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Prints and Prep for The Calgary Expo Holiday Market

Posted November 19th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Prints and Prep for The Calgary Expo Holiday Market

With the Calgary Holiday Expo next weekend, I’m busy preparing my prints and booth hardware, wondering once again if I’ll be able to get it all in the car. It’s a valid concern, especially when I change things up, as I always do.

A few years ago, this sort of thing was a significant source of stress, as it adds quite a few hours of work to an already busy week of the usual deadlines. This time, however, it just feels like business as usual, which is a pleasant surprise.

I have a spreadsheet checklist of things I need to bring and everything I had to order has arrived with plenty of time to spare. As expected, the more you do something, the easier it gets.

The only thing that could throw a wrench into the gears is bad weather, poor sales, and myriad other unexpected possibilities, none of which I can do anything about. Usually I’d worry about it anyway, but this week, I’m not.

As my grid wall setup is changing yet again, I will spend an afternoon tomorrow or Tuesday setting everything up in the garage, just to address any issues ahead of time. It’s not a task I look forward to, but one I think is necessary, given that I don’t want to find out I’m missing something on setup day. I’d hate to have to give up a good parking space to make a run to Staples or Canadian Tire.

Now that I’m using a new printer for my giclée works, I have to order larger numbers to keep my costs down. Instead of ordering 5 prints of a particular painting, I have to order a minimum of 20. This means more of an investment each time, likely holding on to prints for a longer period of time.

For example, I don’t expect to sell 30 Smiling Tigers next weekend, but likely more than 10. Since I only had 9 left in stock, I had to place an order and now have 29. I had to stock up in similar fashion for a number of my better selling prints, which means when looking at overall numbers; I have a couple hundred more than I need.

That does make me a little nervous, because it means I’ve invested money now that I normally wouldn’t have until later. On the positive side, however, prints don’t expire when cared for properly.

After completing a full print inventory and swallowing hard at the total, I have twice as many individual images in stock than I’d like. Between 8X10s, canvas, acrylic, poster and matted, I have prints of 45 different animals. On one hand, that’s an impressive number of paintings. On the other hand, it’s far too many different images to stock on a regular basis, especially since a third of those are not big sellers.

Even though I have fond feelings for every one of my paintings, it doesn’t mean they resonate with everyone else. I’ve already been weeding out certain ones as I run out, but will be much more aggressive in that practice over the coming year. I sold the last matted Raccoon Totem print online this week. As much as I like it, I won’t be ordering any more. There are about a dozen others that will meet the same fate when the last of each sells.

Many times, after I finish a new painting, I’ll get an email or a private message from somebody telling me they want a print. On more than one occasion, those folks have disappeared or told me they’ve changed their mind after I’ve invested the money to make prints available, when I might not have done so had they not expressed interest. Take that as a cautionary tale for both artists and buyers. Talk is cheap.

Then, of course, there are my reliable regular customers who ask for a print of a new animal, and even though I want to be able to make one available, I have to ask them to be patient until I get around to doing a print run. These are the folks I hate to disappoint since many have been supporting my work for years. Thank you, you know who you are.

I’m always painting new animals and if I want to stock prints of some of those, I have to start letting many of the others go. It also means that when I do paint a new animal, I have to think long and hard about whether or not I’m going to have prints done right away.

Or at all.

The Calgary Expo Holiday Market runs next Saturday and Sunday, November 25th and 26th in Halls B & C at the BMO Centre. Tickets available online and I believe at the door as well. Here’s the link. You can find me at Booth 414. Come by and say Hello.

Cheers,
Patrick




A Bird of Prey named Sarah

Posted November 11th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A Bird of Prey named Sarah

This is my latest painting of a Golden Eagle, based on reference photos I took of a 32 year old beauty named Sarah.
On a Saturday in the middle of last month, I went downtown to visit one of the Town of Canmore’s WILD events at the Civic Centre. This annual event features everything from hikes, arts activities, educational talks about the environment, and much more. While this introvert is not a big participator in large group gatherings, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Live Birds of Prey Exhibit.

Knowing this was a popular annual event, I arrived while they were still setting up with the intent of gathering some reference photos. There were four different owl species and one Golden Eagle. With such easy access to take up close reference photos, I was happy to make a small donation to express my appreciation.
From spending time with the keepers at Discovery Wildlife Park, supporting the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation each month and seeking to be better informed about the work involved in these sanctuaries, I’ve learned that wildlife conservation is an expensive undertaking.

It’s not just the care and feeding of the animals that requires constant funding, it’s the building and maintaining of facilities, veterinary bills, transportation costs, and all of the little things that add up to create a big monthly bill that never seems to decrease. I read a meme online recently that said, “I do this for the money, said no zookeeper ever.”
The more questions I’ve asked of the experts this year, the more I realize how little I know. But I’m eager to find out so that I can not only pass on the information to foster more interest in wildlife conservation, but also that I can better understand how best I can help.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation was started in 1982, when “wildlife rescue activity in Western Canada was almost non-existent. Centre founders Wendy Slaytor and Colin Weir approached the Province of Alberta Fish & Wildlife Division with an offer to start Alberta’s first volunteer wildlife rescue facility.”

That quote is from their History page on their website. I would encourage you to click on the link, read the rest of it, and take a look around. The work they do is admirable, rehabilitating and releasing injured birds back into the wild, participating in captive breeding programs of endangered species, studying and monitoring avian populations and educating the public and how to be better stewards of the environment.

While I haven’t yet visited their Alberta Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale, Alberta, I plan to in the coming year when they re-open for the 2018 season. It’s open to the public, yet another Alberta destination you can add to that family road-trip next year.
I enjoyed chatting with Colin Weir (above) and his daughter, Aimee, who were happy to answer all of my questions about each of the owls and Sarah. Each of these birds has their individual story about how they came to the facility and why they can’t be released into the wild. Instead, they’ve become ambassadors of the facility, allowing people to see these wonderful creatures up close. It has been my experience that these opportunities foster more empathy for the world around us and those with whom we share it.

Colin was even kind enough to let me hold Gordon, their Great Horned Owl. I’ve painted Alberta’s official bird a number of times, but this is as close as I’ve ever been.
Ever since I discovered the local owl’s nest up at Grassi Lakes some years ago, which resulted in plenty of photos and my ‘One in Every Family’ painting (below), I’ve made it a point to educate myself about these beautiful birds. And still, asking Colin some questions about that local breeding pair, I found out there’s still so much I have to learn, about this breed and the many others they care for.
As I have four owl paintings in my portfolio, I thought I was done painting them for a little while, but I believe I might be mistaken. I did a little sketch painting on the iPad of their Burrowing Owl named Basil, but I think a more detailed painting of him will be coming very soon. Seriously, look at that face.
Thanks for stopping by,

Patrick

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The Bear Berry Buffet

Posted October 24th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on The Bear Berry Buffet


Late last month, Shonna and I drove up to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail for one more regular season visit. With kids back in school, waning light and cooler temperatures, it gets quieter as Thanksgiving approaches, their last weekend before closing until May.

They still do their shows as advertised, though. As we were told, everybody paid their admission, so they’re entitled to the same experience whether it’s busy or not.

The bear presentation is a bit of a head fake, because even though you get to see the bears show off their training, it’s primarily an opportunity for keepers to educate a captive audience about conservation and safety. They talk about the differences between black bears and grizzlies and what to do should you encounter either while out in the woods. I’ve seen the bear show a few times, but as it was a small group and we’ve gotten to know the keepers, we figured we’d sit in again just to be polite.

Of course, the moment you get cocky and think you know a lot, that’s when you learn something new and get taken down a peg.

While Serena was talking about Charley and Angel, two of their black bears, she told us about hyperphagia. I’m pretty well read, have lived in bear country for more than twenty years, but I honestly can’t recall hearing that word before, or at least not so it registered. From being bear aware and years of local warnings every fall, I know that bears are eating a lot this time of year to prepare for hibernation, but I had never looked into the science.

From the North American Bear Center website, “Experimental studies with captive bears revealed the following: …Hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation. Black bears with unlimited food and water ate 15,000 to 20,000 kcal per day and drank several gallons.”

According to Serena, it’s a chemical process that happens this time of year, making them eat anything and everything they can get. The Park provides plenty of extra healthy food for them during this stage to prepare them for hibernation. On this particular day, we were told that their black bears had just finished this stage and were starting to slow down.

In the wild, it can be a dangerous time of year to run into bears, because they’re so focused on eating and not so much on their surroundings. So if hikers aren’t making enough noise, they might surprise a feasting bear, which can have less than desirable consequences.

Bears in captivity still hibernate and Discovery Wildlife Park makes them as comfortable as possible in their enclosures while they sleep. Some make use of the large culverts provided, a manmade cave, while others dig their own dens in their enclosures. What many don’t know, however, is that bears still do wake up in the winter. This happens even in the wild, especially on nice sunny days, but they won’t stay up for long.

There is one bear, however, who won’t go to ground this winter at Discovery Wildlife Park, and that’s Berkley, their Kodiak Cub. She’s not even a year old yet, has plenty of energy and is still marveling at the world around her. She’s seen snow a few times and appears to enjoy it quite a bit. Serena has said that Berkley likely won’t hibernate for a few years, but she might slow down a little during the winter months.

That being said, Berkley still appeared to be under the influence of hyperphagia. Shonna and I had the pleasure of going for a walk with her in the woods that evening. On a previous excursion, Berkley seemed to want nothing more than to explore, climb trees and play. On this visit, however, she just wanted to eat.




Like a kid in a candy store, she stopped at every berry bush she could find and proceeded to chow down. It was fascinating and fun to watch. Then when she discovered Serena had peanuts, she whined like a little baby until she was given some.

Of course, when they find the treat that each bear likes best, that becomes a golden opportunity to use it for positive reinforcement and enrichment. Berkley has proven herself to be a smart bear and learns new behaviours quickly, especially when peanuts are involved.
Another black bear at the park named Reno has a thing for guacamole. I met this gentle giant in early 2016 and he’s a wonderful bear. Reno is 22 years old and has been raised at the park his whole life. He weighed one pound when they got him.

He had some issues with his lungs last month and is still recovering, but he was on the mend when we saw him, turning a corner thanks to the antibiotics. They had managed to get him to drink enough fluids without having to put him on an IV and we got to see some of his extra special TLC when we were there.
At one point, while Serena and Mari were in the enclosure with him, he started to urinate and they excitedly grabbed a specimen bottle to collect it before he was finished. They were positively giddy. You know you love your bear when his peeing makes your day. It was a good sign for his recovery and here’s hoping Reno continues to improve.

Vet bills for a bear aren’t cheap, but they do everything they can for their orphans and rescues at this place. It’s a big job, keeping all of these critters housed, fed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. I continue to be impressed with their dedication to these animals and am forever grateful they’ve allowed me to be a part of it. From sketch paintings to finished prints, I’ve painted most of their bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I hope to keep doing so for many years to come.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here’s a video of our evening with Berkley last month. I suggest you watch it in HD on YouTube.

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Sonora

Posted September 19th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Sonora

This past weekend, I finished another memorial commission for a little dog named Sonora. She passed away at the end of May this year.
Not the first time I’ve been commissioned by Donna, a freelance photographer in Connecticut. You can check out her work here. I painted her horse Mocha five years ago in my more whimsical style. It’s one of my favorite commission pieces and I’d love to paint more horses. She also made some horse reference available to me and I painted another of her horses, but not as detailed.
Donna was on vacation in Texas thirteen years ago and found this little pup at a rest stop in Sonora, nearly lifeless. She was only 4 or 5 weeks old. They couldn’t leave her and were going to find a rescue organization to take her.

Not hard to guess what actually happened, as often does in these cases. Sonora had already found her home.
When Donna commissioned me to paint her, she was having a hard time finding reference of her without the cataracts Sonora had developed in her senior years, but she wanted me to try and paint her with more youthful eyes. I agreed with her and we’re both pleased with the result. My goal is not to just recreate what I see in the reference, but to find the personality in these paintings, even when I’m not painting them with a caricature look like my whimsical wildlife paintings.
This painting will go to print soon, but it isn’t yet known on what surface. I had suggested the new acrylic print, but Donna said it doesn’t really go with her house, which is an important consideration when choosing the type of print. With plenty of options available, I’m sure we’ll come up with something that will be appropriate for Sonora’s portrait.

It’s always a privilege to be trusted with one of these memorial paintings, knowing that this will be part of how somebody remembers their furry family member for years to come.

Thanks for reading,
Patrick

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Connecting the Dot

Posted September 10th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Connecting the Dot

About a week ago, I woke up with an idea to get a tattoo of a grizzly paw. I’ve long thought about getting a little ink and came close a while ago, but it never seemed quite right.

As a result, this was a little strange, to just wake up with this idea and rather than dismiss it as a fleeting crazy thought, it seemed completely logical. When Shonna woke up, I mentioned it to her and much to my surprise, she had no objections. In fact, when I mentioned getting it on my shoulder, she suggested I put it somewhere I could see it, like on my forearm.
Bears have been a part of my life since I moved to this valley in the mid-nineties. I’ve had an irrational fear of them for more than twenty years. But they’re also one of my favorite animals to paint, read about, and in recent years, spend time with. I’ve had many dreams about bears over the years. It’s been said that the thing we’re most afraid of can reveal the most profound parts of ourselves.

In the late-nineties, I used to hang out at a pub when we lived in Banff, called the Pump and Tap. I actually drank more diet coke there than alcohol, could smoke a cigarette and draw in my sketchbook. One of the other regulars one day showed me a black bear tooth he had. If I remember correctly, he said his grandfather had found it in Quebec with the skeleton of a bear many years ago and gave him a few of the teeth.

Out of the blue, he handed it to me and said, “I think you’re supposed to have it.”

I was taken completely off guard. Keep in mind, I didn’t paint my first Totem animal (a Grizzly bear) until November of 2009, more than ten years later.

I was grateful for the gift, this tooth yellowed by age, but polished and practically petrified.

For years I carried it with me in my pocket in a little leather pouch I picked up at one of the stores in Banff. But after a while, I worried about losing it, so I had a jeweler friend, Doug Bell, put a silver mount on it and I wear it around a chain to this day.

Like most people, my dreams are simply the reorganization of weekly experiences and events. The mind forms a narrative to connect random thoughts while it files them away in long-term memory. But around the same time I got the tooth, I was having a lot of animal dreams, many of them about bears. In fact, I was having so many of them that I began to keep a journal. While cleaning out my office recently, I came across it, along with some other books of writing.

In one dream, I was flying over a large field, very close to the ground and I came across a small pond where I stopped and hovered above it. While looking at the water, a symbol became visible under the surface. I knew that it had some significance, but I didn’t know what.

I’ve thought about it often over the years. I even drew it in ink on that little pouch in which I carried the bear tooth. While writing this, I wondered if I still have it. Sure enough, it’s in a little box on my bookshelf. While the symbol is faded, it’s still there.
When I had Doug make the bear tooth piece for me years ago, I also had him craft that symbol in silver. I alternate between wearing the two on a chain, depending on my plans for the day.
So what does it mean? I’ve searched for that symbol online and a reverse image search comes up with nothing. But in researching symbols, I’ve found that often you can decipher meaning from the different parts of a symbol.

The closest I could come up with is the circumpunct, which is a dot inside of a closed circle. It’s one of the most ancient symbols in the world, prevalent in many cultures. Depending on where you find it, it can mean the sun, God, Ra, the solar system, the universe and it’s the alchemical symbol for gold. It is the beginning of creation.

In scouting, it means ‘End of trail. Gone home.’ My buddy Darrel pointed out that it’s on Baden Powell’s tombstone, which is appropriate.

To the Australian Aborigines, it’s the symbol for waterhole. To the Ojibwa, it means spirit.

And just to throw some water on this wildfire of flighty speculation, it’s also the symbol of the Target Corporation.

But what does it mean with the line?

I found one site that quoted Manly P. Hall, from his book Lectures on Ancient Philosophy. While it didn’t show the image, it would appear he might be describing the symbol I saw.

“The dot, moving away from self, projects the line; the line becomes the radius of an imaginary circle, and this circle is the circumference of the powers of the central dot.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it over the years and ultimately, it comes down to what it means to me. If I had to sum it up in one word, what has always felt right, it would be ‘Connection.’

The individual connected to the greater whole. We are all connected to each other and the world around us, in some way or another. We each find ways to interpret that connection, to understand it, and hopefully to give strength to it. For some, it’s through religion, their faith, their relationship with their god, whatever that means to each person.

For others, it might be through science, their understanding of the universe, how the microscopic form of the atom is mirrored in the gigantic form of a solar system. Repeating patterns, order in the chaos.

I still live in the real world and am a deeply flawed human being, but in my artwork and in spending time with animals, that’s where I find my own connection.

Over the past year, I’ve experienced some of the lowest points of my life, but also some of the highest. The latter thanks to the wonderful folks at Discovery Wildlife Park who have allowed me a closer connection with their animals, especially a certain wonderful little bear. Best of all, I got to share the experience with my wife, too.
I’ll choose time with animals over an anti-depressant any day of the week.
While designing my own version of a grizzly paw tattoo, it suddenly occurred to me that the paw pad should be the symbol with which I’ve had a relationship for many years. I didn’t want any great detail; I didn’t want to over-complicate it. I just wanted what you see, the simplicity of my connection to bears and animals. Whether this belief is real or imaginary is irrelevant. It speaks to me and makes me want to be a better human.

As they’ve got a great reputation, as do their talented artists, I expected a long wait to get a sitting at Electric Grizzly Tattoo (yeah, I see it). But this was not a difficult tattoo that would take a long time, so Myles Mac managed to get me in just days after I inquired. I went with it and it was a great experience. It will take a few weeks to be fully healed and I’ll share another photo then.

When Shonna suggested I put it where I could see it, I decided on the inner forearm of my drawing arm, the claws pointing toward my hand. When shit gets a little too real, when I’m having a bad day/week/month, when I’ve let the news get to me, when my faith in people is non-existent, I’m hoping it reminds me of my connection to something greater than myself, to inspire me to make a difference where I can, to be the change I want to see in the world.

Once again, thanks for reading my ramblings.

Cheers,
Patrick




Lake Laziness

Posted August 31st, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Lake Laziness

I almost didn’t go on this recent camping trip, but I fought my nature, listened to the appeals of my better angels and made the getaway a priority over the work. Winter is not far off and I need to put as much positive fuel in the tank while I can, before the dark and dreary cold season starts burning it away.

So, I let my newspapers know I’d be gone, gave them almost double the usual cartoons last week to keep them covered, and headed off Sunday morning to go camping with old friends. Three of us drove together in a little convoy to a regular meeting spot on Highway 95 between Radium and Golden. There we met up with another old friend who traveled from the other direction and we headed up into the hills. Three trucks, two trailers and my car.

It’s a dirt and gravel road for most of the way, some years better or worse than others, with the last 2km stretch resembling a goat track. That last bit requires driving in 1st gear, maneuvering back and forth from one side of the road to the other to avoid large potholes and big rocks. My buddy Al described it best when he said the road was particularly ‘bony’ this year, making it especially tricky for the two trucks pulling small Boler trailers.

There are three BC Forestry campsites on the entire lake, all spaced evenly apart, so even when it’s full, the neighbours are quite far away. We have our favorite spot and while we might not always get it, we lucked out once again this time. It’s a big site, with plenty of room to spread out our two trailers and two tents.

British Columbia is incredibly dry right now, experiencing one of the worst wildfire seasons ever recorded. There has been a fire ban on for nearly two months. With an abundance of dead-fall in the area, firewood is usually never an issue, but with no chance of the ban being lifted, we brought a propane fire bowl instead.  It provides some warmth when evening falls and is quite safe when handled properly. Most importantly, it’s legal during a fire ban.

With temperatures above 30C every day, we took extra measures like lining the inside of our coolers with Reflectix, laying soaking wet towels over the coolers during the day and keeping them in the shade.  My measure of success was going to be if I still had ice for a rum and coke on the third night and cold milk for coffee on the last morning.

I still had ice in the cooler when I got home.

I’ve been friends with two of these guys for more than twenty years, and the third for not much less. I’ve been coming to this lake since the mid-nineties the year I got married, but my buddy Jim started going there the year I graduated high school. Most of my friends are older than I am. Our buddy Babe (his real name) is in his early seventies, but he’s still hauling his little trailer up the road with the rest of us.

As we didn’t have to cut, haul and chop wood this time, it was pretty much four days of laziness. We all woke at different times, only stayed up past midnight once, ate and cooked our own food, read books, listened to music, insulted each other non-stop, napped in our chairs, went swimming in the lake quite often, ate food, drank beer and other spirits, with no agenda.
I also tried my hand at wood carving for the first time. While the result was a pitiful embarrassment and reminds me of a grade school art project, I did enjoy the process and will try again soon. I must remind myself that I used to be quite bad at drawing and painting, too. You’ve got to start somewhere.

Many assume that when four guys head to a lake in the mountains, they must be fishing, but none of us do. It just sounds like work to us. There aren’t many fish in this lake anyway.
When it comes to his canoe, Jim has one rule. Anybody can use it whenever they like, with the exception of dusk. That’s when he heads out on the lake each night and paddles around by himself for an hour or so as it gets dark. This works well for me since I was the only other person who used the canoe and my favorite time to be out on the lake is first thing in the morning as the sun’s coming up, camera and coffee in hand.

The forest ranger came by every couple of days doing his rounds, making sure nobody was violating the fire ban and we enjoyed chatting with him. He said there weren’t many campers in the area, but all he encountered were being responsible, which was nice to hear.

There were some other campers on the lake the first night and some day-fishermen one day, but for the most part, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was so quiet. It was clear most of the time, but on the last evening, the smoke from one of the many BC forest fires rolled in and by morning, the trees across the lake were blurred of their definition, lost in the haze.
There were plenty of dragonflies on the lake, normal for this time of year. We’d sit on the dock while swimming and they’d occasionally land on our shoulders or legs, an enjoyable experience. While canoeing around in the morning, I’d come across one struggling in the water and dip the paddle in to rescue it, something I learned from Jim years ago. After a few minutes drying off, it would eventually fly away. I think I rescued three or four of them. Might seem like a small thing, but I imagine it mattered to the dragonfly.

I’m used to seeing a lot of ducks on this lake in the spring. Though I heard a couple one evening this trip, I only saw one solitary loon one morning, letting out his lonely call. It’s one of my favorite sounds in the world, especially when I’m out in a canoe.
The best surprise of the whole weekend was watching an Osprey one morning and I managed to get close enough to take some photos. On the last morning, after I’d already packed up my tent and most of the car, Babe was looking out at the lake and said, “There’s your Osprey over there.”

I grabbed the camera, paddled across the lake and got a few more shots before we left, a nice way to end the trip.

This might be the last camping trip of the year, but given that it has been exceptionally warm this summer, there still might be another before the snow flies. If the opportunity comes up, I will probably grab it.
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A Walk in the Park

Posted August 14th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A Walk in the Park

When you’re self-employed, you’re always working. If it’s not a planned vacation or camping trip, I do some work every day. But I also make my own schedule, which allows me to take an afternoon hike and to visit popular places like Discovery Wildlife Park or the Calgary Zoo on quieter days.

My wife, Shonna, has a full-time and part-time job, a workaholic for as long as I’ve known her. As a result, scheduling time off together is usually a dance requiring some difficult choreography.

We go out to dinner or lunch once in a while, go on vacations, and still spend a lot of our time off together, but we don’t do date nights, rarely observe birthdays or anniversaries, and we loathe Hallmark holidays. I think we might have gone out for Valentine’s Day once before we were married and we haven’t exchanged Christmas gifts in well over a decade. Might seem odd to some, but it has worked well for us for the past twenty-seven years.

Of all the times I’ve gone to Discovery Wildlife Park over the last couple of years, Shonna has only been there once, and she never got to see any animals. Up visiting family, we stopped in to drop off prints while the park was still closed for the season. So she met the head zookeeper Serena and one of the other keepers I know, but that was it.

And yet, while she enjoys the stories and fun photos I come home with after these visits to the park, Shonna hadn’t been able to experience it.
Berkley is growing up fast, so I told Shonna that I really wanted her to come to the park and see her before she was no longer a cub. We both looked at our schedules, figured out a day to visit the park, and she took a rare midweek day off.

I’ve already been given more opportunities with Berkley than I could have ever hoped for, and I suspected she might be too big now to risk being up close and personal with strangers. But I’ve gotten to be friends with Serena and we both know each other well enough to be candid without hurt feelings. An example is that I can ask difficult questions about animals in captivity without her being offended, because she knows I just want to learn and abandon any misconceptions.

So when I asked Serena if Shonna and I could join her on an evening walk with Berkley, I made it clear that I fully expected the answer to be No and that I was fine with that.

I was thrilled when she said, “Yes.”

Serena already knows I won’t do anything to endanger Berkley or myself. She knows what Berkley will do; it’s always people who are the unknown variable. I assured her that I married somebody more intelligent than myself, and Shonna would be completely respectful of Berkley’s space. Serena has also wanted to spend some time with Shonna because of how often I’ve talked about her.

We arrived about 7:30PM and Serena was waiting for us. We got out of the car, and Berkley went right to Shonna, which doesn’t surprise me. Animals like me, but they all seem to like her better. Even my parents’ dog, who gets excited when she sees me, will pass me up for Shonna. It’s humbling.

Shonna simply stood where she was and let Berkley sniff around her feet. When Berkley stood up on her hind legs and put her paws up on Shonna, she didn’t flinch. Serena came over, told Berkley No, and put her back to the ground. Berkley seemed to think, “whatever” and just walked away.

Serena later told me that Shonna’s easy going reaction told her all she needed to know when it came to trusting her with Berkley.

Over the next hour or so, we walked in and out of the forest on the property. We didn’t make Berkley do anything. The whole point of her evening walks is to let her be a bear. She’d take off into the woods, climb a tree, disappear into the bushes and then burst back onto the trail.
She has recently decided that Mom isn’t busy enough working long hours seven days a week, so Berkley finds burrs to collect, which Serena must then pick out of her fur.

We chatted the whole time, about this and that, just three people having a regular walk in the woods, except for the little bear running around us. Most of the time, she didn’t care where we were. She just did her own thing. When she got close, I’d take some pictures and then she’d head off again.
At one point, Shonna was sitting on a large rock when Berkley decided to really check her out. She put her paws on her leg, then snuffled her ear and apparently licked it which was funny, but also kind of gross. A wet-willy from a bear tongue.

Berkley decided she wanted some of Shonna’s water. Serena apologized and said it was the same kind of bottle she often brought for Berkley so she thought it was hers. Shonna was happy to share, bear slobber and all.

We took her up to the main park area, walking past large enclosures where black bears Charley, Gruff, Angel and others lounged in the grass in the setting sun. We walked between the lion and jaguar cages, the big cats VERY interested in the little morsel scurrying past them. Berkley wasn’t phased.
For the first time, I got to see Berkley’s night-time enclosure. Up until now, since they first got her earlier this year, she has lived at Serena’s house with her husband and kids. Berkley has gone home with her every night and comes to work with her every morning.

I had asked before when she’d be making the transition to staying at the park, and the answer has always been, “when she’s ready.”

Serena has raised many orphaned and rescued animals from babies and a number of them have lived at her house until they were big enough to be comfortable alone at night. She has managed this transition many times before with bears, lions, and other critters.

That week Berkley had just started her park overnights and that night was going to be her third alone in her pen, half of a large sea container complete with bedding, hay, water, food and whatever else she needed to feel comfortable.

Just as a dog takes comfort in a kennel or crate, these animals feel safer in their own space at night and they all have somewhere protected to go when it gets dark. What I found most comforting was that when we approached the kennel, Berkley went right inside, took a drink and then came back out. Clearly, she was comfortable with the space.

Just a couple of days ago, I asked Serena how the transition was going and she said she was adjusting well.
We took Berkley back into the woods where she could play in the creek, climb some trees, dig in the dirt and tire herself out. She checked us out from time to time, but we weren’t nearly as interesting as all of the other sights and smells of the forest.

The next day, we returned to the park as regular guests, bringing donuts and muffins for the keepers and staff as a thank-you. We watched the wolf and bear shows which are always informative and entertaining. All of the animals are trained using positive reinforcement and the loving relationship between the keepers and animals is obvious.
Education is a big part of these shows. Folks get valuable lessons in how to hike and camp safely, and what to do should they encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild. They’re told about why it’s a bad idea to stop on the highway to take pictures of wildlife, and how a fed bear becomes a dead bear. It’s a better way to teach than to simply hand out a brochure. These orphaned and rescued animals provide an education to prevent future orphan and rescue situations.

They call it a show, but it’s much more than that. This isn’t a circus where the animals are trained to entertain. Training is a part of their enrichment. By using food, praise, and generous shows of affection, their minds are kept active solving problems.

What might look like a simple trick to you and me is what keeps them mentally and physically healthy. We watched Charley the black bear figure out a new trick he just learned that week, which was putting a ball in his toy box. He kept missing the box, would look to Serena for his reward and when he didn’t get it, she’d pick up the ball, throw it a short distance and she’d encourage him to try again.

After the third try, he got it in the box and received his reward. Granted, he destroyed the box in the process, but he learned something new and worked it out. Serena has told me in the past that they have to keep coming up with new tricks because they’ll soon get bored of the old ones.

I noticed recently on their Facebook page, somebody expressed concern over making the lions jump from platform to platform. Serena diplomatically pointed out that it keeps their muscles and minds active. All reinforcement is positive and in this situation, they weren’t even in the enclosure with the animals, so if the lions didn’t want to do it, they just wouldn’t do it.

The best part about my visits to the park is how much I take away from each visit. I’m always learning something new and this day was no exception.

Best of all, a couple of days later, Shonna told me it was one of the best gifts I’d ever given her.

And it wasn’t even a Hallmark holiday.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Bear Belle (3 of 3)

Posted July 20th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off 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
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Time with Two Wolves (2 of 3)

Posted July 18th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off 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.




A Day of Discovery (1 of 3)

Posted July 17th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A Day of Discovery (1 of 3)

Thursday was a really good day, so much so that I’m splitting it up into three blog posts. This is the first.

I’d already had high hopes, as I was dropping off a $525.00 donation to Discovery Wildlife Park, made possible by followers of my work who took advantage of the first offering of the matted giclée prints of my painting of Berkley. Not only was painting that image a lot of fun, but selling the first twenty (ended up being twenty-one) with proceeds going to the park made it even more special.

Charitable giving is probably one of the most selfish things a person can do, because it just feels so darn good. Now this donation isn’t exactly hard-core philanthropy, but that is where I’d like to end up one day, supporting animal causes with as many big donations as I can muster. If I have to exploit those who like my work in order to do it, I’m OK with that.

Hopefully you are, too.

I wanted to get to the park when it opened, but some email issues delayed my departure from Canmore, so I didn’t arrive until after 11. By that time, special programs are underway and the place is getting busy, so I knew not to expect to be able to have any time visiting with the staff as their work day was in full swing.

I delivered the first poster prints of Berkley to Debbi, one of the owners, along with the cheque and a framed matted Berkley print, the one I used for the donation. I sent Serena, the head zookeeper, a text letting her know I was there, but she was out with the kids’ camp, a Zookeeper for the Day program. Told her I’d be around taking photos, but I knew they’d all be busy. If I didn’t see any of them on Thursday, I was fine with it.

I stopped by the Tiger presentation that was just starting, then went over to check out the wolves, the ostriches, deer, and of course, the black bears.

It was a HOT day, I was sweating under the sun, and figured the black bears would be trying to stay as cool as possible. Dark fur on a sunny day, they really should know better.

Imagine my surprise when I saw Gruff actively playing with an orange ball in his enclosure. He’s the bear I used as the model for my Black Bear Totem painting. I was fortunate to be able to spend time inside his enclosure with him to get the reference shots for that, an experience I won’t ever forget.

He’s a wonderful bear with a great temperament and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him throw the ball in the air and chase it when it hit the ground. He has this habit of covering his eyes when he throws it up, likely had it land on his face more than once, I think. As I was taking shots zoomed in through a double fence, I couldn’t get a good enough shot of him standing up when he threw the ball, but here are a few of his antics on the ground.
Given that he must have been getting warm with such activity, I wasn’t surprised when he went for a swim in the pond inside his large enclosure. I’ll admit to being envious.
. . I heard one woman say to another, something about how great it was to see the bear so happy and playful, clearly well looked after. It’s nice when other folks recognize what I already know from my experiences here. These animals are loved.

When he finally did come out of the water, he went back to his ball, but he seemed to have used up most of his energy prior to his swim and lay down in the sun.

At this point, having been there for an hour, I was thinking I might leave, go see my folks who live just ten minutes down the road, and then head into Red Deer to deliver the last of the Berkley prints, with plans to come back the next morning before heading home.

But I got a text…

Serena picked me up in a golf cart, and said I had a ten minute photo shoot before she had to get back to her duties. I asked what I would be shooting and she simply said, “a baby.”

“A baby what?”

She wouldn’t tell me, said it was a surprise, but that I should change lenses on the way. I wouldn’t need the zoom lens.

She drove me back to the keepers’ area where some of the smaller animals are kept at night and I told her I hoped it would be a skunk because the Alberta Institute of Wildlife Conservation (another facility I support) keeps posting pictures of skunks they’re rehabilitating and I want to paint one. The problem is that AIWC re-introduces animals back into the wild, so they don’t allow visitors to come and take photos, which is completely understandable.

Sure enough, I was introduced to Tunk, one of three baby skunks they’ve recently adopted when a farmer decided he didn’t want them around. Oreo and Flute are the other two, who I saw, but they’re not quite socialized yet, so Tunk was my model. Serena placed him in the grass surrounded by yellow flowers. While it was a great setting, and I was lying down, taking rapid fire photos, he was rambunctious and I couldn’t get any good pics.

So we took him to a nearby broken tree and let him run around a bit on top of that for a very fast photo shoot. I’m glad he’s had his scent glands removed, because I found myself looking at the business end of this little critter more than once and the possible consequences crossed my mind.

Baby skunks. What a treat.
Had the day ended there, I would have been quite pleased. But then I was invited to return that evening for…

Well, that’ll be in the next post.

Cheers,
Patrick