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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pics Or It Didn't Happen

selfie [sel-fee] - noun, informal: a photograph that one takes of oneself with a digital camera or a front-facing smartphone, tablet, or webcam, especially for posting on a social-networking or photo-sharing website.


When I first read the letter that was the focus of yesterday's "From the News" item, I had to chuckle a little bit.  A visitor complaining that animals kept jumping into their pictures?  If it was a real complaint, it was certainly a new one.  Most of the time, I have visitors who complain that they can't get good pictures (which usually results in some fence jumping and reaching).

I stop them, I correct them, and (when I feel that safety is at risk), I yell at them.  I also sympathize.  If there is one zoo rule that I would love to break when visiting other facilities (besides being able to smack misbehaving guests upside the head), it would be to cross barriers to get better pictures.

The recent prevalence of the selfie has only made things worse, as visitors try even harder to get that iconic "I was there!" photo.  Sometimes the results are... extreme (a Taliban soldier at the Kabul Zoo was killed when he tried to mug up with Marjan, the zoo's lion, for a photo-op.  The man's brother returned to the zoo the next day and threw a grenade in the lion's face, blinding and crippling him).

I would be lying if I said that I didn't have a huge collection of photos of me with zoo animals.  In fact, years ago when I was creating an online dating profile, I had the embarrassing problem of having almost no photos of me that didn't have zoo animals.  Though looking back, I can't remember why I thought that was a problem... a mean, a fennec fox is a total babe magnet.

Most of the time, I prefer to have someone take the picture of me and the animal.  It ensures a better photo and lets me concentrate more on the animal itself, useful if said animal is potentially dangerous or flighty.  Sometimes, however, I get too embarrassed to ask, or no one else is around, and then I try for the awkward art of the selfie.  It's easier if you have one of those fancy new camera phones where you can reverse the camera and take a picture without any bizarre contortions.  I don't.  Most of my camera shots end up being remarkable close-ups of my nostrils, or the top of my head, or the corner of the animal's ear.  If I'm super lucky, there will be a mirror nearby and I can look at the camera screen in the mirror and line up my shot better.  Usually, I just get a bad selfie and call it a day.

If I see visitors at our zoo trying to take a selfie, I usually go for the customer service angle and offer to take the picture for them.  I'd rather that they have a nice photo and souvenir of their visit, and it also might discourage them from doing something foolish like, let's say, getting too close to that bear moat.  The one thing that does make me nervous (I lie... lots of things make me nervous) are selfie sticks.  They allow guests to reach their camera over railings and barriers, sometimes intruding into the exhibits themselves.  I dread the inevitable day when I get the call that our otters are frolicking around their enclosure, diving in and out of their pool, with someone's brand new iPhone clutched between their teeth.

Why do we feel the need to have pictures of ourselves with zoo animals?  Or wild animals, for that matter... or celebrities, or famous buildings, or natural wonders?  I suppose it's our attempt to prove to ourselves and to the world that we were there.  That this isn't a National Geographic photo, that I really did feed a giraffe, or meet Bruce Springsteen, or stand atop the Great Wall of China.

I mean, you know what would have been really exciting is if Ellen had managed to get her selfie with, like, a dozen different endangered species at the same time... this is just okay...

With animals, I often feel the need to remind myself that I was right there with a very rare or extraordinary creature, maybe one that I never will meet again.  When a coworker once accidentally (I think) locked me in our tuatara exhibit for half-an-hour, I made the most of my time.  I plucked one of the lizard-like critters up and practiced shooting selfies.

It took a dozen or so attempts, but I finally got one.

I think this is the first cell phone picture I ever took.  I'd spent weeks trying to coax a painfully shy clouded leopard out of her shell, coming in early every morning to work with her.  When she finally became comfortable enough around me to take food from my hand (fingers kept carefully outside), I had to snap a quick photo, otherwise I knew my colleagues would never believe me.  And isn't that what selfies are all about? Pics or it didn't happen?

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