Sartore is not quite half-way through photographing all 12,000 animal species in captivity, endangered or not. He figures it will take him the rest of his life to finish.
He's taken pictures at more than 200 zoos in the U.S. alone, including a porcupine at the St. Louis Zoo, and wrangled flamingos (not quite like getting your ducks in a row).
Success is not always guaranteed. And there can be hazards, as when these birds get angry. "This bird is the nastiest, most bad-ass bird I've ever had to do."
So why zoo animals?
"Zoos often have the only populations of these animals -- they're gone in the wild," said Sartore. "And if it weren't for zoos, a lot of these species I shoot would be extinct by now, hands down."
Sartore accepts that people fall in love with fuzzy, cute animals, like the Fennec fox. But he wants us to appreciate the importance of the un-cuddly ones, the ones we've never heard of.
His portraits' all-black or all-white backgrounds, he said, "bring them to life and give them a voice. And this is often the only voice they'll ever have before they go away. This is their only chance to sing, in a way."
His animals have been projected on the Empire State Building and at the U.N. Soon they'll be shown on the Vatican. Anywhere he can, as often as he can, Joel Sartore pleads for their lives.
This, he says, is the best time ever to be alive to save species.
He told an audience of students, "Did you know that you, young lady, have the power to change the world? You totally do! Any of you guys could. There are so many species that are on the ropes now, so many species in need of protection -- tiny species, large species -- that all of us have a great opportunity."
He hopes his photographs will get people to help -- and he likes to hook them young.
Sartore showed some students examples of animals in his exhibit that have been saved. "I do take comfort in the fact that all is not lost by any means. In this country whooping crane, black-footed ferret, California condor, Mexican gray wolf, all those animals got down to fewer than two dozen, and they're all stable now -- not in the best shape, but stable -- and that just speaks volumes to the fact that people do care.
"But we have to let them know these animals exist and that they 're in trouble and what the need is."
The Photo Ark is Joel Sartore's invitation to look them in the eye ... to look hard.
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