One of the hard lessons new zookeepers must learn is how to catch animals. I was always amused to see it happen. The animal runs and the zookeeper chases. It is how we are wired. The animals zig and zag until the zookeeper is exhausted. It doesn’t matter if the chase involves a dog, zebra, goat or a butterfly. Catching up is very difficult to do. Four legged animals have a distinct advantage in speed and maneuverability. Flighted animals an even greater advantage. If you are starting in the rear you have already lost! You have to get in front of the animal to be successful. That is how cowboys would stop a cattle stampede in the early cattle drives. Cowboys would ride as fast as they could to get to the front of the stampede to try to turn the lead animals slowing the rest of the herd. It is impossible to stop a stampede from behind.
I sometimes find myself chasing after a photograph too. Trying to follow a flitting butterfly, a zooming dragonfly, a soaring eagle or even a sunset often ends in frustration. The trick is to observe, learn habits and place myself in the right spot at the right time.
Last Monday morning I was trying to capture a shot of this beautiful Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly in my brother’s garden in Memphis. The lure of the chase was strong and a natural instinct. I caught myself chasing. I would get tired of waiting only to move to another spot and see it feeding. I would then try to follow it as it flew around the yard. After a few minutes of no luck I stood back and watched. Soon the butterfly’s feeding pattern became apparent. There were two levels to the garden with zinnias blooming in an upper section and then down in a low area. This butterfly was flying a loop between the two areas. The flight pattern was not readily apparent because part of the loop took it over a back fence into another yard. The butterfly would disappear. It left the upper flowers, flew over the fence and then reappeared to feed on the lower flowers. It did this over and over. Being in the right spot with the camera was now much easier! When the butterfly flew over the fence at the upper level, I moved to the lower area and waited. It reappeared pretty much on schedule, and I got my photos. The butterfly also spent more time on the flowers in front of me, because I was already set up and part of the landscape.
Part of being a photographer, a wildlife observer or being a zookeeper is staying ahead of our targets. Take the time to learn animal habits, observe them in the wild and then go for the photograph. That pre-planning will pay off in the long run. Just remember, “Don’t chase the goats!”