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The Elephant’s Eye

I sell telescopes, or a certain telescope at least. Yes, I’m a professional photographer, but a small family enterprise, the resurrection of a gem from the Smithsonian, has me traveling the country and meeting with a high demographic clientele.

Last spring, while delivering to a client in California, I learned that she had generously donated a large environmental space for two white tigers at a rescue zoo. When asked if I’d like to visit, of course there was only one answer.

Nikons and iPhone charged, as was I, we drove to a facility which holds a jaw dropping collection of rescue animals. It seems that all too often, Californians are self appointed zookeepers and when they tire of the responsibility, or are caught with illegals, the captives land at Vision Quest Ranch. I was stunned by the number and variety of beasts: dozens of exotic cats, elephants, a water buffalo, tigers and even a hyena.

Remarkably, they all love their savior, a fellow named Charlie. He can approach a cage and reach through the hurricane fence to scratch the cats who lean into the fence, clearly pleased to have their benefactor’s attention. At the end of a long promenade, we rounded a corner and I saw three elephants, majestic and commanding. Charlie headed for the gate, and motioned for me to follow. My heart leapt. He said, “just stay with me”, closed the gate, and headed towards the threesome. Staying with Charlie was easier said than done. In fifteen seconds I was surrounded by a forest of huge, grey, creviced legs. Thrilled and admittedly a bit intimidated, I leaned into one of the massive living posts and gave a shove. The ponderous beat yielded and stepped sideways, giving me space. I fell in love.

Our caravan stopped at a collection of car sized boulders, where Charlie invited me to scratch an elephant tongue – “They love it!” At a command, one big fellow lowered his head, opened his mouth and waited. I reached up and touched what felt like a big gelatinous papaya. For a full minute I scratched, laughing and amazed by the circumstances. Suddenly I felt a firm but gentle nuzzling in my armpit. The water buffalo was jealous for attention. Clearly it was a singular moment.

I told Charlie it was time to start shooting. I hardly knew where to start, as the possibilities were many and I wanted to leverage the situation with no regrets later. I wanted to think of all the possibilities and come away with something worthwhile. An hour later, I felt that I had captured a few treasures. Happily, one has been included in the current Communication Arts Photography Annual. It’s the best space you can’t buy.

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It’s the closeup of one orange eye, surrounded by lashes that resemble a wire brush and skin with the texture of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. It’s the eye which haunts me, a gateway to a deep yet unknowable intelligence.

There are other images I’ve come to treasure after months of letting them become familiar. Some the ranch has used for its purposes. I plan to return and shoot more, ultimately gathering enough images to launch an exhibition of large fine art prints which could benefit the facility, by underwriting larger and more natural environments for the animals who must stay there, as they could not survive in the wild.

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I was lucky to be invited to see what I did. I hope I can return the favor by using my vision to spread awareness and bring some revenue to bear on needed expansion.

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Russ Schleipman

A native New Englander, Russ credits his dad, buddies at Exeter and the outdoorsiness of Dartmouth with the inspiration to head out and use a camera. Everywhere. Russ Schleipman's love of photography, travel, and of sharing his stories led him to a career of commercial and editorial shooting for clients who enabled his global travel and access to an extraordinary range of singular experiences.

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