Some moments last a lifetime

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him move slowly to the rear. Our jeep had no roof, and leopards are adept at running, leaping up and into things, grabbing and dragging prey into trees. He wouldn't have a problem dealing with an old jeep with an open roof. He disappeared from view, and as I slowly turned my head I saw him cross the other side of the road and disappear into the bush. 

When we knew the moment was over and that we were safe we started to do that weepy laugh that erupts when Life Happens in a way you weren't sure you would survive, touching and hugging each other. We then noticed that another jeep, coming from the opposite direction, had evidently seen what was happening and stopped, luckily turning off their motor and staying still so as not to further irritate the animal. Their driver had a rifle out. Each person had an expression that spoke volumes about what had happened (and could have happened.) 

I will never forget one moment of this wonderful moment — dangerous, yet exciting and full of recognition. I had my tiny German camera and pressed that shutter as it happened. I gazed into a wild leopard's eyes and knew that my life and work would be deeply connected with the spirit of animals.

What significant moment have you experienced with an animal that taught you a Life Lesson?

Contact Kristin at 503-490-2480 * kzphotog@gmail.com * kristinzabawaphotography.com

Eloise

“Society itself is a lonelier place. As a species, we had always been close to nature. From our days as hunter-gatherers to our millennia of living in close quarters with livestock, animals had been ubiquitous in our existence. When they disappeared from our day-to-day experience, we lost part of ourselves.”  

― David Grimm, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs 

I love these words by David Grimm. He gets to the essential reason why modern society has lost its way. Violence, inequality and stress are too much a part of our lives. Why is that? It’s complicated. However, I believe that when we no longer had a direct bond with the natural world, and with animals in their natural state, society began the fall to an epidemic of unhappiness, because we lost part of ourselves. But what does that really mean to each of us, and to the unique bond we have with the animals in our lives? 

People who live with animals on farms (not industrial!) or in nature have an opportunity to understand that non-human animals have unique presence and personality. Their inner world has nothing to do with us. If we really pay attention, each animal has much to teach us. 

These are lessons that I, as a confirmed city-dweller, had to learn slowly, and sometimes painfully. When I didn’t understand animal behavior I was quick to put human labels on it. The animals in my life were well-loved and cared for, but it took a while for me to understand that there was a much deeper bond waiting to be created if I just opened to it. I needed to listen, learn, and deal with my human ego. 

Working with wild animals as a zookeeper was my best education. I understood that the relationship with the animals under my care was collaborative, and that it was up to me to learn the unique needs of each individual on their terms.  

An insightful example was an Orangutan named Eloise who had a reputation for not wanting to come inside at night, even if tasty treats awaited. I had been warned of this behavior. For a while it was very frustrating, watching and waiting while Eloise sat just outside the door as her companions marched right in. I was sure she was taunting me, and I felt I had no power. I took this very personally! 

One evening I decided to play some music and do other chores and not think much about Eloise. The others came in as always, and Eloise sat outside the door. I stayed aware of her presence but didn’t attach any expectation to her behavior. If Eloise decided to come in, that was her decision, and she would get a tasty treat. If not, that was her decision too, and she would spend the night outside without a treat. Suddenly, she came in on her own. There was rarely a problem after that.  

I can only guess what changed in Eloise’s mind. But the change I know of was in me. I opened up to accept any outcome, with no judgement.  

This was like a Soul-to-Soul photography session, without the photos!  Eloise and my work relationship became less stressful and more respectful. I found the part of myself that could understand what was needed to make this relationship work. 

Eloise taught me so much, especially patience and detachment from ego. Challenging lessons for me, and a good start. 

This experience helped me on the road toward finding part of myself that was “lost” — the part that respects an animal’s right to be his or herself, even when I don’t completely understand what that means. 

What does your companion animal teach you?

Contact Kristin at 503-490-2480 * kzphotog@gmail.com * kristinzabawaphotography.com

Lucy and Lessons Learned in Prison

I was invited by a counselor, Dee, to photograph animal therapy sessions within a prison. Dee would usually go to the local shelter where she had made arrangements, and "free" an older dog for the day. After a good walk and romp, there would be quiet time in the local human detention center where love and affection awaited.  

That's the short, simple version. 

On this particular day, my first day, Dee brought an older Pit Bull named Lucy. We could easily imagine the life Lucy had before her rescue. Seeing old scars on her face while she gazed steadily into my eyes, looked away, then returned her gaze with gentle trust, spoke volumes and choked me with emotion. 

We entered a very small empty room with glaring fluorescent lights, spoke with a couple guards, and waited. I sat in one corner with my very small, very quiet camera. The guards left and soon the door opened. About 12 men dressed in prison clothes filed in (no guards), and the door closed. The men sat on the floor in a semicircle, looking curiously at me and talking amongst themselves. I had no idea what to expect, and felt a little anxious. 

Dee and Lucy sat on the floor opposite the men. Most of them knew Dee from previous sessions. The first thing she said was that she didn't want to know their reason for being in prison. Without stating it, she made it clear that in her eyes these men's identities, their real souls, were not mirrored in what they did. She introduced Lucy and shared a brief story of Lucy’s past and present life. Then it was time for "work." 

Dee asked who wanted to do some training work with Lucy, and a tall thin man raised his hand. His forearm was completely covered with old burn scars, so thick I wondered how much use he had of it, how much feeling there was. There were also scars on his face — which had a frozen look with little expression. This could have been from the scarring or something else.   

After Dee coached him a bit about the signs for "sit," "stay,” and other commands, she guided Lucy over. As Lucy maneuvered around the man, he gently took his right thumb and index finger and touched the end of her tail. This seemed to help Lucy to know how to place herself, as she relaxed quickly and sat beside him. Dee returned to her place.   

The man looked quietly at Lucy, and she at him. Dee continued to talk to others as I observed this man not saying a word, with Lucy beside him. He made no effort to "work with" Lucy, just occasionally stroked her face and body, always gently looking into her eyes. Then I really got it — I understood Dee's approach. Coaching the men in training methods was just an excuse to give them an opportunity to connect and feel empathy for Lucy. Opportunities to deeply feel and connect with their hearts are rare for most of them. 

I wondered: how does one photograph this? I gradually stopped thinking and just opened MY heart. The shadow of fear quickly faded. That beautiful moment of connection and yes, love, between this scarred man and Lucy showed itself to be photographed. They took no notice of me. 

The conversation turned to pets remembered from childhood. A soft-spoken man, sitting erect and quite still, quietly began talking about his early life in The Congo. As a child he lived in a mud adobe house with his family. They would create small depressions within the walls, and each year the children would collect butterfly chrysalises and gently place them in the depressions. They would carefully nurture and protect them until the butterflies emerged, fluttering within the room. He recalled being completely entranced, and clearly remembered his feeling of being a part of creation as the butterflies darted in and out of streaming sunlight — and being happy. 

I couldn't help but feel that Lucy's “elder” age was perfect for this gathering. Her life experiences, whatever they were, seemed to equip her for being surrounded by the life experiences of these men. Like a quiet, simple dance of wordless understanding. As Lucy and these men “worked with” each other, they began to open their hearts and to share their stories — intimate communication I couldn’t imagine was easy or common within this prison culture. 

Lucy helped create a space of empathy and trust. She also had the opportunity to receive love, and through that gift to help heal very old wounds in others . . . and maybe even herself.

Contact Kristin at 503-490-2480 * kzphotog@gmail.com * kristinzabawaphotography.com

I Love Lucy (and Toto Too!)

Those of us who have spent our lives with animals, whether with pets or on the job, understand the strong relationships that can be formed. They can last for years or just hours. Either way, the connection can be significant enough to be a great teacher, remembered forever. 

Animals have surrounded me most of my life — in my home, my photography work, and as a professional zookeeper. One day a senior chimpanzee reached out to me, showed compassion, and taught me some great lessons. 

I’d been injured on the job while chasing an escaped monkey, and I was in a lot of pain. I was reassigned to light office duties at the zoo hospital. It turned out that the head chimpanzee, Toto, had had his shoulder broken by a young male upstart, and was doing time in the hospital, too. Toto had started his life in a circus, and I’d always imagined that his zoo life, living with other chimpanzees and doing pretty much what he pleased, was a far better one. His hospital quarters were pretty spacious, yet in spite of all the toys and TLC, he was getting bored and a little depressed as a result of pain and being separated from his group. 

Toto knew me from my volunteer days, and after talking with his keeper it was agreed it would be okay for me to spend time with him. 

One day I felt pretty painful, tired, and also depressed from dealing with my own injury. I sat on the floor in front of Toto’s cage, started an “I Love Lucy” tape on the VCR, and leaned back against the bars.* Yes, Toto had his TV — and tapes! 

As we both quietly watched “I Love Lucy,” I felt Toto’s fingers gently picking at my uniform shirt. I was surprised, but breathed deeply, telling myself to relax and trust that this was okay. He was grooming me, which is a very important social activity for chimpanzees. It’s one of the ways they bond. Toto had an endearing way of smacking his lips as he delicately removed tiny invisible bits. He turned his shoulder to me, so I carefully groomed little bits off of him. Amazingly, I felt better. I believe Toto did, too. 

Being allowed to groom and be groomed by a chimpanzee taught me many things — some of which I didn’t understand until years later. I learned to face that moment of surprise, which can easily trigger fear, and to consciously move beyond that “energy”.  Accepting the moment with no expectation of a particular outcome allowed the experience to happen without ego getting in the way. These profound lessons were planted in me during the time I spent with Toto — and I’m still being challenged by them!

As Toto and I each healed from our injuries, he went back to his world as head honcho of his group, and I returned to regular zookeeping duties in a separate area. I rarely was able to stop by his home to say hello, and when I did he was usually busy living his chimpanzee life, which is as things should be.

Another lesson for my ego!

*I would never get so close to a wild animal unless I’d spent enough time with them (and the zookeeper) to understand and trust that there wouldn’t be an “accident”. My experience with Toto was one of those rare instances.

Contact Kristin at 503-490-2480kzphotog@gmail.com * kristinzabawaphotography.com

 

What SoulSession Clients Teach Me

As a photographer, finding the words that truly describe a “SoulSession” is both a challenge and a learning experience. The basic mission statement for SoulSessions is: “SoulSessions provides meaningful photography on a donation basis, for people with their beloved animals who are close to the end of life.” 

When I started photographing SoulSessions years ago, I knew from my own life experiences with hospice, death, and grief that this was an inevitable calling. I intuitively felt that these photographic sessions were part of a very big picture, and that language just didn’t capture the significance of what went on during those sessions. Sometimes very few words are spoken and other sessions feel more like a social visit. The tone and length depends on the animal’s comfort level and mood, as well as the relationship with his/her human. There is reminiscing, laughter, sometimes tears. 

Each visit is so unique, and each demands delicacy and respect. 

One of the most meaningful Soulsessions I experienced was with a woman named Jan and her dogs Jocie and Marie. With her permission, here is her story: 

“I came across a beautifully written article about you in the Oregonian. It was worded so profoundly. The article was one of intrigue, and fear of the prospect of saying goodbye to one of my beloved furries. I went back and forth... Do I save this article, or do I ignore this?

To cut it out and keep it confirms the fact I will one day say my goodbye. I cut it out. Little did I know in less than 2 months, I was told my 14 year old black Standard Poodle Jocie had an aggressive cancer. I could not breathe. 

It took me hours of pep talks and tears to call, and when Kristin answered the phone I had such a hard time telling her my girl Jocie was dying and could she come to photograph her? 

Kristin arrived and walked in gently and slowly with a few soft words. Jocie and my other Poodle, Marie, greeted her with the same gentleness. I felt like I could breathe. Kristin found the light she liked and gently suggested we let Jocie tell us what she would like to do and where she would like to lay. The next hour and a half unfolded with so much love it was palpable. We all surrounded my Jocie with love and respect and a realization that we were honoring her time with us left on this earth. It was beautiful. Jocie died 3 days later, the day after Christmas. 

3 months later my other dog Marie was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer as well. We had 10 days from diagnosis to death. 

I called Kristin… I knew this would be very hard. Marie is my little girl who was deaf at 7 weeks, after vaccinations. We had the deepest bond I have ever experienced with anyone or any pet. 

When Kristin walked into our house Marie got up from her chair and ran to kiss her face. 

Death is death… it is hard… it is sad and shocking and unimaginable. And now I have these photographs of Marie’s and my relationship… the way I held her - the way I signed to her with my hands and eyes. How I touched her and how she looked at me.” 

As more people generously share how they experience their SoulSession, we talk about how rituals are created to help them deal with their impending loss. How death is so hard, yet part of life, and can be met with grace. I’m always learning from both the humans and the animals. As a result, I find more words to describe SoulSessions.

Contact Kristin at 503-490-2480 * kzphotog@gmail.com * kristinzabawaphotography.com