Thursday, September 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – September Story

Play time for this silly, enormous bear!

For the second month this year my calendar features a photo of a huge animal named "Samson." (Remember the hippo photo back in June?) I'm not sure either beast is more aptly named than the other but if I were pressed to choose I'd have to say "Samson" better suits this guy – but only because he has far more hair! In my July post I spoke of my "method" of photography (I call it "Brute Force Photography") and how my biggest advantages are patience and time to exercise that patience. This month's shot is another supreme example of exactly that.

Samson on the prowl (look at those claws!!!)
The photo at left is one I took in the summer of 2014 and I absolutely love it. I was unable to use it in last year's calendar because it was unavailable to me at the time I created it (due to my devastating hard drive crash) but I managed to recover it and was 100% sure it would appear in this year's edition. That all changed last July (almost exactly one year to the day after I took this prowling picture) when I again found myself at the bottom of the Canadian Domain, watching two sleepy grizzlies dozing in the sun. While I was there I noticed a lot of people coming and going without staying long at the exhibit; I imagine that was because the bears weren't being active. But, you see, I have no problem with the animals not being active: I find simply sitting there and watching them snooze to be an extremely relaxing, Zen-like experience and I usually hang around for quite some time when I encounter a sleeping animal – if it's in full view. On many of those occasions (I would guess the vast majority of them) I end up watching them so long that I am rewarded with the sight of them rousing themselves and beginning to move about. This particular afternoon would prove to follow that pattern right to the letter.

Shintay playing with the water stream
After I had been there for a few minutes, I noticed that the bears' pool had been drained and was being refilled via a spout built into the side of it. The sight of this cool, clear water filling a basin on such a hot summer day added to the pleasure of the quiet time I was spending there. As I idly watched it filling up, Shintay – who had also noticed the water entering the pool – suddenly came into my field of vision, knocking me out of my reverie. She approached the far side of the empty rock pond and looked at the spout for a moment or two, then circled the perimeter to the near edge, climbed down into the pool, and began to play with the jet of water, directing it with her paw at first and eventually lowering her face and other body parts into the stream, I was wondering if she was trying to get a drink from it but it was too powerful, but I was disabused of that notion very quickly by the obvious and unbridled joy she was displaying as she ran into and out of the path of the water. Once the pool had filled enough for her to submerge herself in it she changed her tactics and started to roll around on her back in the shallow water, allowing the replenishing stream to bounce off of her belly. I could go on for hours with this story, but I think a few bonus photos here will tell the tale in a manner that is not only far more illuminating, but exponentially more entertaining. So here is a brief interlude from my writing. :)

Samson starting to take an interest in the pool; Shintay not having it.
Shintay happily played by herself for a while, until finally Samson awakened and noticed that the pool was filling up. He ambled over to get a closer look, but when he showed signs that he might perhaps want to join Shintay for a refreshing dip, she went straight over to that end of the pond. Now, ordinarily Samson pretty much gets his way between the two of them because he's much bigger (and male, obviously) so I was a little worried by Shintay's apparent aggression. Unnecessarily worried, as it turned out. When Samson made his first attempted foray into the water, Shintay reared up and chased him back out this caused a bit of an argument, which I took in with a mixture of fascination and dread as they circled around each other for a short time. Samson puffed himself up to his fullest size but Shintay never once backed down from him, instead glaring right back at him and making sure she was just out of his reach. Eventually, Samson either realized that he wasn't getting anywhere with this tactic or simply grew bored with the proceedings; in any event, he shuffled off to inspect the remains of an earlier herbivorous snack they had each been given while Shintay returned to the far end of the pool and the spout that was still actively spewing out water, and all was again calm for a while. But soon Samson decided it was worth another attempt and approached the ol' swimmin' hole once again, albeit with a little less swagger this time. Shintay, perhaps emboldened by her recent victory, rose to the new challenge in a far more aggressive manner, again worrying me to the point of checking to make sure I had the Emergency Switchboard number punched into my phone.

First she stood up and whacked Samson on the muzzle, hanging on for a few seconds for good measure:

Shintay/David and Samson/Goliath

This was met with something other than enthusiasm by Samson, who started towards her in a menacing manner:

Samson trying to intimidate Shintay

But even with their vast difference in size, Shintay once again won the day by refusing to back down and, in fact, letting Samson know exactly who rules the pool:

Shintay lecturing Samson on his manners

Shintay enjoying her "alone time" once again

Samson walked away in a bit of a huff, licking his wounded pride. Shintay returned to her aquatic antics for several more minutes until she eventually had seemingly had enough – or maybe she lost interest after it became apparent that Samson had no intention of going for the hat trick? – and voluntarily left the pool, which was rapidly approaching its limit of water volume. From a safe distance, Samson watched her sashay over to a few pieces of carrot and squash, lie down in the sun, and proceed to have herself a quiet, well-earned bite to eat. The big boy got up from his spot in the shade and warily made his way once more to the water, being sure to keep the pool between him and Shintay, even though she was pointedly showing absolutely no interest in his activities by this point. When he was satisfied that he was finally going to be allowed into the water, he climbed in near the spout and began to test it with his paws – not to the same extent as Shintay did, not by a long shot – before he sighed audibly and rolled over onto his back, his entire body relaxing all at once. He lay like that for a while, occasionally making little ripples in the water with one of his front paws but otherwise moving as little as possible, clearly in total bliss for the moment. I began to wonder if it might be time to finally move on to see other animals...and then Samson noticed that there were toys in the water.

Well. You'd think he'd never set eyes on a ball, or a log, or anything else in that pool before in his life.

I could very likely still be there if the Zoo didn't close at some point each day! Incidentally (and coincidentally) I saw these two again on this very date (September 1) last year – with considerably less drama and considerably more fur (especially Shintay)!

Samson eats very roughly...
...while Shintay prefers a more "dainty" approach!

When I release next year's calendar (details will come out very soon!) there's an excellent chance it will include another photo from this collection. Please note: I specifically did not include it in this blog post. I want it to be previously unpublished!

Extra-special thanks this month to my not-so-Grumpy Partner, Sarah, for creating the photo table layouts when I began banging my head against the wall trying to make them work.

Next month: Wow, do I have a treat for you! The story behind a photo so adorable I turned it into the very first t-shirt with my "Grumpy Penguin" logo on the back. I think you're going to love it!

Monday, August 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – August Story

Zohari trying to enjoy a mud bath, but...

As I've discussed previously on this blog, I love penguins. Since I've been Volunteering and working at the Toronto Zoo, I've come to be quite fond of the polar bears, too. And then, of course, there's my "Spirit Animal": the glorious Ashakiran, Indian rhino. I do not recall feeling particularly strongly either way about these mammoth, docile creatures just a few years ago; however, things have certainly changed. For instance, some of the proceeds from the 2016 Calendar went to the International Rhino Foundation; $511 CD was raised all told for this worthy cause. So obviously one of the months of this calendar was going to feature one or more of the rhinos at the Toronto Zoo. The question then became: which subspecies to choose this year. After much agonizing, I settled on the photo of Zohari (seen above), one of the four African white rhinos that call the Zoo's Savanna exhibit their home. She won out mainly on the strength of the expression on her face as she seems to be looking directly at me while enjoying a leisurely mud wallow in the heat of a July day.

But, as usual, that's not the whole story here. 

Big sister Sabi checking on her sibling
Zohari came to the Zoo a few years ago along with her older half-sister, Sabi. They have remained fiercely protective of each other ever since arriving: I vividly recall taking an "observation" shift when they first went on exhibit and spending the better part of three hours "observing" them stand bum-to-bum in a "circle the wagons" sort of pose, ready to fend off all peril – real or imagined. Most of us find this tendency of theirs rather adorable; sadly, however, the perpetually befuddled and [*ahem*]-blocked Tom probably does not share this view. The girls cycle at different times but the sister who is not in oestrus spends most of her time "protecting" her sibling by warding off the attempted advances of the bull – often challenging him nose-to-nose. As you can see by the photo here (above left), Sabi is extremely interested in Zohari's, um....back end. She is trying to uncover whether her younger half-sister needs her to run interference and Zohari is seemingly looking to keep this secret to herself by heading to a mud-hole and submerged her nethers in it. But as this scene plays out – and I zoom in tightly on Zohari – Sabi grows frustrated ("Frustrated!" I can hear Tom exclaim. "Boy, let me tell you a little something about being frustrated..."), lowers her head, and begins to goose poor Zoey in the tender hindquarters. What you are in fact witnessing in the photo I used in the calendar is not a moment of blissful relaxation in the cool of a muddy wallow, but rather a startled rhino in the act of scrambling to her feet to avoid further indignities being inflicted on her by a persistent older sib. The shot is wonderful, I think, just not for the reasons you might expect.

As this brief slice of savanna life continued to play itself out, Zohari got out of the wallow and sashayed alluringly toward her would-be suitor, while Sabi now had the moment she had been waiting for to fully and unashamedly inspect Zohari's rear end for the tell-tale scents of oestrus, Once Sabi had the information she needed she went into action....

....aggressively and threateningly advancing on the hapless, outnumbered young bull, chasing him off the trail for the moment....

..and making good and sure he fled the scene completely, and didn't try an "end run", as it were. All of which goes a long way to explain why Nandu is the only rhino calf at the Zoo right now and the first one born in Toronto in 16 years.

As for the tragic hero of our story?

Oh, come on, He's a guy. Don't pretend you're surprised.

By the way, the African "white" rhinoceros is not actually white; the most popular theory on how it received its name is that it's a mistranslation of a Dutch or Afrikaans word "wyd" (spellings vary) referring to the animal's "wide", square mouth. This has not been proven, though. But it does seem that the "black" rhino – which is smaller but does not differ in colour – was named as such purely to differentiate it from the "white" rhino. Both African rhino species have two horns while the three that dwell in Asia – the Javan, the Sumatran, and the Indian (or greater one-horn) – possess only one. It is likely for this reason that the African rhinos are more frequently poached for their horns than the Asians: more "bang for your buck" with two horns versus one. Either way, they are all disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate because of the mistaken belief that their horns contain some magical medicinal properties. In point of fact their horns are made of keratin – a protein that makes up hair and fingernails in humans – and you would receive at least as much "magic" from simply biting your own nails. A tragedy for the ages. And as I write this post – on July 31st – it just happens to be World Ranger Day, celebrating the very brave and dedicated men and women currently on the front lines of a very real war against the ruthless and greedy poachers of the world. They are big, big heroes of mine.

Well, that escalated quickly. My apologies, but this is a subject quite near and dear to my heart. Let me raise the mood as I finish up by telling you that next month will feature the hilarious antics of one of my two favourite "Samsons" at the Toronto Zoo.

♫See yoooouuuu in Septeeeeemmmmbeeerrrrr....♫

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Be an Advocate for Your Own Health!

So, a quick Mental Health update. Ok, maybe not that "quick", but that's how it goes. :)

I've been having a lot of anxiety-related issues the past several months. No doubt they come across in the tone of some of my online postings, if you haven't witnessed them first-hand "in real life". I've felt quite irritable and out of control for much of the day since at least late January and I've tried very hard to isolate the issue. The tension in my body makes me tired, which makes me irritable, which makes me tense, which makes me anxious, which makes me worry about being anxious, which...well, you get the picture. No? Ok, here you go:

The only difference between the time this started and back when I was on the upswing is the fact that I am now being treated for ADHD (which I've had forever, but we're treating it as if it's adult onset). This has effected a couple of changes to my routine; notably, I now get up with Sarah every weekday morning and have coffee or tea and a chat before she gets ready for work. So I was worried that my sleep patterns had been disrupted, or my circadian rhythm thrown off, but those fears have been dispelled. Next, I looked at the possibility that my Cymbalta might have unmasked even more ADHD symptoms that might have been latent until then. That seemed to not be true. So then I looked at the only other thing that was new: I am taking Vyvanse (an amphetamine) for the ADHD, to help me focus.


First I didn't take it for a week or so, because my psychiatrist told me it had a very short half-life and I figured (with his blessing after the fact) that it would be obvious quite quickly if that were the problem. Since my tics and fidgeting and irritability and all the rest did not improve, I figured that wasn't the issue. Which he seemed to agree with. But still these problems persisted and I was becoming more and more frustrated with my inability to overcome them, even with the "Mindfulness" path that he suggested to me. So yesterday I saw my amazing GP again and let her know that something had to give. It was then she looked up interactions between Cymbalta (duloxetine, an SNRI) and Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) and showed me the result. Here are the "possible" side effects from combining these two drugs:

- jitteriness
- nervousness
- anxiety
- restlessness
- racing thoughts

And last, but certainly not least:

- serotonin syndrome (including symptoms such as confusion, hallucination, seizure, extreme changes in blood pressure, increased heart rate, fever, excessive sweating, shivering or shaking, blurred vision, muscle spasm or stiffness, tremor, incoordination, stomach cramp, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which could lead to a coma or even death)

WUT?? Yeah. Well, I definitely have a whole bunch of those symptoms. I have all of the ones listed above "serotonin syndrome" and a few (excessive sweating, blurred vision, muscle spasm, incoordination, some stomach issues) from that area, too.

So to sum up: even though I presented all of those symptoms to my psychiatrist in at least three separate visits, and even though I myself had openly wondered if it had anything whatsoever to do with the Vyvanse, and even though he had my medical history in front of him for every damn visit, not once did this come up even as a possibility. Not. One. Damn. Time.

So, obviously (I hope), I will be discontinuing the Vyvanse post-haste. And discontinuing my visits to him even poster-haster. Or something. In the meantime, my GP is going to try me on a different ADHD drug (Concerta) which has no known bad interactions with Cymbalta.

If there's anything to be taken away from the struggle I've outlined here, it's this: You are the best advocate for your own health. Never forget that.

And good luck to all of you. I'm here if you ever need me.

Friday, July 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – July Story

That one perfect moment. (L-R: Twiga, Kiko, Mstari)

I've often referred to my method of taking pictures of animals as "brute force photography". I'm not a true practitioner of the art, per se: I don't pay that much attention to lighting, location, time of day, filters, etc., etc., etc. What I do is visit an animal I want to try to get a photo of, choose a spot with a relatively clean view (and as devoid of other people as possible), set up there, and wait for my subject to do something interesting – which sometimes means simply showing up at all. I will wait a very long time for an opportunity (I spent over four hours on one morning in May to get some photos of our lynx kittens) and, far more often than not, I am rewarded for my patience. I shoot in bursts and refine the best captures in "post-production"; I also seem to have a bit of a knack for predicting the moves of an animal and zeroing in on facial expressions or unusual moments, which helps quite a bit. Most of my best pictures are a result of this method, but every now and then I will stumble upon a scene which I recognize as an instant "classic" – as was the case with my photo for February of this year. Sometimes, too, it all comes down to simply being in the right place at the right time and being ready to shoot.

Which is what happened when I captured the above photo for July, 2016.

My first glimpse of Kiko on exhibit
Kiko came to the Toronto Zoo from the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina in late May of 2015. His mandatory 30-day quarantine period was timed to end at the end of June, which should have put Kiko on exhibit by Canada Day – or July 4, at the very latest. But Kiko was stubborn and gave the vets and keepers a very hard time when they tried to get enough blood drawn to end the quarantine, causing his myriad fans (who watched his birth live on the Zoo's giraffe cam) to grow a little concerned by a delay in his appearance which ultimately exceeded two months beyond the anticipated 30 days. Nevertheless, on the very last day of August the Toronto keepers were finally given the green light and began to allow Kiko access to the outside paddock – should he choose to accept it, that is. He balked at this opportunity for a couple of days, finally walking back out into the sunlight on September 2nd because that was the one day that week I could not be at the Zoo. Seriously, it's downright astounding how often that very thing happens to me. But I digress. The following day – September 3 – I came early and took a few photos of the new hunky star settling in nicely to his surroundings. He seemed to get along swimmingly with both Mstari and her mom, Twiga, from the very beginning.

My very first glimpse of Mstari – 1 week old!
Mstari, on the other hand, has a very interesting claim to fame at the Toronto Zoo. On October 22, 2013 the remaining three African elephants in the Zoo's collection departed for their very controversial long drive to California, where they were being transferred. As keepers and vets and other staff and volunteers gathered that morning to lend support to the elephant keepers and their charges, a call came over the radio. Twiga, the younger of the two female Masai giraffes remaining at the Zoo, was in the process of giving birth and help was immediately requested at the giraffe paddock and house. From several accounts, it seems to me that this was a not entirely expected event. As I followed the elephant saga from home on Twitter (I couldn't bring myself to show up at the Zoo), I saw in a reporter's feed that was "some good news to report: a baby giraffe" and thought to myself, "Sure, in San Diego, maybe... but what did that have to do with Toronto?" You see, there was no male giraffe at that time, Stripes having passed away the previous fall. As the day went on, however, I read that news a few more times on Twitter (with the same confusion) until I eventually became aware of an account that was less than a week old: @TOZookeepers. I wasn't immediately convinced that this was a "real" account, until I took a look at who was following them. This new account also tweeted out the giraffe news, but confirmed that the birth was at the Toronto Zoo. Then it finally clicked: Masai giraffes have a gestation period of 14-15 months. Stripes had been gone for, I think, about 13 months when Mstari was born – going out with a "bang", apparently! On that day of sorrow and angst, we had a new giraffe baby...which was pretty incredible. For the first little while, the not-so-tiny one had the nickname "Elly" (although I'm not positive how it was spelled) in honour of the departed pachyderms, but eventually that became too heavy a reminder and she was officially named "Mstari" in honour of her late father. The story that went around (and perpetuates today) is that mstari means "stripes" in Swahili; this is not, technically, 100% correct. The closest translation of "stripes" in Swahili is "kupigwa" (which I think would have been so cool, because I absolutely would shorten that to "kupi" and probably pronounce it "kewpie"!); "mstari" means "band" or "row" or "line" more accurately. Moreover, for it to be plural, it would have to be spelled "mistari". Since her dad was named after the American flag (I cannot confirm this, but I have been told that he and another giraffe were born at the Cleveland Zoo quite close together in late June of 1991 and they were called "Stars" and "Stripes" because of course they were), "bands" or "lines" actually makes some sense. Still, though, the spelling could have been better. No matter: her mom was named "Twiga" which actually means "giraffe". So Mstari is better off than that!

A very doting mother
 Twiga was a great mom. I don't recall where I looked this up, but somewhere I came up with the information that she and Stripes had seven babies together (if anyone knows differently, please let me know). And she and Mstari formed a very strong bond, particularly after auntie Ginetta passed away in early 2014 at 30 years of age – which was quite an achievement. If she had one small "failing" (which is too strong a word), it was that whenever Mstari tried to get a few nibbles during Keeper Talks, Twiga would always try to eat the food before Mstari could get her tongue around it. However, these were just "snacks" and Mstari certainly had no issue in trying to thrive overall. And when Kiko came to town and was finally able to go on exhibit with the two ladies, Twiga gave him a very thorough looking over for the first couple of days before she permitted Mstari to get too close to him on her own. Fortunately for me, though – especially in terms of this month's photo – all three got along pretty well right off the bat. Kiko did seem to prefer the company of Twiga in the early days – likely because he was very young himself and missing his own mother – but eventually spent more and more time with Mstari as time went on. Twiga must have been hanging on to be sure that her last child was going to be well taken care of, because on October 24 of last year, shortly after all three of them had celebrated birthdays, Twiga collapsed on exhibit and had to be euthanized. She was 25 years old. The two youngsters seemed to be quite shaken by this turn of events and it's taken them until this summer to really start to come around again. However, all of that trauma was still well in the future when I turned up on the afternoon of September 14th to see how the new family was getting on.

Alison feeding Kiko (front) and Twiga
It was a gorgeous day but there were not very many people at the Zoo as it was rapidly approaching closing time. Keeper Alison had just fed the three of them some treats from just behind the giraffe house and I had taken up a position to shoot from a good angle to capture that. The few other visitors in the area seemed to all have come there specifically to get pictures of the newest arrival and were scattered about along the wall overlooking the giraffe enclosure. When Alison disappeared back inside, the giraffes restlessly shuffled off in different directions and most of the other folks took that opportunity to check out their own equipment or change their positions to get a better vantage point on Kiko, the star. I, however, came armed with quite a bit of prior experience in the circling patterns of these giraffes and the knowledge that, when they had even a slight idea that food may still be forthcoming, they tended not to shuffle off too far before returning to where they might expect to see more treats.

(L-R) Kiko, Mstari and Twiga circling the wagons
And so it was that the two gals, veteran residents of the Toronto Zoo that they were, almost immediately made their way back to the fence from where they could watch the door to the barn very carefully for any signs of Alison's return. They positioned themselves a few feet apart and stared intently at the building. Kiko – new to the exhibit – wandered off much further afield, causing every other photographer in attendance to train their lenses on only him which, in turn, meant they failed to notice the actions of the other two giraffes. I, however, stayed put, keeping one eye on mother and daughter and the other on the arc of Kiko, now sweeping widely back towards the outdoor yard. As he narrowed the distance to this yard, it became rapidly apparent to me that there was a very good chance he would at some point perfectly fit the gap Mstari and Twiga had left between them. I raised my camera and focused on that gap, awaiting the imminent arrival of Kiko into the edge of my frame. It began to dawn on the other visitors what was about to transpire and I heard from behind me quite a rustle as they all attempted to get into a good position for the shot...but they had left it far too late. Kiko appeared, I held down the shutter release, and shot off a whole series of photos in rapid succession as he strolled into the position you see above. There was an audible sigh and outtake of breath from behind me and we all knew what I had managed to capture. If you look closely at the resulting photo, you will see that Twiga has lifted her right foreleg in preparation for beginning to circle away once again, meaning the timing of this one perfect shot had to be absolutely precise.

So yes, this was a case of "right place, right time"; however, I created that possibility through anticipation of the animals I knew so well and it came to fruition by the actions of the one unknown: Kiko. For all the technical aspects of photography that I am light years behind in, I am very pleased with my ability to recognize patterns and habits of the creatures that I spend so much of my days with. They have rewarded my patience and powers of observation time and time again and that is why I still return with my camera on so many days where I do not have a scheduled shift at the Zoo. I hope – oh, do I hope – that I never lose that passion. With subjects like these, could I, really?

Next month: another huge animal, and a photo taken not too far from where I stood to snap the one for July. I hope, this time, I have it ready for the first of the month!
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