Wildlife Heritage Foundation

Yesterday was a day I had been looking forward to for months. I was looking through a photography magazine one day in February and saw this add for photography workshops available throughout the UK with a company called Photographers on Safari. I noticed that they had one workshop called Big Cats, which instantly got me interested. I’ve always been fascinated with all kinds of exotic animals, especially cats.

So yesterday it was finally time. Since the farm was here in Kent, it didn’t take too long to get there by train. The organisation is called Wildlife Heritage Foundation and this workshop was held at Marley Farm in Ashford. The weather couldn’t have been better. In the morning when I got on the train, the sun was very bright and warm but by the time I had changed trains and arrived at my stop, I saw thin clouds starting to cover the sky. This was perfect as it would keep the shadows and sunlight from being too harsh and direct, which isn’t my preferred condition when it comes to shooting outdoors. I shared a cab with a couple that was also going to the workshop, and so the day was about to begin. It was a bit funny that the taxi was an old Jaguar, considering where we were going…!

When we arrived, we met with the man in charge of the day, John. He talked for a while about what we were going to get to see and gave us directions on how to use our cameras to get the most out of our pictures, where to position our lenses on the fence, how to approach the animals etc. And then the group was off to start shooting some tigers! (Not literally of course…)

Our first visit were three tiger cubs. They were about ten months old (so they were quite big already) but still very playful. A caretaker called Becky walked with us throughout the day to tell us about the animals and to throw pieces of meat into the cages. She got them to walk to spots with nice backdrops so we would be able to get as good shots as possible. At one point, one of them walked up extremely close to me and even licked my lens! I just love the pattern of their fur so I think a got at least a hundred shots just of the cubs. After that we went to see their father, who looked like he had some kind of beard. He was absolutely massive so it was a bit scary to stand so close to the cage, but Becky assured us that he was a very sweet cat.

We moved on from the tigers to get some lunch for about an hour, and then to see the snow leopards. I say leopards because there were in fact two of them, but unfortunately only one of them felt like showing himself to us. He had this most amazing tail, I didn’t realise that snow leopards had got tails that thick. His fur was also amazing, it looked so incredibly soft (I didn’t get to touch him, unfortunately). One thing I noticed was that the colour of his fur seemed to look different when I used my flash. When I didn’t, it looked a shade of white-silver-greyish. But when I tried using my flash it appeared a lot more beige/faded brown in my images (like regular leopards).

Next up were the Pallas cats. They looked a lot like normal house cats, only they were a lot furrier and their ears were lying down rather than standing up. It also looked like they had got some kind of eyebrows because of the black line of fur over their eyes. They were extremely quick as well and it was quite difficult to get a good shot! There was one cage with two males and another cage with one female, so I concentrated on her the most because she seemed a bit more calm than the other two.

Then we headed for the cheetahs. There were two massive cages with a cheetah in each of them. One of the cats had had surgery a while ago so I think the two of them were held separately during his recovery process. They were both beautiful creatures with the distinctive, characteristic black lines running down from the corners of the eyes and down the cheeks.

After we’d left the cheetahs we walked towards the pumas. I thought that the scenery inside their cage was perfect to get some good shots. There was a big sand-coloured rock for them to climb on, some logs and a small pool of water. Becky got one of the two females to jump across the water several times and I think I got one pretty good shot of her in action! They seemed a bit irritated because whenever they got close to the fence they made an angry sound and showed off their sharp teeth, which I just had to capture on camera as many times as possible.

Then it was time to visit the Amur leopards. John warned us and said that they could be quite aggressive so if they came too close to the fence and seemed to be in a bad mood, it was better not to push our luck and just take a step back instead. There was one female and her two cubs, all incredibly adorable. One of them was lying on his back in a wooden tree house when we arrived so I quickly got some shots of him playing around. The mother seemed very protective of her cubs, and I got to experience that pretty close-up… I had placed my lens so that it was sticking through the fence into the cage (so I wouldn’t get any of the green fence wires in my shots). But someone next to me made a sudden movement that scared the mother and made her come charging right at me, growling and showing off her teeth. She lifted her paw up against the fence and smacked the part of my lens that was inside the cage. And since I had actually put it through the fence, it was a bit difficult to just pull it back out again in panic, so it got stuck! The caretakers shouted at us to get back so the leopards would calm down and finally I managed to get my lens out of the wires. Luckily she didn’t do any damage to my equipment, but it was a bit scary and she really got my heart pounding. I got some good shots, though!

Then we headed to the serval. They only had one so we couldn’t get any interaction shots this time. The cage was quite small but there were loads of places for him to hide because of the tall grass that was covering his whole habitat. He pretty much went back and forth just to go get the pieces of meat that Becky threw to him, and then to come back to the fence to growl at us. It was a little tricky to get good shots of him because he wouldn’t stand still for very long, and you need some time to adjust your camera and lens to make the wires of the fence “invisible” in your frame.

Last but not least (but sure laziest) it was time to get to the lions. We had been walking past their cage a few times during the day and they always seemed to be doing nothing more than just sleeping and relaxing. I got some nice shots of one of the three males when he was lying on top of a wooden building, but the other two were just lying asleep on the ground so there wasn’t much action to capture there. A couple of yawns, at most.

Then it was time for tea and coffee again. The remaining hour of the day, we had the freedom of visiting any of our favourite animals again on our own. I wanted to get some shots of the Lynx which I had missed before. But he seemed pretty restless because he was just walking back and forth on the same four meter path over and over again. I realised that I would probably not get the shot I wanted, and so I moved on. I then went back to the Pallas cats to get some better shots. This time they were a lot more calm than before, so I got some nice ones on the female again. It was amazing, almost like she was posing for me!

I headed back to the cage with the snow leopards to hopefully see the two of them together this time, but with no luck. I found one of them lying on top of a wooden platform in a tree with his head sticking out over the edge, so I got some shots of him relaxing and moved on to the lions to see if they were a bit more active. Unfortunately, they weren’t. So I thought I would give it one last try at the very end of the day. Instead, I wanted to get some more lovely action shots of the pumas. On my way to their cage I walked past the male tiger that I saw just after the tiger cubs that morning. He was lying right next to the fence so I was as close as I could have ever been. He looked so peaceful and harmless as he looked right into my eyes and made a noise that sounded a lot like a sigh. I stroked his cheek gently, he closed his eyes and seemed to enjoy it. I just wanted to take him home with me, that massive animal with fur as soft and fluffy as you could ever imagine.

When I arrived at the pumas once again I was a bit disappointed. I could only see one of them and she came towards me when I first got to the fence. But when she had noticed me, it seemed like I was old news so she went back into her little wooden house. So no luck with the action shots this time.

After that I strayed for a while until I walked past a cage with a tiger we never visited before. He was the biggest tiger of the day, absolutely huge. His paws were enormous, the size of my head. I was alone there with a caretaker so I asked him about the big cat since I noticed that he was acting a bit weird. He said that Mac (that was the tiger’s name) had had some kind of epileptic seisure as a cub and that could be a reason. He was slightly cross-eyed as well and seemed to be having some trouble walking in a straight line next to the fence. He also made a twitch every ten seconds or so, tilting his head to the side, closing his eyes and trying to (what it appeared as) lick his ear or something. The caretaker told me they suspected that Mac had been stung by a bee or had something stuck inside his ear, and they were going to examine him in a while just to see if anything was wrong. My heart just melted for this big, beautiful cat. Another caretaker came by and said that if Mac had been a person, he would have been one of those kids with specially designed glasses, specially designed soles in his shoes and so on. I felt so sorry for him as he was walking back and forth next to the fence, making his little twitch every now and then. The sound his paws made every time he took a step was like nothing I had ever heard before. Such a soft sound. He was so fascinating that I didn’t want to leave, but I had to because the day’s workshop had almost come to an end.

I went back past the serval to try and get some more shots of him, but it was almost like he was hiding on purpose as soon as I approached him. I decided to swing by the lions one last time before I had to go home again. I got some nice shots of a few yawns, but that was pretty much the only sign of excitement I got from the lions. They were also pretty massive up close. I touched one of them as he was lying right next to the fence and his head was so much bigger than I thought when seeing him from a distance. It was an incredible experience.

Then I got a lift back to the train station with the couple I was riding with before and we talked about animals and photography all the way to my stop. It was the most amazing day I’ve had in a long time and I would definately do it again. I was so tired when I came home that I didn’t even have the energy to download my photos to the computer since there were over 500 of them! But I promise that I will upload loads of them here in a couple of days as soon as I have edited them. What else are bank holidays for?

If you’re interested in either Photographers on Safari or Wildlife Heritage Foundation, here are their websites:

Photographers on Safari

Wildlife Heritage Foundation