Q&A: Wildlife Photographer Suzi Eszterhas
Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas spends months in far-flung locations, documenting the family life of endangered animals. Her children’s book series, Eye on the Wild (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) inspired a Sierra magazine slideshow. Sierra recently chatted with the California-based photographer about how long it takes to get a great photograph of a cheetah hunt, the mountain gorilla’s chances of survival, and how it feels to be slapped by a chimp.
Do you ever get tired of looking at adorable baby animals?
I don’t. I get tired of some of the travel and some of the physical strain, depending on where I’m working, or the mental [strain]. But I don’t get tired or bored of the wildlife itself. For example, I spent five and a half months at a jackal den. Every day, all day, I sat there in front of the den, from sunrise to sunset. And for most people, five and a half months of that seems quite boring, but for me—of course there’s down time and there’s slow times—but I never felt unhappy or miserably bored. Sure, there were times when it was like, “OK guys, wake up,” but I never felt like, “Oh my god, I need to end this project because I’m bored.”
What’s the most difficult animal to photograph?
I think chimpanzees, by far, have been my most difficult, but they’re not in this series [Eye on the Wild]. So out of this series, I would say probably cheetahs, because the behavior that I captured is not easy to get. For instance, the hunting shot of the mom—the sprint after the gazelle—it took 17 days to get that photo, and it was like 17 days of nothing. There are a lot of failed hunts. And then sometimes they run the gazelle in an area where you can’t follow: a rocky area or a super-bushy area. Other times they run them in a different direction than you think they’re going to run them. For me, gorillas are the easiest by far, because they’re such incredible photo subjects. And we have an amazing opportunity to sit with these animals because of what researchers have done in habituating them.
What’s the closest you’ve ever gotten to a subject?
Oh, I’ve had them touch me. I mean, I’ve had cheetahs look in the [car] window and paw me, some of the cubs that grew up around me. They jump on the hood, they look in the window, they kind of paw my shoulder.
So they know you?
Totally, completely. I never touch them back, ever. And then, of course, with apes, if they come toward you and you see them coming, you try to move back. There’s a lot of issues of germ transference, so it’s not just the ethical issue of not physically interacting with your subject; it’s also the issue of disease. Definitely there are animals that get so habituated they want to touch you, and I strongly believe that you try your hardest—you don’t always succeed, but you try your hardest—to be aware of surroundings and make sure they can’t touch you. Now having said that, I have had baby gorillas come up and play with my shoelace as I’m shooting a silverback behind me, and they’re creeping up on me and I didn’t notice, and then you feel guilty because they’ve touched your shoe and you don’t know what’s on your shoe. . . . And then there’s certain animals you don’t want touching you, like brown bears. All the work I did with brown bears was on foot, and they can be very dangerous animals.
Speaking of that, have you ever found yourself in a scary situation?
With animals? Um [Laughs], it’s people usually you have to worry about. I’ve had dangerous situations with bears. I had an alpha male chimpanzee slap me once.
Does a chimp slap mean the same thing as a human slap?
A little bit, yeah. It depends on what situation you’re in, but yeah, basically it was the alpha male asserting his dominance in the group. I was new—I joined a research team and I was a new face to him. The research assistants warned me that Kakama would probably try to initiate me, and he charged me a few times and did displays at me. And then one day he made physical contact. It didn’t hurt, but he scared me. It’s different with every species, but with chimpanzees you stand your ground. With some animals you don’t, and with other animals you do. I always do the research, and then I’m also often with people who know these animals better than I do. Sometimes the big challenge is standing your ground.
Do you always shoot in the wild? Do you ever shoot in zoos?
I don’t work in zoos. What I have done is worked in rehabilitation centers or sanctuaries, but I would say 95 percent of my work is in the wild. I have recently started to do a lot on animal rescues, so I just finished a big sloth rescue project, which is fantastic.
Sloths are cute.
So wacky and goofy. I’m also working on an animal rescue series—that’s my next book series. It’s pretty dark stuff. It’s animals being rescued from horrible bushmeat trade, ex-captive, exotic-pet trade kind of stuff. But that’s the kind of captive work I tend to do. And my favorite work is with wild animals.
How long have you been in this profession, and how did you get started?
I’ve been full time for about 10 years, and I had a day job [as a PR director of the Santa Cruz SPCA] before then, so I worked really hard. It’s not an easy field to break into at all, and it took that 6-year period for me to be able to do this full time. My whole life I was working toward that goal. I knew very young that I wanted to do this.
You’re experiencing these moments firsthand that the rest of us are looking at on our computers.
When you put in the long hours, you see amazing things. You see things like a lion cub meeting his dad for the first time.
How old is the cub?
The cub’s about seven weeks old. So what lion moms will do is keep the cubs in a den—a cave, a rocky crevasse, or just a bushy thicket—and then they will take them out when they feel that the cubs are old enough. But sometimes it’s more like when they can’t control the cubs anymore. Then she will bring them to meet the pride, and that included meeting Dad.
Is a male lion aggressive toward the offspring?
If they’re not his cubs. But I knew that he was definitely the father of those cubs because he had been hanging out near the den. He knew that that female had cubs in that thicket, and he did not attempt to go in and kill the cubs. I had also seen them mating five months prior.
So you’re there for the whole experience.
Yeah, exactly. But it’s quite sweet, because what male lions do is they like to play a little bit. But the cubs will eventually get a little bit less shy and apprehensive and start to really play, and Dad will get grumpy and growl at them. But what’s classic is that Mom will sit by really close, and she’ll always watch him intently, and if he does the slightest thing wrong, if he growls too loudly or gets a little rough, she’ll pounce on him, like immediately. So he’s always looking out of the corner of his eye. You’ll see him growl at the cub and then glance over at Mom. It’s very cute.
But if he wasn’t the father, he would kill the cubs?
Correct. She would try hard to defend her cubs. She would try hard, but she would fail.
How does he know which cubs are his?
The prevailing theory is by smell.
Is it difficult for you to say goodbye to your subjects after you’ve been documenting them for months?
Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I’ll miss them when the project’s over. But the hardest part is when the babies die. Particularly in litters, very often one or two babies will die. I watched a cheetah lose her entire litter of five cubs. And I’ve watched lion cubs get trampled to death by buffalo, and the mom carry around the dead baby for a day. I’ve watched harbor seals carry around a stillborn pup for three days in the ocean. You’re sometimes working with these animals for months, and then you watch them die, and you watch Mom—you know, I don’t want to sound anthropomorphic, but from what I’m seeing, it appears that Mom is 100 percent looking for her cub but also grieving. That, you know—it’s hard; it’s very, very difficult. When that cheetah lost all five cubs, it made me very sad.
So the photo that we included in the slideshow, the one with five little guys with their mouths open and their eyes closed, those aren’t the ones that died, are they?
That’s the one. She lost all five. When I first started working with cheetahs, I read a statistic from the Serengeti Cheetah Project that said that 95 percent of all cheetah cubs under the age of three months die. And that is a startling statistic. When I read that, I thought, “No, it’s too high.” [But after] having experienced three different families, I would say that is probably 100 percent accurate. And the reason for the mortality, for the most part, is predation. And it’s predation by everything under the sun: lions, leopard, hyenas, jackals, birds of prey. Cheetah cubs get eaten by everything. Cheetahs are not built for fighting or endurance; they’re built for speed. If you look at a cheetah next to a lion, it’s like looking at a ballerina next to a football player. And a cheetah’s best form of defense is to run. I’ve seen mothers take on hyenas and do heroic stuff, but for the most part, the only thing they can do is run. And the cubs can’t run as fast as Mom. And then sometimes, in my case, where all five died, they were killed in the nest. The first three were killed by birds of prey, and the last two were killed by jackals.
So this picture we have is when they are first born.
Yeah, their eyes are still closed there. They’re like little birds in a nest. It’s quite sweet. A cheetah’s den is called a nest, and they do literally chirp like birds. In that photo they almost look like birds.
They do. And how long after that photo was taken were they killed?
The last two died at 19 days old.
The other photo we have of the little cheetah baby licking the mom, now is that a different family?
Yeah, that is a different litter.
And did that one survive?
OK. Phew! That’s good.
[Laughs] This is my dilemma when I do lectures: Do I say the gloom and doom, or do I leave it? I sort of try to gauge my audience. But yeah, it’s rough. Particularly with cheetahs, it’s really sad stuff.
Your specialty is the family life of endangered animals. So do you ever get the sense that you’re documenting the end of a species? Basically, do you have an optimistic outlook or . . .
It depends on the species. I’m generally an optimistic person, but there are some species I worked with [where] it’s incredibly difficult to have hope for these animals. Mountain gorillas are probably the best example. If you look at mountain gorilla habitat, it’s this tiny island of habitat in the Virunga Mountains, surrounded by three countries that have all had their fair share of serious troubled political history or current civil war. You’re talking about 700 mountain gorillas in the whole world, in this tiny little habitat that’s surrounded by human conflict, poverty, and overpopulation. So I try not to dwell on that, but it is a reality, for sure. And I think that’s part of why I really like doing children’s publications. It’s a way of bringing home the amazing parts of these animals in a cute and fuzzy way that children can really get excited about and trying to spark some more interest from our future generations, in terms of protecting these species, because it is going to be up to them. People always ask, “If you had to pick wildlife or photography, what would you do? Could you go and shoot fashion or architecture?” And there’s no way. I’d have to do something else with wildlife. So being able to have a career where you work with wildlife in any way, shape, or form, I think, is really, really lucky.
—interview by Della Watson
--photos courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas
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