Preaching to the superchoir—how veterinarians can help save the world

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Preaching to the superchoir—how veterinarians can help save the world

Joel Sartore uses a different type of shot to save animals.
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Apr 12, 2017

Passersby of all ages at Mandalay Bay (the location of the Western Veterinary Conference) stop by to take in Joel Sartore's photographs that are part of the National Geographic Photo Ark. (Photos by Dr. Theresa Entriken)Have you ever made eye contact with a spectacled owl? A Reimann’s snake-necked turtle? An uakari monkey? A North American oblong-winged katydid? A Salt Creek tiger beetle? 

Did you know these creatures even exist?

Joel Sartore wants us to share amazing gazes with these and other species—many of which are endangered—to help them and to help ourselves.

“As these species go, so could we,” says Sartore, founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, a biodiversity documentation project that he's focused on for the last 12 years. Because half of Earth’s plant and animal species are on track for extinction by 2100, Sartore hopes people will notice while we still have time to save them. “I don't want us to lose one more,” he says.

In his March presentation “A World Worth Saving—The Photo Ark” at the Western Veterinary Conference sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, Sartore described photographing the world’s last-known living Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, one of many amphibian species decimated by chytrid fungus. Proliferation of this fungus has been linked to global climate change. “These animals are teaching us about our environment,” he says. 

This frog's tadpoles, sired at the Atlanta Botanical Garden where he lived, didn't survive. And the frog died late last September. “I used to get angry. Now it makes me sad,” Sartore says.

He points to society’s increasingly shallow nature. “If we could get people to turn their attention away from Kim Kardashian’s rear end for a minute,” he suggests, then they might recognize that “the world will be greatly diminished without these animals.”

So far Sartore has obtained studio portraits of about 6,500 of the estimated 12,000 species of captive-held mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles, fish and amphibians. See just a few of the faces he has captured thus far here. He knows it’ll take him the rest of his life to finish.

Why photograph captive animals?

Sartore poses by one of his photos on display at Mandalay Bay during the Western Veterinary Conference. As a National Geographic freelance photographer, Sartore has loads of field experience. A polar bear once tried to pry him out of a van. He’s survived mucocutaneous leishmaniasis delivered by sandflies. But after 25 years of globetrotting to record animals in their natural living spaces, he felt he still hadn’t moved the conservation needle much.

“Instead of gad-flying about all the time, I thought maybe I should concentrate on one thing.” So, reflecting on John Audubon’s commitment to document every North American bird species, and inspired by painter George Catlin’s portraits of Native Americans, Sartore began his project, starting at the Children’s Zoo in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Sartore composes each animal’s portrait on a simple black or white background. He believes every creature—great and small—deserves equal weight.

Many of the species Sartore photographs no longer exist in the wild. Citing the critical, often behind-the-scenes, endangered captive breeding and habitat preservation work that zoos, rehabilitation centers and aquariums do, he says, “Zoos are our arks—they are giants in conservation.”

Sartore sets up a studio/snack tent for the animals. Hours of preparation sometimes weeks beforehand helps ensure that each animal can relax and hang out just long enough for him to get the shot and get some lunch for his subject.

He hopes bringing people eye-to-eye with these animals will spur more hearts and minds to reduce human threats to other species and their habitats.

What can veterinarians do to help?

“You are the superchoir,” says Sartore. He suggests that veterinarians take a moment with clients whenever possible and tie conservation to topics that relate to pets, like keeping cats indoors to reduce bird predation and lobbying against off-leash dog parks near wildlife areas. He also suggests becoming a zoo member, reducing/reusing/recycling, voting with your wallets against plastic trash and trinkets and planting milkweed. “We need 1.3 billion milkweed stems to save monarch butterflies. If we can’t save them, we’re not trying,” he says.

Even in the face of helping countless animals and people every day, veterinarians sometimes question their self-worth. So let’s allow ourselves the luxury of acknowledging our everyday efforts to help save the world—those seemingly small contributions that do make a difference—donating to a wildlife rehabilitation center, growing native plants for pollinators, rescuing a cardboard box from the trash and taking it home to recycle and talking with kids about respecting all living creatures—from insects to elephants—and the interconnectedness of nature.

Learn more about The Photo Ark at natgeophotoark.org.