Animal models from Montana visit McElmo Canyon to ‘pose’ for photos
For a short time in April, McElmo Canyon was home to a Bengal tiger, a grizzly bear, and some wolves. Triple D Game Farm brought the trained wildlife and five staff members from their base ranch in Kalispell, Mt., to Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch to be models in a series of photo shoots.
During the month-long staging, the game farm offered seven three-day events spotlighting one animal per session. They included a mountain lion, grizzly bear, Bengal tiger, coyote, wolves, bobcat, badger, cross fox, red fox and a porcupine.
In addition, three “Authentic Western Horse Drive” events provided by a local McElmo rancher were staged nearby for photographers needing shots of horses, roundups and cowboys in the dusty red canyons in the heart of Mesa Verde country.
Prior to the arrival of the guests, the Triple D staff prepared a safe location for each animal and the guest photographers, fencing a large area with orange electrified tape. In Triple D’s photo shoots, there is no hard barrier between the animal and the guests standing just yards away from their subject. The distance is close enough for detailed, expressive studies that are not available in a “protected contact” format (the type used by zoos) that place the animal in a metal cage and the photographer outside the animal’s reach.
“Special-location events like McElmo Canyon provide photographers an opportunity to photograph during April and October, our down time in Montana,” said Jay Deist, owner of the Triple D. “It is also a good time to travel to locations that we know the animals will enjoy and where they will be safe and that photographers can access. It’s a change of setting.”
The family business started over 40 years ago when Deist’s father worked for the Montana State Patrol, occasionally bringing home wounded animals that needed human care to heal. As the numbers and variety of the animals increased, so did the reputation of the family. Movie and television representatives and still photographers began contracting Triple D to provide animals on location for programs such as Wild Kingdom, National Geographic documentaries, and Marty Stouffer’s PBS series, Wild America.
“By high school my brother and I were spending 10 straight days at a time observing the wild animals in the steep Montana wilderness country with our big malamute dog,” said Deist. “We worked for our dad, live-trapping some animals, even in the winter from a cabin built of fiber-glass panels where the snow covered it like an igloo.”
Some production locations required that the animals be transported long distances to places like Yellowstone National Park, “and that’s when we started learning how to assure safe, healthy standards and conditions for the animals. It was how we got our start in the business.”
Triple D animals have been hosted in sites throughout the United States, including Monument Valley, Ariz., Zion National Park, San Francisco, and Vermont, and even abroad in Australia.
Francois Van den Eeden travels from Belgium every year to McElmo Canyon. He admits that when the owner of Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch, Garry Adams, told him about the project, he had his doubts. “But I participated in three shoots including the grizzly bear, Bengal tiger, and the mountain lion and foxes. What struck me the most was the wonderful interaction between the animals and the Triple D people.”
Deist and his staff do animal educational programs at schools, churches and sometimes for the Boy Scouts. The first step in conservation is education, he said. Even so, children are not allowed at the photography events because the animals are not in enclosures and children are unpredictable.
All Triple D events are “free-contact,” meaning there are no bars or hard fences between the photographers, trainers, observers and animal. “We have a great responsibility to clients and animals, said Deist, “Therefore the rules are extremely strict. No infractions are allowed.”
Participants are informed of the rules before the hike to the free-contact site. The rules are repeated at the beginning of the event. Three trained staff members stand at the perimeter of the animal enclosure beside and behind the guests. The animal’s personal trainer is in the site with the animal.
Guests are told to stay in the group: “Do not wander away for a better view,” said Heather Keeper, the Triple D professional animal trainer. Never turn your back on the animal. No loud talk, yelling at animals or trainers. No gestures or loud noises to attract attention of the animals or any staff member. When the animal is tired or wants to leave the site we let them leave. They make the call, not us.”
At a recent session Bruno, the grizzly, cavorted for 40 minutes in rushing McElmo Creek. Keeper, who raised him from a cub, stood on the bank 10 yards away. He occasionally “talked” with her, walked within arm’s reach to receive a treat from her hand, then returned quickly to his fun in the river.
After swimming for a while Bruno lurched his hulking body out of the water, generated a thorough body-shake that sprayed a wide, sparkling shower from his fur, then began a precarious climb up a large tree. He reached the top easily, turned to look at Keeper, roared and balanced there for a moment. The photographers’ shutters snapped simultaneously, and, then, as if he knew he had posed, Bruno descended, jumped back into the water and latched onto a large branch floating toward him.
He tossed it, chewed it, submerged it, dove after it, and genuinely seemed to enjoy his time in the river. Although Bruno always responded to Keeper’s voice, he seemed oblivious to the photographers close above him on the bank. Finally, he left the water and lumbered toward his trainer. She complimented him on how he was playing, asked him if he wanted to go back, handed him a food treat. He sauntered toward the path to the vehicle that brought him. She followed. He seemed happy, content and a little tired. Keeper thanked him and closed the door.
“We listen and acknowledge them,” Keeper explained. “If they want to leave they get to leave. It is all positive reinforcement, and absolutely no negativity in behavior or voice is ever used to build a relationship with the animals.”
Deist added that the staff views interaction with the animals as a science. “We love them, but we definitely do not advocate wild animals as pets. We see it as providing a hands-on sanctuary and we see our work as love of them.”
Home, sweet home
Today the 50-acre ranch near Glacier National Park is sprinkled with many spacious buildings for the animals, designed with access to the outdoors.
After their animals retire from photography they live at the farm for the rest of their lives. “We feed them,” Keeper explained, “provide a healthy environment and all their medical needs. Some animals such as the Alaskan wolves may live many years longer because there are no predators. A cat’s life can triple in length. Max, our elder black bear, passed away only a few years ago. He lived 27 years with us.”
Training is done with praise and love, said Keeper. “It’s our responsibility as trainers to know each animal’s language. It matters how they speak. It’s quality of life; they tell us and it’s our responsibility to listen.”
Keeper raises most of the animals she trains from infancy. Regardless, Deist and the staff do not view their animals as pets. “People who advocate wild animals for pets have a false sense of security. Instead you must respect them at all times,” he added. “Our animals are not domesticated.”
After two local amateur photographers, Dr. Robert Heyl and his wife Jan, attended a wildlife photo event in Monument Valley they urged Deist to bring the animals to Colorado. Heyl discussed the possibility with Deist for several years. Deist eventually made three scouting trips looking for suitable land in the region. Careful consideration of all criteria, including proximity to a river, led him to Adams’ guest ranch. He talked with all the neighbors, assuring them of the safety of the programs, and located a local rancher able to do the wild-horse event with his own ranch hands. It was a perfect fit.
“There is a lot of organizing needed in order to do this,” Deist said. “Guidelines are very strict about which animals are allowed to move across borders and in which states, and there are layers of animal requirements such as the implanted identification in each before they can be moved anywhere.”
Photographers at the McElmo event came from Australia, California, Wyoming, Florida and Arizona. Adams said it was a long and complex process. Deist is exacting about the animals and concerned for their welfare. “They attracted great, top-shelf photographers and artists from all over, including England and Canada. Everybody had a great time with the animals and we heard nothing but fantastic things about Triple D. “
Pattie and George Walsh moved from New York City 10 years ago to Scottsdale, Ariz., where they opened GPWalsh Photography. They shoot weddings, stock photography and special commercial assignments, some of them treacherous. Recently they photographed the cleaning crews working on the Grand Canyon Sky Walk, a transparent horseshoe-shaped bridge cantilevered over the Colorado River. The assignment required hanging off the canyon wall for a view from beneath the glass floor.
“When we come to these wildlife events the animals share a sense of peace with us,” she said. “We take that home in the experience and the images.”
Walsh grew up near the Brooklyn and the Central Park zoos. Her animal appreciation blossomed there at a very young age. “Today there are very few chances to learn from the wild animals. Free-contact events such as this are an opportunity to still see some part of an animal’s spirit.”
The McElmo event is the first for the Walshes away from the Montana site. They are also expedition photographers with experience in the Tetons, Yellowstone, British Columbia, and other sites.
Expedition photography is similar to hunting an animal in nature; if you don’t find it, your camera freezes up or the weather doesn’t cooperate, the opportunity is missed. For that reason expedition photography is exclusive and expensive.
“It has its place in stock-photo collections,” said Walsh, “but these free-contact events are reliable and well-respected by all the participants. Deist and his staff take excellent care of their animals. Unlike zoo photography, there are no bars, no cages, and very positive care and training.”
Most of the guests at the McElmo event have been to the 50-acre Triple D Montana ranch. All of them attest that it’s a loving environment for the animals with spacious, clean living quarters located in a private, quiet and peaceful setting.
“I had several talks with both Jay and Heather,” Van den Eeden said. “Belgians do not accept blindly what they’re told, so I did some research on them. All of it was corroborated by what I found on the internet. They have, not only in the states, but also internationally, an excellent reputation.”
‘A lifetime commitment’
To feed the animals Deist processes 40 tons of fresh game meat every year. “We only need 30 tons, but we like to keep 10 extra on-hand in case of an emergency, such as a power outage, or weather.”
Cereals and vitamins are part of the rations. The farm also serves up 12 50-pound fish bundles every week to the animals that prefer fish. They provide the best of everything, he explained, replicating a natural diet, often with a bit of humor, like the trainers who push the food cart loaded with each animal’s favorite foods arranged like a banquet.
Permitting for their business is under the game-farm category because there is no animal-photography designation in the U.S. Department of the Interior. In fact, many operations considered separate from domesticated animal ranching, such as elk and deer, get combined under the game-farm designation, Deist said.
But Triple D animals are never hunted or eaten. “We have a nursery, medical facility, too,” said Deist. “Facility and animal maintenance, food storage and medical expenses are very expensive and so is the insurance. Once you begin a game farm you may never shut the doors. It’s a lifetime commitment.”
Like a circus?
Jim Pell is a representational fine artist. He began working in paint, pastel and pencil after retiring from a career as a physicist. Today he uses the print images as a base model for the animal portraiture he produces. He attended his first event eight years ago.
“I always used zoos and wildlife rehab facilities as a source, but I wanted a closer view. My online research led me to Triple D. It was, and is, the top of the heap,” Pell said.
“This one is unique in its canyon setting and we’ve been treated so gracefully by the local people, including the rancher with the horse roundup and his cowboys.”
Doug Pollitt, a retiree from Ohio, said, “I’ve attended four prior events in Montana at the ranch and every shoot’s a little different – the light at different times of the year, the seasonal environment. It’s very challenging – at the same time it’s satisfying. I have always hunted and fished, but there comes a time in your life when, after intimate exposure to the animals in this natural setting, you lose your bloodlust.”
According to Adams, when Deist left with the animals, “It felt as though a dear member of the family was departing. It was the greatest show in our region, for Ming and me. God willing, they will be back again and more folks can experience it next time.”
Triple D is hoping to arrange another series of McElmo Canyon events in 2016. In the meantime their next photographers’ workshop will be held in Slot Canyon near Page, Ariz., in October 2014. Deist is being particularly careful about animal selection because that location’s weather, temperatures and terrain present an extremely challenging environment.
“Looking back on the experience, I have to ask if bringing wild animals out to a scenic location just so that wildlife photographers can take some nice pictures doesn’t seem kind of like a circus,” mused Van den Eeden. “Yes, I admit it does. But who doesn’t like a circus? And I’ve never been to a circus in my life where I could witness with my own eyes that the animals were treated so well, where they seemed to enjoy so much what they were doing, without coercion. I feel like I know the animals personally now.”