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Posted January 25, 2012
Dispatch #11
Meet Mr. Big

This is one in a series of dispatches sent from the road by photographer Joel Sartore.

Joel gets up close and personal with “Mr. Big,” a lion who likes to express himself.

Help Joel rename the Biodiversity Project

They call him “Mr. Big,” and that he is, as well as irritated. When brought into an off-exhibit space at Nebraska’s Omaha Zoo, he’s roaring and snapping and sizing things up, circling. He doesn’t like his keepers, and he certainly doesn’t like me. They’ve removed one of the little bars in his cage so I can fit my lens through. The space is lined with a huge piece of white paper. The stage is set.

Mr. Big growls and charges the wire several times. It’s dramatic, but is it good that we’re bothering this animal? I asked the head of the cat complex, and here’s what he said: “We view it as enrichment. It exposed the animal to different sights, smells, and sounds, but not in a negative or stressful way. The shoot provided a means for the lion to demonstrate some of its natural behaviors.” In other words, Mr. Big gets to express himself.

Think about a zoo lion’s day. He goes from his sleeping area into the public display area, he eats, and he goes back to sleep. I’d like to think that my visit gave him something exciting to do, something out of the ordinary. These animals are extremely intelligent. It’s really important that if they’re captive, they are being kept mentally active, which is something the Omaha Zoo does really well. I’m just spending half a day here, but they do enrichment for their animals all year long.

Some people might read this and say, Oh, you’re just justifying what you do. Well, I suppose. But remember, we always plan ahead and work with animals that the keepers think would be good to cover. In some cases like apes or predators, portrait shoots are seen as stimulating and beneficial. And there are lots of animals we don’t photograph, animals that wouldn’t tolerate the photo process due to stress, so we steer clear of them. With more than 1,800 species photographed, we’ve not had not an injury yet.

I always send prints of best photos to all these zoos, so once I’m done the zoo will have nice images of these species: studio lit, on clean backgrounds, looking their absolute best. If they don’t charge me a fee to shoot, they get free pictures to use to promote their facilities. It’s a two-way street.

A Call to Action

Joel needs your help in renaming The Biodiversity Project. For the past two weeks he’s been posting about his quest to take photographic portraits of the world’s endangered animals. He’s traveled to zoos around the country—and the world—to do it. He sees zoos as “arks” helping to preserve creatures at risk in the wild. But “The Biodiversity Project” is a mouthful, and he’s looking for a catchier name that better conveys what he’s trying to do.

Leave your best suggestions for a new name for The Biodiversity Project in the comments section here. (Feel free to check out his past posts for more background.) In the next week or two, we’ll put Joel’s favorites on our Facebook page for a final vote. Remember to “like” National Geographic on Facebook or check our page frequently, so you can find out whether your suggestion is one of the candidates and to cast your vote.

PreviousNext dispatch “The Rehabbers”

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