Last month, for the first time ever, I revisited animals I’d met in 2014, some of whom I’d already painted. “Things change” is one lesson learned. These animals live in communities. Things are dynamic. Life happens for them too.
Michael was my favorite gorilla in 2014. Belonging to the bachelor troop of three at the Houston Zoo, he kept to himself up on the hill in their outdoor habitat, eye level with where I stood. He was the first one I painted. This year he’s been pulling out fur on his beautiful silver back. It was hard not to imagine it as stress, but why?
Then there’s the magnificent Rudi, whom I’ve painted twice. It was hotter this visit so he didn’t hold court in the afternoon as he had in May, but came out in the mornings when it was cooler. I hear he has a heart condition so he stays inside in the air conditioning when it’s too hot and humid.
Kelly, whose painting I had just finished, was always out with Aurora, the youngest of the group but no longer a baby, who clambered all over the top of the canopy installed to give shade to Rudi. She was noticeably larger than 2014, but no less rambunctious.
I quite regularly saw affection and care between them.
In 2016, I painted two cats from the Houston Zoo, a clouded leopard named Rhu, and their 18-year-old Malayan tiger, Pandu. In my experience, the big cats make less eye contact than the apes, but Pandu would occasionally glance my way.
I didn’t know Pandu had died until after I’d finished his portrait. Apparently about six months after I met him, he became lethargic, uninterested in activities and largely stopped eating. Previous artheroscopic surgery and gene therapy only went so far. Funny, but I hadn’t thought of my animals with life spans before. It reinforced their specificity to me. I have decided to write short anecdotal bios for each of my subjects from now on.
This is the new young Malayan tiger at the Houston Zoo. I believe he might have a “breeding recommendation” with their older resident female. He will meet her gradually and carefully. Big cats have big teeth and big claws and don’t always take to one another. He certainly is gorgeous. Malayan tigers are very endangered in the wild, and their gene pool in zoos comes from too few founders, so they are at risk all around. The last stop before “extinct” is “extinct in the wild” but this requires a large enough gene pool to bring them back in health.
All in all, meeting (and remeeting) the animals I paint continues to have profound implications in my work. Meeting those who care for them has also helped my understandings. Getting to know them both as individuals and as species enriches the work I do.
I shall finish this post with Sango, a young father in Denver, who died six months after I met him, and months before I finished his painting. One day he began to have tremors that grew to be uncontrollable. A scan showed his liver and gall bladder were deformed. I read that he was a shy lion until his cubs were born, and then he became more assertive. He was a good dad who let his cubs climb all over him, it said. The day I met him, his cubs were 3-months old and out for us to see for the first time. Sango seemed every bit the calm and proud papa, and that was what I painted.
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