The Cost of Captivity

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Zoos have come a long way from the days of barred cages housing large predators relentlessly pacing back and forth, monkeys swinging from metal trapezes and hippos standing in dirty concrete pools.  Zoos today make an earnest attempt at developing a more natural habitat for their charges.  However, they are pretty much limited to their own environment and confines.  It’s quite hard to recreate an Lion 4(s)African savanna or the Arctic tundra in the center of a Midwestern city. But try they must. Polar Bear 1(s) The animals are there and there’s nowhere else for most of them to go.  Like it or not, these animals have been born and bred in captivity for generations and would not stand a chance among their unfettered counterparts in the wild. 

YBird 1(s).jpget some of these animals do serve a purpose.  In this world there are species on the verge of extinction through no fault of their own. Many animals are still hunted and killed for nothing more than a body part coveted as a souvenir or trophy, or simply because they are considered to be a nuisance.  While people are becoming more aware and more humane, the poachers and the black markets still exist for a few of the more unenlightened, cruel and disgraceful members of our species.  For those of us who do care, these animals can be studied and bred in captivity in the hope that someday, in a more perfect world, they will be free to live their lives as nature intended and not be subject to the risk of being penned up or shot down. 

As controversial as they may be, our zoos remain a staple fixture in most large cities – a popular tourist Gorilla 5(s).jpgattraction and a typical family haunt during summer vacations.  A couple weeks ago, we made a trip to the St. Louis zoo to observe and photograph some of the animals in residence there.  This is one of the zoos that is constantly trying to improve the habitats and make the animals feel at least a little more at home.  In general, I like to spend some time observing each animal and trying to capture their activities Prairie Dog 2(s).jpgand emotions. Since it was spring and many of the birds were actively breeding, my main focus this time was going to be the free flight bird house.  However, the bird house is in the back of the zoo and I had to walk past many exhibits to get there and I got a little side tracked along the way, mostly by gorillas, flamingos and prairie dogs.

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After I returned home and started looking through the images, I noticed a common theme among the expressions on the animals faces.  When you take a closer look, you can tell they know something is Egret 5-1(s).jpgamiss; something is not quite right.  Call it melancholy, homesickness or the internal realization of a grave injustice.  This world that they were born into is not the one where they belong. They sense the limitations of their confines, the inability to choose their own mates, hunt their own food and keep a safe distance from predators – namely humans.  Some seem angry, some look sad or confused and others seem to be pleading with their eyes for a reprieve.  Their freedom has been sacrificed for our Saturday afternoon enjoyment.

Egret 3-1(s)Why should the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness be limited to human beings alone?  Shouldn’t these rights be extended to all of the earth’s creatures?  It seems to me that in our own pursuits there are many ways in which we have taken it upon ourselves to surrender these rights on their behalf.  For those of us who recognize the injustice, there are still many others who prefer to put their efforts into justifying and rationalizing their own selfish behavior.  Nevertheless, there will come a time in the future when the earth as a whole will have to pay the cost of captivity.

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Sightseeing Sundays – Upstate New York

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A Medley of Waterfalls, Gorges and Bluffs

One of the best parts of my job is getting to travel to places I ordinarily never would have gone.  Over the last four weeks I have been traveling back and forth to Rochester, NY. I tend to be adventurous by nature, so traveling and exploring are something I really enjoy.  If it also involves nature and photography, then that’s the icing on the cake!

On my Sunday journeys through the Empire State, I found four of the most scenic state parks that are within an hour and a half drive of Rochester.

Week 1 – Niagara Falls State Park, Niagara Falls NY

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This one was a no brainer. How could I not go here? Niagara Falls was the first State Park in America. I was originally thinking that it was one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but I guess it didn’t make the global cut.  However, it is one of the seven natural wonders of North America.  Not too shabby when you think of all the natural beauty we have in our neck of the woods. 

There was a bit of off season construction going on and there were fences that obscured some of theNiagara Falls 2(s) views. Despite all of that, this place is still incredibly awesome.  The best part and an absolute must-do, is the Maid of the Mist boat tour.  Wearing a one-size-does-not-fit-all blue plastic poncho, you descend down Niagara Falls 3-1(s)to the river via elevator and get aboard a sturdy sea-faring vessel that takes you right up to the most monstrous waterfalls I’ve ever seen.  Yes, you get wet but you also see beautiful rainbows, soaring seagulls and hear the crashing of the water as it spills over 100 feet into the Niagara River below.  Pictures alone cannot represent how cool this really is.  Well worth the $18 ticket!


Week 2 – Watkins Glen State Park, Watkins Glen NY

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During my first week in Rochester, I met lots of accommodating people who were more than willing to give me advice and ideas on where to go next.  A nice young couple in a local pub directed me to Watkins Glen and it did not disappoint.  It’s another waterfall, but completely different from Niagara Falls.  Glen Creek meanders through the park for two miles and descends 400 feet through a beautiful gorge.

Another old park, it was privately opened in 1863 and became a State Park in 1906.  There are lovely oldWatkins glen 1(s).jpg stone stairways, tunnels, paths and bridges which follow alongside the stream and blend in beautifully with the gorge’s landscape.  There’s even a part of the falls that go over the pathway so you can stand underneath and get a really unique view.  Watkins glen 2-1(s)

Since it’s old, the stone pathways are subject to erosion and are in need of regular maintenance.  One of the prettiest waterfalls I saw was just beyond a locked gate with a sign that warned of hazardous conditions.  It was obvious that the hazard existed in the eroding stairway going up the edge of the gorge and not on the landing on the other side of the gate. With the sunlight shining through the gorge and a picturesque stone bridge spanning the gap above the fall, this was the perfect shot.  So assuming the sign did not pertain to me and my intentions, I very carefully – yet slightly clumsily – made my way over to the landing to obtain this coveted shot.  Once again another Sunday well spent!


Week 3 – Letchworth State Park, Castile NY

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I read somewhere that this was called the “Grand Canyon of the East”, so I’m assuming there really aren’t many canyons in the east because it seemed more like a “grand gorge.”  But whether gorge or canyon, this was another winner. As a matter of fact, it was voted number 1 in USA Today’s Top 10 Best State Parks for 2016 (fyi Watkins Glen was number 3 and Missouri’s own Ha Ha Tonka was number 4).

Letchworth 2(s).jpgOnce again there were waterfalls and beautiful old stone walkways, bridges, stairs and walls. Craftsmanship and old world ambiance seem to abound in New York State Parks. This was the most expansive of the State Parks I went to and featured many more hiking trails and a very nice restaurant – which I ate at despite my muddiness from hiking said trails after a rain shower.  Letchworth 4(s).jpg

The best of the waterfalls I saw was the Middle Falls. They are right outside of the restaurant and are very accessible and photographable with large paved overlooks and unobstructed views.  The Lower Falls require a little hiking up and down a lot of stairs, but well worth the Letchworth 6(s)climb.  You can get very close and feel the spray as the water tumbles into the gorge below.  A short way downstream there is a stone bridge where you can view the falls and the river head on. The last waterfall I encountered was the Wolf Creek Cascade, this one wasn’t quite as visible from the trail and hard to get a clear shot of, but was beautiful none the less.

I ran short on time exploring the park due to flight delays.  This is one place I really want to get back to when I return to Rochester in the future.

Week 4 – Chimney Bluffs State Park, Wolcott NY

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Rounding out my four choices was Chimney Bluff State Park along the shore of Lake Ontario.  I know this is going to be hard to believe, but there were no waterfalls here!  Since I had pretty much had my fill of waterfalls over the last three weeks, it was kind of a pleasant change.  Chimney Bluffs 1-1(s).jpg

Instead of falling water there were rising spires.  You can hike along a trail at the top of the bluff and look down on the formations, or walk along the stony beach and look up at them.  But be warned, the trails are not very well maintained and there are numerous signs warning you about the dangers of erosion. Sometimes you are precariously balanced on the edge of the bluff with a steep drop off just a step away.  One glance down and you see the large trees who have had the ground worn away beneath their roots and have fallen to their demise in the hollows below.  Despite the perils, the vistas from up there are really quite amazing.  The rain clouds rolling in over Lake Ontario offset the ruddy browns of the chimney spires and the recently emerged blossoms of the late northern spring gave a glimpse of sunny summer days to come. 

Chimney Bluffs 2-1(s).jpgA walk along the lake shore was equally as hazardous. The shore was covered in stones worn smooth and slick over time by the tide. Large pieces of debris were scattered about.  This provided for lots of unsure footing and the need to climb over tangles of driftwood. As you clamber along this rocky shoreline there are some places where there isn’t much room between the incoming tide and the bluff wall, making you hope not to get caught off guard during high tide. With the waves crashing in over the large boulders, the spires towering overhead and the storm clouds rolling in over the lake it was quite a powerful scene. Chimney Bluffs 5-2(s).jpgSo I decided to take this opportunity to use the travel tripod I have been carting around with me and try some long exposure shots before the rain came in. As usual, I got caught up in the moment and my time management skills fell short. But thanks to a helpful grad student, I managed to make it back to my car just as the first drops began to fall and I avoided having to hike back along the treacherous Bluff Trail in a torrential downpour. 

The adventure continues

Even though I came to the Rochester area for work, I’m really glad I took the opportunity to go out and explore while I had the chance.  I never cease to be amazed at the beauty and diversity that surrounds me everywhere I go.  I think it’s so important for our bodies, minds and souls to get out of the ordinary and explore nature. The world we live in is an amazing place, so take every opportunity that comes your way to learn, explore and enjoy!

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Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.

 -John Ruskin


The Eyes Have It

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Animals are really not so different from us. They think and feel, love and hate, rejoice in happiness and suffer in sorrow.  They communicate with us in an unspoken language.  Anyone who has ever had a pet would agree.  One look into a soulful pair of eyes and you know there’s more behind them than the instinct to pee on your newly planted garden or scratch the stuffing out of your favorite living room chair.

sheep 1-2Although photographing animals can be difficult, it also can be very rewarding. We have all seen those portraits of animals that make you stop dead in your tracks and say “Wow!” Something is so compelling that you just can’t take your eyes away. And often, it’s the eyes that draw us in. If we are given the opportunity to look into their eyes, we can begin to see the very essence of their soul.  There’s no underlying agenda, no lies or deceit; they live the most basic of lives.

Of course, pets are the most obvious victims for our cameras. They live in our homes, we hang with them every day and they will succumb to just about any torture we can put them through for no more than a cookie and a pat on the head. So we force them to pose, do tricks, sit still and stop drooling just so we can post their pictures on our Facebook page and show them off to all our friends.  Because, let’s face it, every pet parent believes their furry little ball of fluffy love is the cutest of them all.

But what about animals who aren’t domesticated? It’s hard to get up close and personal with creatures that we are not on a first name basis with.  Even when we encounter them in zoos, sanctuaries and wildlife parks where we can get a little closDeer 3-3(s)er than we would in the wild, how do we know what they are thinking and feeling?  Whenever we have our cameras out, we spend more time studying our subject waiting for the right moment. We are still, we are quiet, we let our guard down and maybe, just for an instant, our eyes meet and there’s a mutual sense of kinship and respect.   All it takes is the release of the shutter at just the right moment, a fraction of a second, and with luck we will capture their unique inner beauty.

As humans, we are really not so different from other animals. On the outside we appear to be much more complicated, yet once you strip away all the baggage we carry around – our daily routine of errands and chores, the possessions and status symbols we work so hard to achieve, the amount of stress it all creates – beneath all the things we define ourselves by, we too are made of flesh and blood. But without our fancy gadgets and our trendy clothes to hide behind, how will we know what to think of one another, what each one of us is really all about?  The answer is easy, it lies within us all – it is the unencumbered beauty, the reflection of our soul, which can be found simply by looking into each other’s eyes.

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