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Posted January 6, 2012
Dispatch #2
Labor of Love

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

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First stop: Kansas, to photograph a dwarf caiman, giant anteater, and a pair of hyenas.

Help Joel rename the Biodiversity Project

The last time I was at the Sunset Zoo, I watched a zookeeper cry her eyes out. I asked what was wrong, and she said, through tears, “Merlyn died last night.”

Merlyn was a crow.

He was no ordinary corvid, though. Merlyn was a captive bird that the zoo used for education and outreach. He was smart and affectionate, and he liked to talk, enthralling thousands of school kids as an animal ambassador over the years. The entire zoo staff mourned his passing.

This wasn’t surprising. Nobody cares about zoo animals more than those who work in zoos. Keepers speak their favorites’ names in a kind of zoo-esque baby talk, and recognize each animal with ease, even though they all look alike to everyone else. They know each has its own personality, and can tell you which animals are cranky, which are happy, and which are lazy. Many stay in the same, low-paying positions for years. For them, leaving the animals would be like running out on family.

Oh, and one more thing—if it weren’t for the people who work at zoos, many species would be extinct already. The Edward’s pheasant (below) is one such animal. These birds, native to Vietnam, wouldn’t exist without places such as the Sunset Zoo to breed them. Iridescent plumage gives the males the color of an approaching storm. How appropriate.

In the coming years, the number of species sheltered and saved by zoos will increase. Often there are simply no places left in the wild to put animals back. And personally, I would much rather see a species held captive and alive, rather than allowed to slip into oblivion due to habitat loss, disease, and poaching.

And don’t forget the other vital role that zoos play: They’re often the only place these days where the public can see live animals with their own eyes. When this happens, the bonding that occurs between animals and humans—especially among children—is crucial.

Now that’s something to smile about.

PreviousNext dispatch: “The Chimp Incident”

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Michael “Nick” Nichols uses remote-controlled cars and copters to photograph lions of the Serengeti like never before.
Joel Sartore drives his mobile studio to U.S. zoos to photograph endangered species from around the world.
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