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Photographer documents baby animals growing up

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One way to tell stories is through pictures – and they don’t have to be of people. Local photographer Suzi Eszterhas tells stories of family by photographing the family lives of animals around the world. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, and she’s especially well-known for her revealing photographs of newborn animals. She spoke with KALW’s Ben Trefny.

BEN TREFNY: Tell me about your books.

SUZI ESZTERHAS: My books are a six-title series called Eye on the Wild and are about infancy to adulthood for baby animals. Each one follows a different animal and tracks their life as they get older, from birth to when they become an adult.

TREFNY: Tell me about the cheetah book. What are you tracking here?

ESZTERHAS: The cheetah book is basically about a set of cubs. And it starts with them about four days old. It starts when they are newborn and with mom and it goes through all of their life stages: learning how to come out of the nest with mom; jumping over tall grass; to climbing trees to dealing with predators; to eating meat for the first time. Then all the way up to the time that mom leaves them around the age of two years old, when they are ready to go off and live on their own.

TREFNY: How did you get a gig like that?

ESZTERHAS: I didn’t really. I made the gig for myself. I had this dream of doing this book on cheetahs and I decided that I would pack up and go to the Masai Mara and I had this dramatic life change where I quit my day job and left my apartment and put everything in storage, left the boyfriend and just went off to Africa and live there for almost three years. I planned on staying two months and just working with the cubs when they were really young but then I really loved it and decided I would stay till they were adults.

TREFNY: How did you get such close access to these cheetahs. I imagine they are somewhat skittish.

ESZTERHAS: Actually, the cheetahs are not too bad. Some of the other animals I worked with were a bit shy, but the cheetahs had been used to vehicles following them because they were in a tourist area so they weren’t too bad. There were some moms that were a bit shy and I had to break in. What I would do is start off far away, some days I couldn’t even take photos and then I would move in closer and closer everyday until the mom was really used to me and would let me do things like photograph her newborns in the nest which was really unusual.

TREFNY: So I am picturing the Masai Mara, this big Savannah there, and I imagine a safari comes by and says, “And to the left are some cheetahs and there is an American photographer who has been there in the last year and a half.”

ESZTERHAS: That is exactly what happened. And there aren’t that many young white girls on their own in the Masai Mara, driving around without a driver or a guide. I was a little bit of a celebrity there because I was the crazy girl who was there following cheetahs. 

TREFNY: They are really amazing photos of cheetahs. Really close up pictures of the babies in the different stages. What are some of the interesting points of growth that cheetahs have that maybe you hadn’t expected?

ESZTERHAS: I think that the big huge pinnacle moment is when they come out of the nest and start following mom because they have been in the sanctuary of their nest and they’re really quite safe and mom is going off hunting everyday and coming back to them. But then when they are about six weeks old or so, they get to be kind of rowdy and mom can’t really contain them in the nest anymore and she knows she needs to let them out and introduce them to the world. When they get out, those first few days is pretty amazing. They are quite scared of everything. They are these tiny things in the long grass and they are literally bounding over the grass trying to see the world. Mommas are really fearful because cheetahs are actually very vulnerable to things like hyenas and lions so mom is really protective of them and they are scared of the world. That was an amazing point to witness and follow them for as they were seeing everything for the first time.

TREFNY: One of the pictures here that you have captures that, with a picture of the plains. Momma cheetah who is walking in a very stately way and there are three blurs behind her, bouncing through the grasses, as her babies are following her.

ESZTERHAS: It is pretty cute stuff. That is literally what they do and because that is where they live and since the grass is so tall so the cubs sort of vanish in it. And the other thing they do is get up with mom on top of termite mounds which cheetahs use for hunting. They use it to see what is far away and the cubbies would get up with her and under her belly for the shade. They would hunker down under the shade of her belly and then get up to watch animals with her.

TREFNY: Because it is so hot?

ESZTERHAS: Yes, it is really hot.

TREFNY: Let’s turn to another environment now, with the gorilla book. What was your experience with that? Where were you and for how long?

ESZTERHAS: The gorillas were a long term project. Where I would go every year. Part of my business is that I lead photo tours and I was leading gorilla tours every year. So taking people out to photograph gorillas and I was out there alongside of them photographing them as well. This is a product of almost seven years of taking photographs of visits every year. It is piecing the story together that way of different babies and showing the life cycle that way.

TREFNY: How close were you able to get to them? The pictures look like you were right up next to them.

ESZTERHAS: You are, that is what makes the gorillas so amazing. They are one of the most incredible wildlife experiences to have because they are so used to people thanks to Diane Fosse and researchers that came after her, they are very habituated. That means they will come right up to you and if you aren’t careful, the babies will try to play with your shoelaces and of course I try to keep people back because of that whole germ transference issue, but they do try to come up and touch you and interact with you and they aren’t fazed by you being there at all. Which is awesome because you are just sitting there and you feel like their lives are unfolding around you and you are just part of the landscape.

TREFNY: What is the life of a gorilla? What is their life like there in the forest.

ESZTERHAS: One thing that comes to my mind, and it is sort of a cliche but it is true is that they are very gentle. They are incredibly gentle apes. Very peaceful, very family oriented. The males and the females will fight to the death to defend the babies. They are incredible animals to work around and they are always interacting with each other, whether they are feeding or grooming each other, sunbathing, they are always touching each other, vocalizing with each other, making faces. They are probably my favorite animal to work with.

TREFNY: These are all threatened or endangered species.

ESZTERHAS: Most of them are.

TREFNY: How many gorillas are left in the world?

ESZTERHAS: About 700.

TREFNY: That is so few.

ESZTERHAS: Very few.

TREFNY: Why did you make these books?

ESZTERHAS: I think I have a soft place in my heart for baby animals and for children. The value for publications for children in terms of conservation have been overlooked and I think they are so important. And yes, the adult publications are very important and adult books are very important but the children’s books to hit our future generations are so critical and you don’t see that much out there right now. I really had a vision about getting kids jazzed about seeing these endangered animals. And maybe influencing, these might be expectations that are too high, but influencing what they want to do with their lives. Or at least fostering some sort of interest. Without that these animals are doomed, particularly the gorillas, the cheetahs as well, I think they’ve given cheetahs 20 years before extinction. Get kids to care.

Ben handles daily operations in the news department, overseeing the editorial and sound engineering teams, delivering daily newscasts, producing the nightly news and culture show Crosscurrents, and supervising special projects including KALW's Audio Academy training program.