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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

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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
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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.

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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.

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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?
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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.
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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!

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Gusgus the Beaver

Gusgus004For a number of years, I’ve relied on many of my talented photographer friends for reference pics for my paintings. I’ve either paid them, traded prints, and in a few cases, I simply remain in their debt, ready for the day they call in that favour. In all cases, however, I have been appreciative of their willingness to share their art so that I could create my own.

In recent years, however, I have found that taking my own reference pictures has not only helped me get specific shots I require, but I’m also enjoying it a great deal. Many times an accidental encounter will provide inspiration and opportunity to create a painting I hadn’t planned on. In other cases, I intentionally seek out the chance to take photos of a specific critter. There are some reference pics that reside in my files for years before I get around to painting them, waiting for the time to seem right. In other cases, I spend years trying to get the right photo reference for an animal I’ve been itching to paint.

On that point, I’ve been trying to get reference photos of a beaver, so that I could finally paint this noble icon of Canadian culture. I’ve tried to get the shots in the wild, and even hung out around beaver dams a few times, camera at the ready. After the restraining order, however, I’m not allowed to do that anymore. Who knew that beavers had lawyers?

This past spring and summer, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail a few times. I had the foresight to buy an annual pass on my first visit as I had a feeling I would be returning. They’re open May 1st to October 12th and have quite a large area of land with a wide variety of enclosures for the diverse species they care for.

Some of these animals are orphans, others are rescues, but all are well cared for from what I’ve seen and read. From their own site, “Our goal is to provide our visitors the opportunity to bond with our animals and have a positive experience. Visitors leave with a greater understanding and appreciation of the diversity of life on our planet and, hopefully, the determination to do all they can to help conserve and protect all species and their habitats.”

A number of these animals are trained; some even appear in television commercials and movies. The training allows for easier care because the animals are used to their handlers and is also a form of enrichment for them. On the two occasions I’ve taken the behind-the-scenes tour with the lion cubs, Griffin and Zendaya, the close relationship with the keepers has been clearly evident.

I’ve asked plenty of questions during my visits and none have been dismissed or dodged. While some zoos try to maintain as close a habitat to wild as they can, and limit human exposure, this park does not. It is a different approach to conservation and education than that employed by a traditional zoo. When people are exposed in person to animals they might only see on TV or in movies, it fosters empathy for them. Children who grow up with compassion for animals will look at their world with those eyes and want to protect the creatures upon it. At least that is my personal hope.

With the end of the season fast approaching, I made arrangements with Serena Bos, the head zookeeper, to take some private photos of one of their resident beavers. I had asked about it during my last visit in the summer, but that’s their busy time and people pay to have their photos taken with him daily. That money goes back into the operation of the zoo and care of the animals. It was suggested that I try again in the fall and she would try to make it happen for me, for a fee of course, which I was happy to pay.
Gusgus003With the promise of fifteen minutes of his time, Serena and Barret, (another keeper I’ve met on previous visits), brought him out to his usual perch and I felt like a little kid at Christmas. Spending up close and personal time with any of these animals, however brief, just makes me happy.

They were going to try and have Gusgus face opposite to his usual photo-op direction in order to get better light, but he started to fuss about it and I said I’d work with him however he was most comfortable. These photos are for reference, so imperfect lighting isn’t a problem as long as I get the anatomy, detail and the pose I want.

With Gusgus, I got all of that and more. They had a tray of fresh veggies for him to gnaw on and he eagerly reached for them. As a trained animal, he would sit up when called upon to do so, I’d snap some pics and he’d get a treat, chattering away the whole time. I don’t think he stopped making noise during the shoot and I realized I didn’t know what a beaver sounded like until then.
Gusgus001As it was a quiet sunny day, Serena and Barret were in no hurry to put Gusgus back in his enclosure and he seemed to be quite content, so I got more than the fifteen minutes I was expecting. I asked a bunch of questions and learned a few more things about the park and some of Gusgus’ on-camera work. When I got home and downloaded the pics, I found myself grinning from ear to ear.

With dozens of shots to choose from, I’m looking forward to this painting more than ever. The hardest part will be choosing the best shots to work from. I’ve even got a few pics of the goofy grinning artist and his subject, for my own memory of the experience.

I will be buying another annual membership to Discovery Wildlife Park next year and plan to visit as often as I can. If you live near or plan to be in the area, I would encourage you to do the same. This season, they’re open until the day after Thanksgiving, so still a few more days to check it out. With the weekend forecast calling for sunny days and warm temps, it would be a perfect time to go.

To Serena and Barret, thanks again for being so accommodating and for the work you do with the animals. I look forward to seeing you and them again.

(by the way, if you want to see Gusgus as a baby, here’s a link to an article from 2010. So frickin’ cute).
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The Owls of Grassi Lakes

FinalHere’s my latest painting, entitled, “One in Every Family.”   In this case, it’s a family of Great Horned Owls that I had the privilege of watching for a few weeks in June.

Grassi Lakes here in Canmore is a short hike and easily accessible. It’s usually quite busy on weekends and during the summer, but if you get there early and take the difficult route (not that difficult), you meet relatively few people on the way up. If memory serves, it’s about a 20 minute hike one way, at a brisk pace.

The lakes themselves aren’t large, two connected ponds really. The attraction is their emerald colour. Seemingly iridescent blues and greens make for a very nice scene and it’s a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Some benches, bridges and reinforced paths, and on one side of the far lake, you find a large rock face which is actually a fossilized Devonian coral reef. It’s also a popular climbing wall.

From the Wikipedia entry, the lakes “are named after Lawrence Grassi, an Italian miner who emigrated to Canada in 1912. After working with the Canadian Pacific Railway for several years he worked in the Canmore coal mines. Grassi also become a well-respected climbing guide as well as building many trails in the area including one to the Grassi Lakes which also bear his name.”

Grassi Lakes is great when I don`t have a lot of time, but still want to get some exercise. It’s picturesque, an interesting trail and at the lakes themselves, there is plenty of opportunity to take photos of Golden Mantle Ground Squirrels, a favorite critter of mine.

In the middle of last month, I was up at the lakes happily snapping pics of a ground squirrel when a woman came over to me and asked quietly, “Have you seen the owls?”

When I said that I hadn’t, she pointed across the lake to the rock wall. About 40 feet up is a little cave and sitting atop one of the rocks was a big Great Horned Owl. I thanked her and moved around the lake for a better look and with my camera at full zoom, I was able to see the owl very clearly. I could also see an owlet that until then had just looked like another rock. The camouflage was perfect.
003As it’s a provincial park, I wasn’t surprised to see an obvious red sign chained into the wall at ground level below the cave. I never actually went to read it, but somebody told me it was a warning that this particular climbing route was closed for the protection of the owls. Climbers were on the wall, but all were giving the nest a wide berth.

Over the next few weeks, I went back up to Grassi Lakes with a pair of binoculars (that I happily shared with interested tourists) and a tripod for the camera.   I took well over a thousand photos, most of them at full zoom, and probably ending up keeping a couple of dozen. Great for reference, not so much for print, but since I hadn’t planned on that; I was very pleased with the results.  The owls seemed to have no concern at the people watching from below and it usually took a raven or other bird flying by to capture their interest, although the little ones did seem fascinated by a couple of dogs splashing in the lake on one occasion.
002While I’ve painted a Great Horned Owl before, I honestly didn’t know much about them. With plenty of information online, I learned a great deal about what I was seeing, including the family dynamic, the breeding season, how long the owlets would stay with the parents…the info is easily found if you Google it.

During my visits, I was able to watch their behavior, saw both the male and female parents (the female is larger) and the two owlets. Both of them grew very fast and by my fifth visit, they looked quite a bit larger and their feathers had changed to look more like their parents and less like the fuzzy little balls of fluff that they are in the painting. They grew braver and started venturing out further along the rocks away from the cave, were actively hopping and flapping their wings, practicing their calls and mimicking their father, who seemed to spend the most time with them. A real joy to watch.

004On my sixth visit, I didn’t see them at all. A friend had said she didn’t see them the day before, either. Judging by what I’d read, my assumption is that they had learned to fly and although they do stay near the nest until the fall, my guess is that they’re also exploring their surroundings and learning to hunt. I don’t think I can expect to see the whole family hanging about the nest any longer, so I stopped going to see them.

Some locals have mentioned that the mating pair returns to that cave each year, as Great Horned Owls mate for life. The fact that I’ve never seen them before means I probably just wasn’t paying attention to that part of the wall on previous visits and they’re not obvious. I’m looking forward to next spring to see if they return and raise new young. A family of owls in the wild was a treat.

Initially, I was just going to do a few sketch paintings and move on. I started out with one of the adult male looking angry at some ravens that were harassing the nest, then another of one of the owlets trying out his lungs. The noise was truly pitiful and I laughed out loud while watching it.  Finally, I added the sibling to the initial owlet sketch painting, looking surprised. After that, I knew I was going to paint the whole family and that it would be a finished piece.  All of the sketch paintings and the final painting were done in Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq display.

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007Maybe it’s because I’m a cartoonist and have this need to imbue animals with human characteristics, but watching the family interaction, I could imagine what was being said between the owlets and the parents. At one point, all of them sleeping in the sunshine, one of the owlets suddenly fluffed up and excitedly ruffled his wings. The father woke up suddenly, turned sharply to the owlet, and made some noises. I could have sworn he was saying, “Hey! Stop screwing around!”

I like to think that’s also his expression in the painting.

This whole experience was a real thrill and I think I’ll try painting more scenes like this, featuring other animals.  I’ve already got one in mind but likely won’t get to it right away. I’ve already got the reference, though, so you never know.

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Pre-orders are available for an 11″X14″ matted giclée print of “One in Every Family” until August 30th and they will be shipped in the latter half of September.  For more information or to order, follow this link.  Exshaw, Banff, and Canmore residents, please order by email for free delivery.