It was March 2010 and I had received a commission for a zebra painting. My reference photographs all looked old and sad and I needed some new inspiration, so we decided to visit Tala, a small game reserve near us. One of the things that wildlife and animals have taught me is that when you have expectations, they are rarely met and when you have a time-limit, you won’t generally get what you want. A phrase I always remind myself of when working with horses is, “If you only have a minute, this will take all day, but if you have all day, this will only take a minute”! We found, on previous visits, that Tala’s zebras were particularly dismissive of humans and it was very difficult to get close enough to photograph them well. They would simply move off to an inaccessible area as soon as we got even remotely near them.
One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about humans around wildlife is our predatory stance. It doesn’t matter whether the humans are actual hunters, photographers or game-viewers, there’s often a predatory energy about us. It’s as though we believe we have a right to see what we want, in the manner we want it, because we paid a fee at the gate! I believe animals pick up on this “taking” energy, especially prey animals, and move away from it wherever and however they can, because it is offensive and threatening to them. I have a great interest in animal communication and have seen some amazing results from professional animal communicators as well as my own amateur attempts, so I decided to pre-empt my predatory “I need the right reference material for my painting” mission with a conversation with the zebras.
Early that morning I sat quietly and focused on the zebras at Tala. I told them who I was and what I wanted to do that day. I explained that my intention was not to disturb or irritate them and that I wanted to help, in my way, by painting them and hopefully raising awareness of their beauty and fragility. I asked for their help in achieving this and thanked them for hearing me. Now, I don’t know if they did or, even if they did, whether they were willing to help me out, but I do know that we had a distinctly different experience that day at Tala. Perhaps it was because I was aware and conscious of what we were doing as a result of my meditation that morning. Perhaps it simply made me notice what a privilege this experience was and put me in a state of gratitude and present moment awareness. I don’t know the answer, but, as we drove into the reserve, we immediately came upon a small herd of zebras. On previous visits, we had the experience of driving the entire reserve for the whole day and not coming across a single zebra. As we inched closer, they ignored us completely, fully engaged in grazing, nursing their young, mutual grooming and just being zebras. We were beside ourselves, afraid to talk, but amazed at how close they let us be to them. We were both conscious of how we brought the cameras up to shoot, assuring them we meant them no harm and explaining our intention and purpose to them again and again in our minds. Our intention was to create a co-operative energy as opposed to a predatory “taking” energy. Eventually we moved away from them, not the other way around… an unheard of experience for us with the zebras at Tala. It was an amazing feeling, to be able to thank them and leave them to their day.
During the day we came across many groups of zebra, and all of them had the same reaction, or rather non-reaction. They seemed to view us with a vague curiosity, but never with fright or irritation. We watched, awed, as foals played with each other and adults carried out normal herd behaviour not even five metres away from us. We could hear them breathing and snorting, smell their earthy scent and we really felt part of their family for the time we were there. The afternoon light was incredible… that golden glow that just touches their eyelashes and brush-cut manes, giving them a halo of light. We finally dragged ourselves away and drove home in the fading light, both of us changed by the day’s experiences.
The photographs were the best we had ever taken of zebras and have given us both so much material to work with. It was this day that gave me the photo reference for “The Herd” and I called it that because I really felt welcomed as a part of their herd that day. I had learned so much from them and, since then, have viewed having the opportunity to be with wild animals and photograph them as a joint venture between me and the animals. They are partners in raising awareness, not the victims we so often reduce them to in our actions and minds.