoots with education is something they’re looking at doing at Discovery Wildlife Park on a semi-regular basis in the future. For a fee, professional and amateur photographers alike can have the opportunity to learn from an instructor how to take better photos of wildlife. I will be one of the first in line to sign up.
Given that I’ve gotten to know the staff and they know what they can expect from me, they wanted to use me as a guinea pig for the area they’d staged for this sort of thing. My last two visits, I’ve found out that there is much more to this park than the area visitors use day to day. A large lush forested area in a wide gully on the west side of the property has a creek and other water features, big trees, and vegetation. It’s all fenced and the keepers can often take some of the animals out of their enclosures and let them run around on their own.

Kind of like an off-leash dog park for bears, wolves, beavers… you get the idea. It’s quite beautiful in there.

When I arrived back that evening, Denise was still with a small group of campers, giving them a behind-the-scenes tour with the big cats. That’s one of the bonuses of camping at Discovery Wildlife Park campground. For an added fee, you get extra opportunities for animal encounters that day visitors don’t get.

While we waited for Denise, Serena took me over to the staging area and walked me down into the gully from where I’d be shooting. There was a large long wire fence between the rest of the forested area and another large enclosure. It has a heavily forested brush area, a large pond, some big rock slabs they brought in, basically a number of assembled features that, while man-made, look very natural and appealing.

Serena told me that it would be the first time the wolves had ever been in there before, so it would be an exciting enrichment evening for them.

With the setup explained, we headed for the wolf enclosure. Lupé is a little nervous around strangers and is afraid of gates, so I was asked to stand back a fair distance while they got their leashes on and brought them out.

Nissa was happy to see me, but then she’s happy to see everybody. I was offered her chain leash, which I gladly accepted and I had to remind myself that she’s a wolf, because it was easy to feel like I was just walking a friendly dog. I could rub her fur, pet her, and when I crouched down and got close to her, she was eager to lick my face.

These wolves have been raised at the park since they were pups. While a bit more of a story to it, one they’ll be happy to share with you at the park, the short version is that they were orphans and Alberta Fish and Wildlife offered them to the park so they’d have a home.

We took the wolves to the enclosure where I broke off and went down to the path I’d been shown. Serena, Denise and the wolves went to the entrance at the other side of the enclosure. I didn’t think to take photos of the whole setup, but from my vantage point on the other side of the fence, I was looking at the pond and rock formations. Beyond that was the brush and forest which sloped up to the gully’s edge. The gate was up on that ridge across from me.

Like I said, big area.

Once inside, Serena and Denise let the wolves go, and then walked down the hill to the fence, where I waited on the other side. The wolves were already busy exploring this new environment.

Serena said, “Let’s just let them be wolves for a little while.”
After they had some time on their own, she called them using both her voice and an electronic tone, all part of the training they receive during their daily enrichment.

In the wild, animals are constantly searching for food and working at their own survival. In captivity, however, where all of their food and safety is provided, enrichment is an absolute necessity to keep them healthy. It provides them with challenges, problems to solve, and many opportunities for them to exercise their bodies and minds.

All of the training at the park is done by positive reinforcement, in the form of loud praises, play, and healthy food rewards.

While the bears and big cats have established marks that they go to, (a small plate of rock, a log, a platform) the wolves have been trained to choose their own and it’s fascinating to watch. On the command to ‘find a mark’ they each look around, decide for themselves, go to a spot and pose. They’ll often choose great spots, for which they are then rewarded, reinforcing that behaviour. If it’s an especially good mark, that spot will be reinforced as well.

They are also taught to lay down, crouch, jump for their reward, go fishing in the pond, and a number of other actions. Best of all, there is no doubt they’re enjoying themselves as Serena puts them through their paces.

I asked at one point what they would do if I came into the enclosure from my side of the fence. I knew I wouldn’t be in any danger as I’d already interacted with Nissa up close. Serena said I wouldn’t get any good photos because they’d just be interested in me and Nissa especially would just want to play with me. So from my side of the fence, with large enough wire spacing for me to get my lens through, I was able to get hundreds of shots without being a distraction to the wolves.

If I saw something I liked, I’d ask Serena if she could get one of the wolves to do it again. I could ask questions the whole time and Denise was taking just as many photos as I was, from her side of the fence. Because the wolves are so used to her, she wasn’t a distraction for them. I distracted her, however, by repeatedly asking, “which one is which, again?”

Nissa is lighter and fluffier, but it’s subtle.

My being a guinea pig amateur photographer let them try things and have a bit of a rehearsal without worrying they were wasting a client’s time and money. I also had no agenda and was happy to just be there, taking advantage of whatever situation popped up.

Sometimes photographers will go into a shoot like that with an idea of exactly what they want the wolves to do or with pre-planned shots they want. In my opinion, that’s a guaranteed way to miss out on the happy accidents, one of the wolves doing something special, resulting in a great shot that couldn’t have been anticipated.

Some of my best painting reference shots have been ones I didn’t expect to get.

I don’t know how long we were in the woods, but pretty sure it was more than an hour. Despite dousing myself in bug spray, it was hot and muggy and it didn’t last long. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so many bites and they were getting me right through my shirt. Mosquitoes love me and I get a strong reaction from bites. But it was worth it.

On the way out, Serena took some photos of me with Nissa and this was my favorite. I had to turn her head toward the camera because she kept licking my face.

And after putting a couple of happy wolves back in their enclosure, I was offered one more opportunity to be eaten alive by mosquitoes, which I happily accepted.

More on that, in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick

By the way, if you want to get up close and personal with Nissa and Lupé, Discovery Wildlife Park offers Adventure Packages, one of which is ‘Walk with Wolves.’ You can’t beat the price and included extras. You can find out more on their site.

Posted on

Berkley and the Bug

For more than twenty years, I’ve lived and camped in bear country. I’ve made it a point to be well educated about them, I carry bear spray and make noise while hiking, I know what to do should I see a grizzly or black bear and I keep a clean site when out camping in the mountains. I have never had a negative encounter with a bear and it bothers me a great deal when I hear of one being fed by tourists, hunted for a trophy, or killed on the highway or train tracks.

While bears have long been one of my favorite animals, I’ve also been afraid of them. When camping, I’ll most often end up lying awake in my tent for an hour or two before falling asleep, and if I wake up in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, I’m in and out of that tent pretty fast, and might lie awake for another hour listening to every little noise outside. Even though I’m well aware that if something wants to get me, a thin layer of nylon isn’t going to make much of a difference, but I’ve been operating under the, “if I can’t see it, it can’t see me,” perspective. Anxiety is rarely rational. Statistically speaking, I’m more likely to be injured by a distracted driver on the highway than I am by wildlife.

Despite this bear phobia, which is an amusing annoyance to my fellow campers, I still go out and enjoy the woods often.

This past May, on an annual first camping trip of the season at a favorite secluded lake in B.C., I slept soundly in my tent for three nights without worrying about bears at all, an unexpected surprise. Oh, they were out there, I’m sure, but my common sense seems to have finally overridden my bearanoia, and I credit that largely to my recent experiences at Discovery Wildlife Park.

I don’t like phobias. We’ve all got them, but I try to challenge mine whenever possible. So, over the past couple of years, I’ve paid for two behind-the-scenes bear encounters with their black bears and they were two of the best experiences of my life. These aren’t wild bears, they’re orphans who’ve been raised at this sanctuary. But they’re still bears, and to be inside the enclosures with them, to learn about them, to touch one of them, and even to feed one from a spoon and then a piece of apple from my mouth was exhilarating. My fascination displaced my fear.
As my prints are sold at Discovery Wildlife Park and I’ve gotten to know a number of keepers and staff over successive visits, I’ve developed a nice relationship with the park, one that I hope continues to grow for many years to come.

Earlier this spring, when their new Kodiak cub arrived, I was kidding/complaining over text messaging with the head keeper that with my schedule so busy at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to come up and take pictures of Berkley for at least a month or more after they opened a couple of weeks later. Much to my surprise and delight, I was invited to come up the next day so that I could take some photos of her, for a donation I was more than willing to pay. I wasn’t about to pass that up.
I’ve talked about that encounter in another blog post, so I won’t rehash it here, but it was wonderful. Even though Berkley crawled over me and played in the woods while I snapped photos, I know that it was a rare opportunity I won’t get again. She’s grown so much already that now only the keepers can interact directly with her, both for her safety and that of the guests of the park.
I wanted to paint her the way I got to see her that day, curious about everything, wide-eyed and playful, checking out all of the little wonders this new world has to offer her. There really wasn’t a ladybug there, of course, but I already take a lot of artistic license with my whimsical wildlife paintings, and it just seemed to fit this little bear cub.
Because the park has been so kind to me, granting me access to take photos so that I may paint many of their critters in my own style, I’m going to take this opportunity to give something back to them. This will be the first of what I hope will be many conservation donations in the future, to them and to other animal sanctuaries and facilities I’d like to support.

My initial plan was to do a limited edition print run and no others, but as I’ve already received interest about this painting from my retailers and licensees, I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I didn’t offer this painting as a regular print and licensed image. To be blunt, the more money I make as an artist, the more I can support the wildlife causes that matter to me.

With that in mind, this Berkley painting has gone for proofing and I’ll be ordering the first prints next week. From the first order, I’ll be offering TWENTY (20), 11″X14″ matted giclée prints at a special price with the lion’s share (bear’s share?) of the sales going to Discovery Wildlife Park.

And because I couldn’t support these causes without the people who support me, my newsletter subscribers will get the details first and an opportunity next week to place their orders. You can subscribe via this link.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see more of Berkley’s antics (and why wouldn’t you?!), you can follow Discovery Wildlife Park on Facebook where they’re posting regular videos and photos as she grows. If you’re in the Innisfail area or plan to be, you can visit the park and see Berkley in person, along with all of their other critters. She’s still young and sleeps a lot, but she appears at the bear show each day, where the head keeper Serena and her staff offer some valuable education about their bears and bears you might encounter in the wild. It’s also a great opportunity to see all of their bears up close.

Thanks for being here.

Patrick

EDIT: All twenty prints mentioned in this post have been sold.

Posted on

All About The Jags

One of the unexpected, but welcome consequences of painting my whimsical wildlife images is my growing interest in learning more about the animals I paint.

Initially, my first concern was finding enough reference. For that I relied on generous photographer friends and stock photos. As time has worn on, I’ve found that I quite enjoy taking my own photos as it makes me feel more connected to the painting from start to finish.

In keeping with that theme, I’ve been spending more time on wildlife excursions, at the Calgary Zoo and at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail.

Last year, I went on two behind-the-scenes…well, I’m just going to call them adventures…with their lion cubs Griffen and Zendaya. I’ve painted Zendaya, but have yet to paint Griffen and might wait until his full mane comes in. Right now, he looks a little like a teenager with awkward hair issues.

This year, the focus of my park visits has been on black bears and I’ve had two memorable behind-the-scenes visits. I’m saving that part of this story for another post.

I’ve been getting to know the keepers pretty well and I am obviously not making too much of a nuisance of myself or doing the wrong things, because after my time with the bears, I’ve twice been invited behind the scenes with their jaguars. It was great to get closer than usual to take pictures and to learn more about their care. Who’s going to say No to an offer like that?
smmiapose

smmagnumposeDiscovery Wildlife Park is home to two jaguars, Mia and Magnum, brothers born and raised at the Park. Magnum is black, Mia has the stereotypical spotted pattern, and both are beautiful animals.

In July, I got to see how the jags are trained and witnessed their claws being trimmed. Training any animal with positive reinforcement requires plenty of patience and skill. With auditory signals and clickers, verbal commands, repetition and reward, I watched as each jaguar ran over to a specific spot by the fence, and put his paw through a small opening for inspection. When the behaviour was performed correctly, he’d be given a reward of a piece of meat on the end of a stick.

smmagnumclawsThe keepers can go into the enclosures with many of the animals, including the lions and bears, but nobody goes in with the jaguars. All of the training is done through a chain link fence, which I find even more impressive.

While you might think the purpose of learning tricks is to entertain people, the real benefit of training is best seen when it comes to the health and well-being of the animals. Teaching them new tricks, hiding things for them to find, and changing up their environment is all part of their enrichment. This kind of stimulation keeps them mentally fit.

But it also makes caring for their physical well-being much more efficient. Rather than tranquilizing an animal on a regular basis for a health checkup, they’ve made showing up for inspection another learned behaviour, a routine they get used to. This leads to a long and healthy life because any problems can be caught early and remedied.
smmiaclawsWhile his claws were being trimmed on my first visit with them, I noticed that Mia had a broken tooth. The head zookeeper, Serena, has explained to me that the jaguars have to open their mouths for inspection twice a day just to make sure everything is OK. In early April, it was not. There were no indications that he was in any pain, but Mia was scheduled for a root canal in July.
smtoothproblemI had planned to write this post after that first experience, but got sidetracked and never got around to it. In hindsight, I’m glad I waited, because I get to share how it all turned out.

Last week, I had an exciting time taking more pictures for my upcoming Black Bear Totem but also got to go behind the scenes with the jaguars again!

I had forgotten about the broken tooth until Serena produced a toothbrush on the end of a stick while training Mia. He had been taken to The Calgary Zoo during the summer and that’s where the root canal had been performed. Everything went well, but now Mia must have the area around that tooth brushed three times each week in order to keep food, hair and other debris from causing any problems.
smsurgery-2
smsurgery-1
The benefit of training is clearly evident in that Mia will open his mouth for Serena to get in there with the toothbrush and then another keeper will reward the behaviour with a piece of meat. From Mia’s perspective, he’s just learned another trick. As they had allowed me to get right up next to the fence, I was able to watch this procedure closer to a jaguar’s mouth than will ever be comfortable, but it was thrilling.
smmiateethclean
smmiarewardNo word on whether or not Mia will learn to floss anytime soon. I’ll keep you posted.

As anybody who has ever had a sick pet knows, you usually see a positive change in their demeanor once they’ve been treated. I asked Serena about this, and she said the vet had forecast that as well, but Mia hadn’t shown any initial behaviour changes, so they appear to have caught it before it had given him any real pain in the first place. All thanks to the training.

It’s true that my relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park over the past year and a half has been out of the ordinary and you might think the best result of that would be all of the up close and personal reference photos I’ve been able to get for my paintings. Yes, that has been great.

But what I’ve enjoyed most about visiting the Park is all that I’ve learned. The keepers have been generous with their time and while I’ve been respectful, I’ve asked plenty of direct questions about animals in captivity, why the need for training, the meaning of different behaviours and their overall care. With every question I’ve asked, I’ve been given straightforward answers, ones that satisfy not only my curiosity, but also give me the confidence that I’m supporting a facility that has the best welfare in mind for the animals in their care.

If you haven’t been, I would recommend a visit. I plan to return often.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the individual zookeepers for generously sharing their time and knowledge with me. Serena, Mari, Denise, you’re aces. Thanks so much.
smmagnumfaceIf you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.  Thanks!