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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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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.
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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.
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The Ultimate Bear Experience

SunshineIn December of last year, I received an email from Discovery Wildlife Park telling me about the Ultimate Bear Experience. A rare opportunity to “spend 4 hours with our black bears and our zookeepers. Feed, train and get to know each bear personally!”

For adults only, a limit of five spots, I booked quickly and was confirmed for the date seven months later. I have been looking forward to it ever since.

As of last year, I’ve become a regular visitor to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. I did the behind the scenes tour with the lion cubs twice last year as I knew it wouldn’t be offered again once they’d grown. Having seen them again this week, I’m glad I took advantage of it as those kitties got big! In October, I was granted a short photo shoot with GusGus the beaver and those photos resulted in my latest painting, which is already proving popular. My prints are now available in their gift shop this year as well.

Incidentally, I showed GusGus his painting on Thursday. Clearly, not a fan.
GusGusWhile I was sure the bear experience was going to be enjoyable and educational, I didn’t know what would be involved and was pleasantly surprised that it exceeded my expectations. Not only did we get close access to the bears, but one of the keepers was snapping photos the whole time, so in addition to my own pics, I was given theirs as well, a nice record of the day. Considering some of the great things we got to do, my camera would have been in the way during those times I wanted my attention on the bears.
BearShitWe began with raking and shoveling bear poop, something that is done every day by the keepers. After that, we stuck fresh cut branches of varying sizes into the ground around the enclosures while the bears were ‘loaded up.’ This means they were in their adjacent pens, a substitute for a den and safe place for them, much like how your dog feels safe in his kennel.
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Planting01We were given peanut butter and honey that we smeared on logs, leaves and branches around the enclosure. Just a little bit, enough to pique the bears’ interest. The purpose of this exercise is enrichment. By introducing new things into the enclosures on a regular basis, it gives the bears something to do. In the wild, a bear’s time is consumed with finding food. In captivity, enrichment provides them with stimulation through interesting things to explore, directly contributing to their overall mental and physical health.
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LittleBear01After we left the enclosure, the bears were released and we were able to see the results of our efforts. Sure enough, they were eager to check out the new digs. They manipulated the branches, sniffed out the little food smears, and were genuinely interested and engaged with what we had done. I had plenty of time to take pictures of the results.
GroupFor the rest of the time, we moved from one bear to the next. A couple of them live together, others on their own. I had expected to only be exposed to them with a chain link fence between us, so I was pleasantly surprised when we were able to step inside a few times. The only separation between our group and the bear was an electric fence, similar to one you’d find around a cattle pasture. Nothing that can hurt the bear, just annoying enough to create a barrier they learn to avoid.
ToesWe had a chance to reinforce some of their training, spoon feed a favorite treat of avocado, and when I mentioned that a large reason for doing this was to challenge my bear phobia, the head zookeeper decided to ‘take it up a notch’ and brought out the apple pieces. The result you can see below, a wonderful experience I won’t ever forget.
RenoPat01smDuring our time with the keepers, I asked a lot of questions about captivity, the training, and the overall health of the bears living the way they do. I’ve had the back and forth arguments of conscience that many animal lovers have when it comes to wildlife in captivity. Is it cruel? Is it necessary? Would these animals be better off in the wild?

Some people have asked me how I can support zoos with my artwork and accuse me of selling out at the expense of the animals. In our social media ‘judge first, ask questions later’ culture, I’m used to this and dismiss that sort of thing. It’s not worth my time to argue with people who are more interested in telling you their opinion than having an intelligent discussion.

What people often fail to do is ask questions, in order to examine both sides of the argument. From what I’ve learned so far, I believe that animals in captivity, with the proper oversight and safeguards in place, offer valuable insight, especially when it comes to research, conservation and species at risk. Exposure to wildlife fosters empathy, especially in children. That empathy will hopefully later translate to a greater consideration for the world around us, something of which is currently in short supply.

Without going into great detail, I am personally satisfied that Discovery Wildlife Park is doing right by the animals in their care. Most are orphans or rescues and the only life they’ve known is at the park. Had they remained in the wild, they would have died. Returning them to the wild would have the same result. The life expectancy of an animal in captivity receiving top notch care and enrichment far exceeds that of one in the wild.

One thing is clear to me about this facility. These animals are loved. While the chain link fence separated us from the bears, the keepers were able to move about freely with them. In many cases, they’ve raised them and all of the training has been through positive reinforcement. I’d like to talk more about the reason for the training, but will save that for another post.

The facilities are clean, well maintained and the enclosures are large. For some of their animals, their spaces appear smaller, but from asking questions, I found out that there’s a good reason for that.

I’m a sucker for animals and when I see one hurt, injured or abused, it bothers me a great deal. I would not be able to support this park if I thought any of their practices were harming the animals that live there.

I plan to return often.
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Gorilla Totem

GorillaTotemFinalHere’s my latest painting and newest addition to the Totem series.

I started this at the end of October but didn’t get far on it, as I had pet portrait commissions and editorial cartoons taking priority. The bulk of that logjam was cleared last week and I was happy to get back to working on one of my own paintings. As much as I welcome and enjoy commission work, my own work has a lot more freedom to it, as there are no client instructions or details to keep in mind.

If I had nothing else to do, I’m pretty sure I could get one of these done in a couple of days. In fact, I’d love to have a year with nothing to do but paint the animals I enjoy most. But, I guess that’s everybody’s dream, isn’t it? No obligations but the bills still paid would certainly be the ideal. That’s likely why so many hope for retirement one day.

On that front, I often think of one of my favorite artists, Drew Struzan, who has painted some of the most iconic movie art of our time. If memory serves, he has tried to retire a few times, but he keeps doing work when his favorite clients come to call, if he feels like it. I like that. I don’t run well on idle and likely won’t ever retire. I’ll just paint what I like.

GorillaTotemCloseI took a lot of reference photos this year, some in the wild, but most at The Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park. Some of the shots were sought out for upcoming paintings, others were happy accidents where an opportunity presented itself and I got the photos I needed. This Gorilla Totem is the result of the latter.

Had I planned ahead for this painting, I might have chosen the classic Silverback to paint. An imposing figure with great presence, I’ve no doubt I would have been pleased with the result. But this lady was looking at me through the glass one day and when I brought the camera up, she appeared even more interested. Whether it was her own reflection in the lens or mere curiosity, I happily snapped away until she moved on. The glass was dirty and at an odd angle, the light was poor with annoying reflections, but I managed, and was pleasantly surprised with the results.
GorillaTotem13HDI’ve said before that I might hang on to reference for some time before getting around to painting an animal, waiting for the moment to seem right. That’s why I chose the gorilla over others currently waiting in the wings. It was just the right time. This was painted on the Wacom Cintiq 13HD, 24HD in Adobe Photoshop CC, with photos only used for reference.

Starting another Totem today as there are a few I’d like to get done before the end of the year.

Thanks for stopping by.
Patrick.

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Summing Up Summer

Muse
The Bad

My cat died. Still miss her, still expect to see her, and still think about her a lot, though it doesn’t hurt as much as it did. No guilt, though. She got a ton of love her whole life and in the end, she just got old. It happens. It sucks.

HeraldThe fiasco with the Calgary Zoo and Safari Club International. To recap, I stated publicly that I could not support the zoo if they allowed SCI to hold their fundraising event there. That meant no more visits or selling my prints there, but it was contrary to my core values and I couldn’t get past it. The Calgary Herald read my blog post and asked to reprint it, which led to a lot of support, but plenty of nasty emails and comments as well. It was a jarring experience, one that I took personally and there were some pretty low days afterward. Who keeps feeding the trolls? Why aren’t they dead yet?

Art is a luxury and the Canadian economy has been taken out at the knees this year. When people are losing their jobs, the last thing they prioritize is paintings of funny looking animals. I get that and thankfully, editorial cartooning still pays a lot of the bills and we’re in a federal election. Make hay while the sun shines, even if it’s on the backs of lying, thieving, no good politicians. Hardly going to lose the house, but it’s been a bit of a down year. After so many good ones, I guess I was due.

Midlife crisis, existential angst, whatever you want to call it, this frickin’ thing never seems to end. Meaning of life stuff, what’s the point of it all, does all of this effort really matter in the end? I now know now why this ridiculous cliché exists, because it’s a harsh reality, too. A study out of the UK in 2008 reported that 44 is statistically the lowest year of a person’s life. I’m going to agree with that. Add that to my garden variety OCD and anxiety issues, which everybody says they understand, but really don’t. Trust me, nobody hates being around a downer more than the person who actually IS the downer. Shonna’s riding it out, clearly enduring some of the latter of the ‘better or worse’ contract. Haven’t caught her putting arsenic in my rum yet and I still have a couple of friends left…I think.

But hey, if you believe the stats in that report, it’s an upward swing from here, which means it’s an uphill climb, too. Damn these deep dark holes.

The Good

What, you didn’t think it would be ALL whining, did you? This summer had plenty of bright spots, too.

BearCintiq
I’ve been doing a lot more painting this year, hoping to have twice the content I’ll need for the book deadline in July. Between the writing and artwork, I want it to be the best effort I can muster, so my funny looking animals have been the priority. Despite the economy, I’ve been turning down work that isn’t in line with that goal, focusing on the long game. I’ve wanted to do a book for years, and have no illusions of imaginary riches. With Renegade Arts Entertainment publishing it, it’s no longer a what-if or maybe-someday. It’s put-up-or-shut-up.

OtterCase
A few new shirts coming soon from The Mountain, a new licensing deal with DecalGirl, with more in the works, and I’m trying to get my prints into other venues in Canada. Best of all, just this week, Safari Club International pulled out of their event at the zoo and I received another print order that very day. I plan to go back on Monday to deliver the order and take plenty of pictures. Being able to take a stand and not have to suffer long for it, I feel like I got to have my cake and eat it, too.

Managed to squeeze in a few camping trips this year, which is three more than last year. Each had their high points and I’ll be making the same effort to get away from the desk and tech next year. The weather was all over the place this summer, so I didn’t hike as often as I would have liked, but I got out whenever I could, camera at the ready.

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Visiting Discovery Wildlife Park this year was wonderful, especially getting a behind the scenes experience with the lion cubs. The first visit was so enjoyable that I went back and did it again, taking plenty of photos on both visits and I’ve already used some as reference for paintings. I’m planning to go back one more time before they close around the middle of next month.

If you had told me ten years ago that many of my waking hours (and more than a few of my sleeping ones) would be spent preoccupied with wildlife, I would have been surprised. Whether it’s taking pictures, sketching, or painting, these funny looking animals seem to have taken up residence in every corner of my life. There is a feeling of momentum with this work, that rather than cruising, I’m still accelerating. Where it will take me, I have no idea, but I’m looking forward to it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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A Trio of Ostriches

PaintingSomething about painting these animals of mine with the intention of printing and selling them is that I can become a little too focused on the end result and forget why I started creating them in the first place, which was for the simple joy of it. I’ll often go through my now very extensive, but neatly organized folders full of animal photos, looking for inspiration for the next piece. While there are plenty of animals I’ve got pics for and have yet to paint, it’s a matter of timing. Certain animal paintings just happen when the mood strikes me, when it’s just their time. I’ve had some pics for years before I’ve gotten around to using them for a painting.

Even though I’ve painted an ostrich before, part of my Totem series, and despite the fact that it’s one my best selling prints, I found myself looking at some recent ostrich pics I took at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail and others I’d taken at the Calgary Zoo. I just love the attitude of these animals. It’s completely unjustified, but they always seem two seconds away from bristling at whatever imagined indignity is confronting them. Kind of like a cross between, “how dare you?!” and “don’t you know who I am?”

At the Calgary Zoo, the ostriches and zebras share an enclosure. While I was taking photos one day, a zebra made his way toward me, clearly with the intent of eating some of the hay by the fence. To get there, he (or she, can’t remember) had to walk between two ostriches and their reaction made me laugh out loud. They quickly backed away, hissed at the zebra and their body language indicated that they were offended at this worst of possible slights and invasion of their personal space. The zebra seemed to be used to all of this and just ambled through without giving them a second glance. It was pretty amusing.
CloseupWhile looking at the reference pics, I realized that there were plenty of other animals I could have painted right now to add to my menagerie of marketable prints, but in the end, I just wanted to paint some more ostriches. I might have painted them all looking angry and indignant, but I just went with what I felt while working on them. There’s a trace of that attitude in there, especially in the one on the right, but to me, they just seem to be a trio of ridiculous looking goofs. Whatever you see in them is right for you, of course.

For some reason, it also reminds me of three awkward teenage kids being forced to pose together for a family portrait.

This was a lot of fun and while I doubt I’ll be painting more ostriches in the near future, you never can tell. I didn’t expect to be painting these three. This was painted in Photoshop CC 2015 on both the Wacom Cintiq 13HD and 24HD displays, with photos used only for reference.

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