So, this is the second time I have written about the Photo Ark–the first time was back when I saw the exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC; that was in January of 2016. Last night, there was a special on the project on TV, “Rare Creatures of the Photo Ark,” and I found it really interesting, but also very sad.
The photographer, Joel Sartore, is travelling around the world, taking vivid pictures of as many animals as he can while they are still around–and for many of them, they already are on their last breath. The pictures are taken against a pure black or white backdrop, so that nothing distracts the viewer from the animal. His point is to generate emotion in the viewer–compassion, attraction and care. He says, “You won’t save what you don’t love.”
With this background, I want to talk about two of the animals that were featured in the episode. First was the Yangtze giant softshell turtle–the largest freshwater turtle in the world. This turtle is extraordinarily rare: there are only three living turtles in the world–a pair in captivity and one wild male in a Vietnamese lake–and they are trying to help the captive pair breed. So, on the show, they showed the process of artificial insemination for the turtles–or, at least the first part, which was the attempt to get enough sperm from the male to fertilize the eggs of the female. This was both graphic and kind of gruesome: they grabbed the male’s penis and then there was some electro-stimulation involved [maybe the turtle found it pleasant, but it really didn’t look like it….]. In the end, it was all for naught. Not enough sperm was collected.
Then, the second animal that Sartore photographed was the Iberian lynx–also critically endangered, in no small measure a consequence of the decimation of the European rabbit population, which occurred thanks to an intentional poisoning effort by one man in France who didn’t want rabbits on his land. He introduced a virus in the 1950s that wiped out roughly 90% of the rabbit population, not only in France, but also on the Iberian peninsula. Great for humans, apparently, but not so great for the lynx, for whom the rabbit is its primary food.
Today, the lynx population is coming back, thanks to vigorous conversation efforts, including a breeding program where young lynx are raised in captivity and then released into the wild. As part of that, of course, they need to be trained how to hunt, so Sartore filmed a hunt: a rabbit was brought in a carrier to the large pen, brought inside, and dropped down to the ground. After a few seconds, the lynx was released into the pen, and very quickly saw, stalked and ran down the rabbit. During the chase, the rabbit was screaming–I’m sorry, there is just no other word for it. Even Sartore was a little shaken, I think: he said he had never filmed such a predator/prey interaction from so close up, and also had never heard rabbits vocalize like that–he didn’t even know they could.
Now, I’ve got nothing against predators–this is the way of the world, our world that has been created good, after all–but somehow the artificial nature of that interaction [to say nothing of the interaction with the turtle, which really felt like a violation] just made me really sad. There is, of course, no going back from where we are today. If we don’t want to just abandon these animals to extinction, we need to be OK with the fact that their rescue is going to require extensive and aggressive, even, interference.
In principle, I’m OK with that, but last night, seeing it up close and personal, with two very specific animals, I was confronted with the reality of the sinfulness that is woven into human interactions with animals, and the cost of our selfishness and incurvatus. Humans have created this situation that [some] humans now are trying to fix–and I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better. Better care simply must be taken of our animal brothers and sisters now–and their homes, our shared home, before it is too late, and hopefully, before such drastic measures aren’t the only option.