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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




Berkley and the Bug

Posted June 16th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Berkley and the Bug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for being here.

Patrick

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




Politics, Rage and Social Media

Posted June 13th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Politics, Rage and Social Media


When people find out that I’m an editorial cartoonist, I often hear that I must be having a lot of fun going after Trump, or Trudeau, or Harper, or whomever people love to hate at that given moment. I usually just agree with them and change the subject, because most of the time, I don’t want to talk about it.

It’s just part of my job. It’s not who I am.

A lot of editorial cartoonists I know are political junkies, they love this shit. The theatrics and maneuvering, the players and the games they play, following elections and campaigns…many of my colleagues and competitors get off on it.

I got into this profession from the other side of things. Almost twenty years ago, I just wanted to draw and colour all day and at the time, editorial cartooning was the opportunity that presented itself. Before that, I really didn’t care about politics at all.

As a consequence, I had to learn to follow politics and current events. I was young(ish), opinionated, thought I knew more than I did, so I attacked it with relish. I also had a chip on my shoulder about starting into it a lot later than my competitors and felt I had something to prove. This meant that my mouth/keyboard got me into trouble sometimes, but I learned quite some time ago that sharing my political opinions on forums, comment sections and social media are a waste of my life.

As I’ve gotten older, this job has taken quite a toll on my perspective. When you follow negative news all day, every day for decades, it does damage to one’s psyche. Constant bombardment of bleeding leads and the worst examples of human behaviour taking center stage on the news, are only eclipsed by the relatively recent fashion of everybody sharing and arguing their own point of view with extra vitriol and a side of rage. Finding the good in people is a daily struggle, but I’ve not yet given up. I am both a conflicted idealist and a reluctant misanthrope.

I often equate the online world of this profession to getting up each day, having a shower, getting dressed, then turning on my computer and wading into raw sewage.

Basically, if I got terminal cancer tomorrow, would having an online argument with a perfect stranger about Conservatives and Liberals really be a good use of the time I’ve got left? That question should be given just as much weight even without the terminal diagnosis. I don’t even argue politics on my own editorial cartoon Facebook page. I post the toon and move on to the next one.

When I see people arguing about how bad the Liberals are, I remember the Conservatives, who seemed really bad when they were in power, but not as bad as the Liberals in power before them or the Conservatives before them. You see, follow this stuff long enough and you see the same repeating patterns, regardless of the parties or individual players. Political spin has been around since the first caveman stood up, pointed a finger at the other guy for overcooking the mastodon, and promised the group that he could cook it better. All they had to do was give him the best cut of meat.

So while Donald Trump seems like the extreme example lately, I just see another politician, without the polish of a life in politics. It’s the same mindset; he’s just less practiced at hiding his motivations.

But it isn’t just the elected folks. The people who like to blame everything on the government and tell them to stay out of their lives are often the same people who blame the government for not doing enough when their lives don’t meet the sitcom ideal.

Fix my roads, but don’t make me wear a seat belt or tell me how much to drink before driving. Photo radar is a scam, but I’m not going to slow down. On a Facebook article about a family dying in a car crash due to distracted driving, be sure to click the sad face emoticon on your phone while you’re doing fifty in a school zone.

We expect the government to repair the economy, create more jobs and make sure we can retire early with more money than we currently earn, but don’t make us sacrifice the latest iPhone or SUV in order to pay off our increasing credit card debt. Don’t tell me to eat healthy and exercise, just make sure the health care doesn’t cost me anything, and there had better not be any waiting.

We’re a privileged populace who can’t even tolerate the inconvenience of voting, but we’ll bitch about it online for years afterward. If everybody who says they voted actually voted, we’d have more than a 90% turnout every time.

True story, at the last federal election advance polls here in Canmore, there was a long lineup moving slowly. Poor organization, unexpected volume, who knows the reason? Frustrating, yes, but definitely a first world problem. People fight wars for this privilege.

A man not far behind me in line, finally blurted out something along the lines of, “screw this, if you can’t get your shit together, you don’t get my vote,” and he stormed off, no doubt convinced he was right. I wonder if he had time to watch TV later or share a nasty political meme on Twitter.

We’re all so angry all the time, that we’re not realizing how little it makes sense or how much choice we actually have in the matter. And before I get feedback about the pot calling the kettle black, I hear you. I’ve been angry for a long time and it took a recent frightening personal crisis to realize it.

It’s exhausting. It’s ridiculous. Worst of all, the solution is obvious.

The next time you see something online that gets your blood boiling and presses all of your rage buttons, delay that share, comment or angry emoticon. Take a breath. Take another.

Ask yourself if what you’re reading was designed to make you mad. Ask yourself who has what to gain by your getting angry at it. Was it written by a stranger? By a troll? By a paid lobbyist? By a person whose opinion you even value? Are you being manipulated to feel this way in order to serve somebody else’s agenda? Is this worth getting upset about? Will your engaging with this argument change anything in your life for the better or will it just make you stay angry for longer?

By sharing the instigating post, are you improving the world around you by inflicting the same rage on the people you actually do care about?

Sometimes anger is warranted, especially if it’s a cause or subject that affects you personally or genuinely has an impact on your life and your values. In those cases, your voice matters. One voice can change the world, for better or worse. But you will make your point better after thoughtful consideration, followed by a measured response. If it takes you a day or two to get your thoughts together, so be it. If it’s not worth that day or two, then it isn’t worth it at all.

Most importantly, people are going to disagree with you. Family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and strangers, are as entitled to their opinions as you are to yours. When they disagree with respect, hear them out. You might learn something. Listening to another’s point of view has become a lost art.

If somebody resorts to insults, name-calling and childish behaviour, let it go. They’re not worth your time.

They’re not worth your life.




A Visit To Harlequin Nature Graphics

Posted June 12th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on A Visit To Harlequin Nature Graphics

This trip to Vancouver Island has almost become an annual thing, and I always return home with plenty of reference photos and renewed inspiration for painting. Back at the desk, having gathered another collection of pics, but an added bonus on this trip was being able to pay a visit to Harlequin Nature Graphics Ltd. in Cobble Hill.

This is my first year working with Harlequin and they came highly recommended by current clients. While shopping around for a new licensee for my work on apparel, both the Calgary Zoo and Discovery Wildlife Park spoke well of Harlequin’s quality and service. When I was first considering licensing my images with Harlequin last fall, the fact that they are Canadian, primarily focused on wildlife and that they support wildlife causes were all high on my list of pros.
As this trip is a working vacation, we included in our plans a drive down to Cobble Hill on Monday, from where we were staying near Qualicum Beach. Unless you’re moving from one end of the island to the other, we never seem to have to travel long distances to get where we need to go. Since we’ve always planned our visits for early June, before school is out and vacationing families pack the highways, we usually don’t have much in the way of heavy traffic.
Kevin and Gillian were very welcoming and spent more than an hour giving us a tour of the facility, showing us the shirts, their printing operation, talking about the history of the company and where their future plans might take them. They’re working on a new website at present that I’m looking forward to sharing.
I’d already had a good feeling about Harlequin from the beginning, which is why I signed with them. They initially took on a lot more of my images than I expected and time will tell which designs generate the most interest among their many clients across Canada.

It’s not always reasonable or economical to meet face to face when licensing is concerned. I’ve got licensees in the U.S. with whom I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to sit down and have a chat, but given the option, I’ll always choose to. The opportunity to meet with Kevin, Gillian and their staff was well worth the drive to Cobble Hill and we came away from the meeting with a better understanding of the operation and an even greater confidence in our shared vision for my whimsical wildlife paintings.
Of course, since we were there, I managed to beg a few more shirts in my size, too. Thanks, Kevin!




Berkley the Bear

Posted April 15th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Berkley the Bear

 
It has been my great pleasure to spend time at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta over the past few years. While you might think it has simply been for the opportunity to take reference photos for paintings and another venue for selling my poster prints, the benefits have been so much more.

Last Thursday, I dropped off a large batch of poster prints for their upcoming season. I’ve gotten to know these good folks and it was great to catch up with a few of them. Noticeably absent, however, was Serena Bos, the head keeper. I was told that she was on a road trip.

“Good road trip or bad road trip,” I asked.

“Good road trip. You’re going to love this,” Mari told me. She’s one of the other keepers whose company I enjoy when I’m at the park.

That’s all she’d say and despite my annoying questions (fine, I was almost begging), she wouldn’t tell me anything.

As a result, I’ve been keeping a close eye on their Facebook page, waiting for the announcement. On Thursday, I saw the first photos of Berkley, a Kodiak bear cub..

I sent Serena a text…

As the conversation progressed, I joked that I wasn’t going to be able to see her until late May. They don’t open until May 1st, I have the Calgary Expo that weekend, will be away the week after that and the month of May is quite busy. She’ll have grown so much.

Serena generously offered me a private visit with Berkley if I could come up the following day, an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up. While my relationship with the park has afforded me behind-the-scenes experiences like this before, it’s a special circumstance I never take for granted.

Luckily, Discovery Wildlife Park is just a little over two hours away and the roads were good. The looming last gasp of winter weather didn’t hit that area until that evening when I was already back in Canmore.

Berkley is a recent immigrant from the U.S., but all of her paperwork is in order. She comes from a facility where her mother’s pregnancy was unexpected and the father was still present. Sadly, he killed the second cub. While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. Here’s an explanation of why from a Q&A on the National Park Service website

Many people on the Discovery Wildlife Park Facebook page are asking why she was taken from her mother so young. The simplest reason was that her life was in danger and the mother wasn’t caring for her in a manner that would have prevented it. Nature is often harsh. An uncomfortable reality, but reality nonetheless.

Serena has always encouraged me to ask a lot of questions and while I have been respectful, I’ve asked some that might have been taken for antagonism. Thankfully, we know each other well enough now that she understands I just want to learn and she’s as frank with her answers as I am with the questions.

We took Berkley into a wooded area on the park property and let her run around. Careful to keep her away from a nearby small stream, we both snapped pictures and Serena answered plenty of my questions.

Here’s some of what I learned…

Berkley will be with Serena or another caregiver 24 hours a day likely until midsummer when she will slowly get used to spending the night alone in her own enclosure. This will be done gradually and eventually she will be happiest on her own, as most brown bears are.

As Berkley could never be a wild bear, there is no danger of her seeing too many people. While she will have a strictly regulated diet for the rest of her life, people smells and our environment means she will always associate us with food, a situation that results in too many euthanized bears in the wild.

While she only weighs just over ten pounds now, Berkley will eventually grow to be an 800-1000 pound big beautiful bear over the next 5-8 years. I am grateful I got to interact with her now, because it’ll never happen again when she’s an adult. That being said, the keepers will have a daily relationship with her for the rest of her life and she will most likely view them as we would a family member we’ve known and trusted for years. Watching the staff interact with the adult bears they’ve raised from cubs never fails to make me smile.

In the wild, a Kodiak bear’s life expectancy is around 8 years. If all goes well with the circumstances they can control, Berkley can expect to live 25 or more at Discovery Wildlife Park.

Little Berkley has very sharp teeth and nails. In most of the pictures I got with her, you’ll notice I keep my hands closed, although I did get to pet her when she was distracted and Serena said it was OK. I’m not familiar enough to her that I can trust that she wouldn’t bite or scratch me.

At one point Berkley fell off a log and made a squealing noise on the way down and as she hit. My instinct was to grab her but I kept my hands to myself. Serena said that was the right call, because with Berkley flailing about, she very likely could have seriously hurt me. And bears are tougher than we are. The noise she was making wasn’t because she was hurt, it was just because she was scared. She was back on her feet and running around right away.

Berkley is going to be a teacher, in more ways than one. She will be trained to perform tasks and tricks (for lack of a better word) for a couple of reasons. One, it will keep her mind active and is a form of enrichment. In the wild, a bear will always be looking for food and that keeps their brain going. In captivity, where food is provided, it’s the job of her caretakers to provide her with things to think about and problems to solve.

But it will also mean she will get used to being trained, so that when it comes time to present her paw for a blood sample or to urinate on command for testing, she will view it as routine without any stress. These tasks will not only contribute to her overall health, but will provide a valuable scientific resource.

Just like some of the other bears in the Park, Berkley will provide baseline health data of a bear living a low stress life, a consequence of having a regular diet, enrichment and veterinary care. This information will be of great use to select post-secondary schools and research institutions that study bears in different environments. If you know what the data for a low-stress bear looks like, you know how to measure against data for a high stress bear. This will directly aid in wildlife conservation and research, for regions where bears might be living in less than ideal conditions in the wild.

You might wonder, as I did, how Berkley will fare since she won’t have her bear Mom to teach her how to be a bear. Serena assured me that there is a lot of instinct involved in bear behaviour. In the time we were out in the wooded area, that became evident as Berkley climbed over logs, scratched at trees, and scurried around sniffing at everything. She looked like a bear to me.

Her development will be fast. In just the three days since I’d seen a video of Berkley wobbling around on unsteady feet, I saw a completely different bear when I got there. While playing with her, I broke into a bit of a run and her being a bear, she gave chase. I had to run faster, almost up to my own full speed as this tiny little bear kept gaining on me.

Unsteady? Not for long.
I could go on at great length about all that I learned yesterday, but I would encourage you to go see Berkley in person, along with all of the other critters who live at Discovery Wildlife Park when they open May 1st. Go with an open mind, leave your conclusions at the gate and if you have any questions, please ask any of the helpful staff you’ll encounter.

Take part in the different talks they do and consider some of the other programs available. For a small fee, you can even get your picture taken with GusGus the beaver. Tell him I sent you and ignore him if he says he doesn’t know who I am. Trust me, we’re old friends.

Like all of my experiences at the park, my time with Berkley was special and it’s a day I won’t soon forget. I’m already planning a painting of this little diva, but by the time it’s done, she’ll have grown a fair bit, so maybe I’ll just have to keep painting her to keep pace.

Hey, there’s an idea.

Big thanks to Serena Bos and all of the other dedicated staff at Discovery Wildlife Park. You all make me want to be a better human. Any photos seen here with me in the picture, Serena took the shot.




The Black Bear Totem

Posted March 11th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on The Black Bear Totem


Right up until the end of 2009, my art focus had primarily been on syndicated editorial cartoons and caricatures of people. Along the way, I’d also done illustration for businesses and board games, had tried my hand at some editorial Flash animation, and experimented here and there with creative off-shoots I thought might eventually yield some fruit.

Keeping a somewhat regular blog for the past nine years has served to become a business diary of sorts. It’s interesting to look back and read about my best laid plans. With the benefit of hindsight, some now make me cringe, knowing that had I gone further down some of those roads, I would have been disappointed. I’m also surprised at the blind optimism and enthusiasm in some of the posts, an elixir I wish I’d been able to bottle for mid-life.

The time I spent working on caricatures was excellent practice. I’m much better at drawing likenesses in my editorial cartoons today than I was then and it takes less time to get there. As I wasn’t interested in going that route, I never developed the skill to draw caricatures live. But people used to hire me to create them for birthday presents, wedding invitations, and other occasions. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy still doing that now, but it was all grist for the mill.

I was also getting pretty good at detailed caricature paintings of celebrities, but navigating the legal minefield of likeness rights, the large number of artists already doing that kind of work, and the awareness that my heart wasn’t going to be in it for long, I was a little lost.

This brings me to November 2009, right after my first trip to Photoshop World in Vegas. That summer, I had painted a caricature of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley with her holding one of the Aliens on a leash. The whole reason I painted it was to try to win a Guru Award and I didn’t get nominated. I didn’t enjoy the work, the finished piece felt wrong and I wished I’d never done it.

While disappointed at the time, it was a turning point in my career. I learned not to create something just to win awards and it lit a fire under me to find something new.

Upon returning home with the realization that caricatures of people was no longer where I wanted to focus, I painted a grizzly bear. Although it didn’t start out to be a caricature, it definitely ended up as one.
By February, I had a gallery in Banff willing to hang canvas prints of the Grizzly and subsequent Raven and Elk Totems on consignment. And then people started to buy them. I’ll never forget something the gallery manager told me about my whimsical style of painting. He said that no matter how well I painted, if I’d brought him realistic wildlife, he wouldn’t have been interested, because that’s what everybody else was doing. I’ve heard that a lot over the years.

On my next trip to Photoshop World later that summer, my Moose Totem won the Guru Award for the Illustration category and my Wolf Totem took Best in Show. While I didn’t paint them to try and win awards, it was that event and those chunks of plastic that introduced me to some great people at Wacom, and helped open some other doors that might have remained closed.

Since then, these whimsical wildlife portraits have become a defining part of my life. There are now over thirty paintings in the Totem series, several other whimsical prints, dozens of pet portrait commissions, and hundreds of sketch paintings.

There are now three kinds of prints sold in the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary Zoos, Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, About Canada Gallery in Banff, and Reflecting Spirit Gallery in Ucluelet. The images are currently internationally licensed on T-shirts through two different companies, and on decals and cases. I’ve written articles for magazines, have recorded a couple of training DVDs, taught webinars and run an event booth for Wacom, and am coming up on my fifth successful year with a booth at The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo.

I’ve also discovered a love of photography as a result of this work. While I’ve often relied on generous photographer friends for reference photos, I now take my own reference photos whenever possible. This has led me to new friends and experiences that have helped me get up close and personal with these critters I enjoy so much, sometimes face to face.
It is my belief that the next chapter in this work is calling me to get more involved with conservation, to give back to the wildlife that has given me so much. It might have taken me most of my life to find it, but I believe there’s work for me there, although I don’t yet know how it will manifest. I’ve already been looking for and taking advantage of those opportunities.

As all of this started with a grinning funny looking bear, it seems appropriate to reflect and bookend this chapter with another bear, eight and a half years later. The Black Bear Totem, modeled from a wonderful gentle bear named Gruff who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park, although that’s Reno in the photo above. I admire Gruff from a little farther away.

In writing this and checking my facts, I found the following in my blog post from November 2009 when I revealed the Grizzly Bear Totem, which incidentally is still one of my best selling prints.

“I recently found myself inspired to do a series of wildlife paintings, but I wanted them to have personality and life to them. Something different, something fun…I really think I’ll enjoy working on this series.”

I had no idea.




The Jaguar Totem

Posted February 26th, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on The Jaguar Totem

Whenever I’ve visited Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, it has most often been with an agenda in mind. Two behind the scenes experiences with their lion cubs resulted in my painting of Zendaya. An informal photo shoot with GusGus resulted in the Beaver Totem. Last year I had two up close and personal encounters with their bears to get the reference for the upcoming Black Bear Totem.

I’ve created plenty of sketch paintings of their animals in the past few years. These are images I don’t quite consider polished and print ready, but are good practice and enjoyable work. My experiences at Discovery Wildlife Park have also given me ideas for other projects I hadn’t previously considered.

Best of all, I’ve spent time with the animals, learning about their care, training and wildlife conservation in general.

As my prints (and soon shirts) are sold in their gift shop, and as a consequence of my increasingly regular visits, I’ve been getting to know the staff and keepers. They’ve graciously invited me to hang out with them a couple of times while they’ve cared for their charges. I’ve been able to ask plenty of questions, learned a great deal about the animals, knocked the legs out from under some of my false assumptions about creatures in captivity, and taken hundreds of photos.

It was on one of my bear photo visits last year that I was offered the chance to spend time with Mia and Magnum, their resident jaguars. This was an unexpected treat, an opportunity I certainly wasn’t going to pass up.

Mia had recently had a root canal and the keepers had trained him to open his mouth for inspection and to have the repaired tooth brushed. I wrote about the experience in another blog post you can see here. In the painting, I added in the missing tooth for wider appeal and to avoid confusion.

With so many great photos to choose from, due to the sheer number of them rather than my skills as a photographer, adding a Jaguar Totem to the list was an easy choice. Mia won out over Magnum as the model largely because of the wide open mouth reference and I just thought it would make a brighter and more vibrant image.

Don’t be surprised, however, if you see Magnum as a Panther Totem in the future, even though I learned last year that a panther is really just another name for a black jaguar or black leopard depending on where it’s from.

The Black Bear Totem is next as I’d like to have it ready for the Calgary Comic Expo in April and for the upcoming busy season in the galleries and zoos.

After that, we’ll see.




Transition of Power

Posted February 2nd, 2017 by Patrick LaMontagne with Comments Off on Transition of Power



(Yesterday, one of my newspapers asked me to write a few lines to accompany the editorial cartoon video you see here, ‘Transition of Power.’ I sent them a short paragraph, but realized I had more to say on the matter.)

In the 1980s, my father was stationed in Lahr, West Germany with the Canadian Armed Forces. Growing up overseas was a privilege, but during the Cold War, there was no doubt as to why we were there. Our Canadian schools ensured we got the most out of our time in Europe. We were able to see a lot of it, were exposed to different cultures and we learned its history.

A school visit to Dachau concentration camp had a profound impact on me as did visits to other World War II sites. The history of that era is something I’ve read about a great deal in the more than three decades since.

Most recently, I’ve read the Third Reich trilogy by British historian Richard J. Evans, which details the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It was a bit of a slog to get through it, but well worth the effort. While there are many differences between the world of the 1930s and today, the similarities to today’s climate in the U.S. can’t be ignored.

There is a well-known internet adage called Godwin’s Law. It states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”

It’s true. We tend to be cavalier with the assertion and most often, it’s unwarranted. The mere mention of Hitler in the same sentence as a current leader is looked upon with derision, along with accusations of lazy logic. Some might say that to compare the current U.S. President to the leader of the Third Reich is irresponsible and inappropriate, largely because it amounts to placing a living human being in the same company as a man who is considered to be the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.

So why is this different?

Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, to see what was allowed to happen in Europe of the late 30s and early 40s once the invasion of other countries began. While world politicians talked, worried about polls, votes and public perception, the ball continued to roll toward what we now know as the worst genocide in human history.

And by the time enough people noticed, it was too late.

We can pretend that what’s going in America is politics as usual, that things will settle down soon and he’ll mellow into the job, despite there being no sign of this happening. It has become cliché to say that we ignore our history at our own peril, and yet we continue to do so time and again.

Hitler surrounded himself with men who supported his views, some who entertained demons far worse than his own. These were men he tasked with carrying out his orders, but also whose appointment gave tacit approval to come up with orders of their own. And they did.

Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele, and more. Without Hitler, these men might never have been put in positions that allowed them to achieve their full, horrific potential.

So it isn’t just one man being compared to another, it’s what that one man represents. It’s what he allows simply by his presence.

We forget that Hitler didn’t start by building concentration camps. He started by promising to build a better Germany for Germans, swore to return the Fatherland to its former greatness, and he pointed fingers at minorities and said they were to blame for all that was wrong in the world, then he compared them to vermin.

Yes, the blame rests largely on his shoulders. Hitler wrote the tune and he conducted the orchestra, but he wasn’t the one playing the instruments.

The score was performed by the German people of the time, a shame they later had to live with. Had they known what they were allowing in the 1930s when they failed to speak up, had they a glimpse into the future to see the legacy of their misplaced rage, would they have changed course?

We can never know. How could they possibly have imagined the nightmare to come?

But that is what it means to learn from history, to see the same patterns repeating and to make different choices. Unlike the German people, we know too well what is possible when bad men are given power.

If we allow men like Donald Trump and those he enables to flourish, to explore the full potential of the seemingly limitless power they are currently testing and exploiting, the shame will rest on all of our shoulders.

Will Donald Trump and his inner circle become as monstrous as Hitler and his followers?

I doubt it.

But how far down that road is far enough? A quarter of the way? Half the way?

What are we willing to give up in order to find out?