“They seem to be arriving and leaving at the same time, halfway in and halfway out of the world.” That’s my impression of the wild horses I photographed for the exhibition “Ghosts of the Great Basin,” opening October 21st at the Utah Art Festival Gallery in Salt Lake City.
American wild horses (more accurately termed feral horses or mustangs) endure a tenuous existence and uncertain future. People brought these horses to the country’s wilds, yet we saddle them with a love/hate relationship. There are far too many for the land, as we manage it, to support, yet our will to make decisions about them wavers. They are truly in limbo, as pointed out recently in a New York Times story.
Mustangs overpopulate their American ranges by up to 10,000 horses today, and we provide extra water and food for their survival. They are efficient competitors for resources with livestock and wild game, which generates some criticism. But to many, they are simply beautiful, inspirational free spirits.
In addition to the wild herds, there are 40,000 more in captive holding pens in the Midwest. Some are adopted, but that is not a solution because it is much easier to raise a domestic horse. They depend on humans to exist, yet we don’t know what to do with them.
The reality is that of about 70,000 feral Mustangs, we are warehousing about 1/3 of them on the range, and 2/3 in captivity, and none of them are truly wild. Another story of hurting the ones we love.
Gallery stroll and artists’ reception — 6:00-9:00 pm, October 21st, 230 S. 500 W., Salt Lake City. Details at the Utah Art Festival Gallery website.
Many of our so-called domesticated animals are quite happy to call it quits with people and return to wildness if given the chance. So it is with horses. The western US states host as many as 30,000 feral animals making up several hundred herds. All of them are the descendants of domestic horses that escaped their confines as long as 200 years ago. They are so successful roaming remote deserts and rangeland that their population is a problem, outstripping their resources. They would damage environments and starve if not for soft-hearted Americans who prop them up with food and water. We cannot bring ourselves to see them hurt, even though managing them becomes ever more expensive.
The Onaqui Mountain group of perhaps 200 horses lives in western Utah’s Great Basin, within sight of the salt pans of the Great American Desert. Despite our desire to see them romantically as bold, strong, free-spirited masters of nature, their existence is tenuous in every direction. We may run out of time and money to manage them, or just tire of the task. If left on their own, the next drought will mow them down like desert grass. There are too many to adopt. As I looked over these photographs in the light of their uncertain future, they seemed to be ephemeral and ghost-like, and that is why I chose to make them glow. They seem to be arriving and leaving at the same time, halfway in and halfway out of the world.
Old termite mounds are the favorite perches of cheetahs as they scan the savannah for lunch. If you want to find a cheetah, that’s where to look. Young male cheetahs like to hunt in family groups before they find their first mates, after which they usually become solitary. These three at Masai Mara in Kenya are possibly brothers, cooperating in the hunt now but later to become competitors. (Pricing Schedule D)
I happened upon this busy member of the weasel family on a trail near Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National park. It was around dawn and he seemed to be finishing up a night of hunting, looking for one more snack. Martens scour the forest for rodents, birds, eggs, snakes, anything — it’s all fair game. This Pine Marten was oblivious to me and led me on a crazy route up and down trees, in and out of hollow logs, even digging through layers of pine needles looking for a juicy insect. His high-energy quest wore me out in no time, but fortunately I came away with a good shot. Pine Martens are cute, of course, and a smaller close relative, the ferret, is widely kept as a pet. (Pricing Schedule F)
Zebra are very smart. When the southern Serengeti herds migrate north in late spring, following the fresh grass, tens of thousands of zebra lead the way. Among the migrating herds, they seem to have the best memory of routes and river crossings. They are also polite. At river crossings, where crocodiles lie waiting, zebra always remember to let the wildebeest go first.
To many people, it seems that zebras got a bad deal from nature with that bold, black-and-white striped coat, so easily seen in the savannah. That is very puzzling to scientists because it seems to be a great advertisement to predators. Years of research threw out one idea after another until they finally hit on the answer — flies. The particular width, contrast and patterns of zebra stripes confuses biting flies and make it hard for them to land on a zebra. Nature has great ideas. (Pricing Schedule F)
This photo of sandpipers at the California shore is probably the oldest digital image on my site, going back to my first tentative steps with the earliest digital cameras. The images were awful compared to film cameras — noisy, vignetted, low resolution — and we thought they were wonderful even though they were usually unusable.
This shot is different, however, because of it’s tonal simplicity of bright reflections and dark silhouettes and not much in between. And beyond that, it does seem to evoke the mood of the moment — busy little birds, flitting along the waterline in unison, a coordinated feeding machine. Definitely, this experiment worked. (Price Schedule F)
Komodo Dragons, the world’s largest monitor lizards, are princes of popular animal horror, perhaps a close third to sharks and poisonous snakes. With nasty teeth and a plodding, determined pursuit of their prey, they seem to be the closest thing we have to living dinosaurs. They are not venomous, contrary to popular myth, but their bite transmits large bacteria loads to their prey. They can bring down a large water buffalo with a bite, following it for a month until it drops from disease.
They range much further than their namesake Komodo Island, to many other Indonesian island include the large island of Flores. On my visit to Rinca Island, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the malevolent Komodo Dragon on the march, but wasn’t certain if I would even find one. Fortunately, with the help of a good guide with a big stick, I found all I could ask for. This big female with the constantly probing tongue seemed especially menacing. (Pricing Schedule G)
Hyenas suffer from bad PR. Images of merciless pack hunters moving through the night — glowing eyes, strange cries, and fetid scavenging — haven’t endeared them to humans. Yet, they are conscientious parents, they play an important role in their ecosystems, and — surprise — they are one of the few matriarchal societies among predators.
This female hyena popped up in the tall grass and wildflowers at Ngorongoro Crater, backlit by a hazy sun. She gave me time to shoot only one frame and was away, looking back over her shoulder to see who had disturbed her nap. (Pricing Schedule F)
Conservation experts report that within 10 years, there may be no more elephants left in Kenya. The overwhelming reason is poaching motivated by the illicit China ivory market. Chinese culture has prized ivory carving for centuries and has developed a huge industry of artisans and markets. Elaborate carved ivory gifts are a favorite of Asian business and government leaders. The well-documented Chinese business invasion of Africa has provided cover for the accelerated poaching and export of illicit ivory, hence the dire predictions.
Meanwhile, recent decades of animal behavior research is placing the elephant among the most intelligent and sentient non-humans. They exhibit complex social behaviors including cooperation, altruism and grief. There is a popular belief the elephants are the only non-human animals that shed tears, however that has not been documented well. But who could blame them if they did? (Pricing Schedule G)
It’s good to be king, but close to the last Hurrah! for this old male lion, enthroned on a windy hill in Tanzania’s Serengeti Reserve. His blunt teeth and his long, dark mane give away his advanced age, and his days as alpha cat are over. This shot was taken in 2007; certainly he is long gone by now. (Pricing Schedule G)
The black rhinoceros is rare; only 2,500 existed at time of this photo. All live in protected areas such as wildlife reserves, national parks, and zoos around the world. They used to roam Botswana by the hundreds, but now only a dozen remain in that nation. Two out of them are at the Khama Rhino Reserve near Serowe, along with 25 or so white rhinoceros. The blacks can be hard to encounter because they favor dense brush habitats rather than open country.
I had staked out this waterhole at Khama one evening hoping one of the white rhinos might amble into the scene, when one of the blacks trundled out of the brush for a sip. What an experience as he came between me and the sun just at the moment it set! I was so captivated and focused on the viewfinder, I barely realized how close he was. I was fortunate that rhinos have terrible eyesight…one of my luckier days, in more ways than one. (Pricing Schedule A)